THERE WAS NO SIGN of the Bishop of Victoria, the Catholic bishop, bow-tied chief secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen or the representative from Hongkong Bank. In fact, just 63 of the 132 people entitled to attend the annual general meeting of the English Schools Foundation bothered to turn up to the gathering of Hong Kong's great and good. The venue of recent years - the comfortable boardroom of the ESF's headquarters - was swapped for the dimly-lit hall of Quarry Bay School to make room for the many observers expected. It was all the more surprising then that so few turned up, for there was an extraordinary item on the agenda - the call for the foundation, the ESF's governing body, to vote itself out of existence. The mood was sombre as members of the Hong Kong establishment represented on the foundation took their seats alongside principals, teachers and parents. The gloomy atmosphere was to be expected, given that the next day would be one of the most humiliating in ESF history, when it would be hauled before the Legislative Council to answer the damning findings regarding spending excesses and inadequate management control revealed in last month's Audit Commission report. Unlike earlier AGMs this one did not end in a social gathering. The few had to make do with coffee and tea rather than wine to cheer them through the evening. The winds of change had already arrived. John Bohan, acting chief executive and secretary, made the understatement of the year when he told them in his report that there had been 'turbulent events' since the last AGM. He was referring to events such as teachers taking industrial action; the storm over the attempt to appoint former insurance manager Mike Haynes as chief executive, resulting in the fall of the previous executive committee; the embarrassing and damning criticism of ESF operations by former chief executive Jonathan Harris; and, finally, the audit report. One would have thought there would have been much to discuss. Yet apparently not, and the meeting got off to a routine start. The reports for 15 schools were presented and approved, drawing zero comment. Even new chairwoman Professor Felice Lieh Mak seemed surprised. She noted the high staff turnover at South Island School, but that drew no debate. No wonder, in years gone by, discrepancies detailed in the audit report, such as the failure of one school council to meet for 23 months, went unnoticed. It fell to Mr Bohan - the man left holding the baby as the ESF leadership imploded over the past 18 months - to make his report. 'There have been considerable successes and achievements during the year,' he said in a vain attempt to introduce a positive note into the dim proceedings, before turning his attention to the events of the ESF's annus horribilis. He is in an unenviable position as the acting head of an organisation facing such serious public criticism. His bosses, who ran the ESF during the days in question, have gone, leaving very few to point fingers at. But no one today was seeking to apportion blame to the man who never chose to lead the ESF. His speech was warmly applauded. Surely questions would follow. What went wrong? How come so many procedures had not been followed? And the big question, who was responsible? An ICAC executive had been vice-chairman, why didn't he act on alleged lapses in governance? The former treasurer was a senior HSBC executive, how was it he or the ESF's auditors didn't question monies spent on behalf of parents and taxpayers? The previous chief executive had run a much larger education authority, didn't she know what she was doing? And what about the Education and Manpower Bureau representative? How come he or she, over the years, hadn't used the position to defend the public interest? But Julian Harniess, the teachers' representative, was the only one to comment, warning that the quality of teachers could be undermined if salaries were eroded. Next up for scrutiny were the accounts. Maurice Yap Keng-hung, the representative from Polytechnic University, one of the foundation's more active members, questioned the amount of money spent on libraries and school materials. Was 2.3 per cent of schools' budget appropriate? Mr Bohan argued it was, and the accounts were passed. The vexed subject of the audit report followed - and another opportunity for heated discussion passed without so much as a whisper. The ESF's official response, accepting the Director of Audit's many recommendations on how it should review and tighten its spending and governance, was accepted in seconds. No one sought further clarification. Why, for instance, was senior staff member 'C', who resigned June 26 last year, given an extra 10 months' salary for departing, without the executive council's approval? Nor did anyone ask if 'C' happened to be former chief executive Jonathan Harris, whose leaked letter could be said to have started the audit ball rolling and who resigned on that day. Only legislator Albert Cheng King-hon raised his voice, pointing out for the record that to avoid a conflict of interest as a foundation member, he had stepped down from Legco's public accounts committee due to scrutinise the ESF. With the audit report disposed of, the stage was set for debate over the future of this body. Before members was a recommendation from the chairwoman, publicly supported by the Secretary for Education Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, that it should disband itself on the grounds that it was failing to provide the checks and balances entrusted to it. It was to be replaced by a much smaller and more manageable council. At this point the Island School community, represented by their Parent Teachers' Association and school council, spoke up, responding to both the audit report and proposals for constitutional reform. It was the only school whose parents and school council had bothered to mobilise an opinion for the occasion. They expressed their concerns over the audit findings, supported much of the ESF's position on reform and put forward an alternative resolution for the programme for change. Principal David James was also anxious to resolve a technical impasse that could have prevented the foundation sending their representative forward to the Legislative Council the following day armed with a clear mandate for change - reform that Professor Li has said in no uncertain terms was vital to continued public funding. The evening reached its climax with a vote on the original draft guidelines. Two voted against and a clutch of principals abstained. At that moment, the foundation's governing body fell on its sword and agreed to a plan that will end in its demise. Not one member stood up in its defence. The whole thing took just one hour and 20 minutes - not bad for a session that changed forever an institution that was at the heart of Hong Kong's colonial past. But at least the 63 managed to draw out the meeting beyond the record low - just 23 minutes - of a previous AGM. 'It is all about politics,' Professor Lieh Mak said on leaving the school hall, as children's voices wafted from the playground below. She had what she needed to steer the foundation through a course of radical reform. Professor Li would be pleased.