ESF - English Schools Foundation
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A valuable lesson in empowering students

It could be said a school has come of age when it is no longer like a school. Its students are so mature, confident and wise that the traditional barriers between teacher and pupil can come tumbling down. In such an environment adults need no longer impose decisions they think are best for young people. Instead, students become partners not just in managing their own learning, but in key decisions affecting the school.

Of course, not every student will progress through the teen years so smoothly to allow such an ideal. But schools can still go a long way towards unleashing the best in students as responsible young adults.

As reported in Education Post today, this is happening in Hong Kong in English Schools Foundation secondary schools and a small number of international schools where students participate in one of the most important decisions - who should be their principal.

Those that have recently gone where more conservative school authorities would not dare to tread say there is no turning back.

They have found that when entrusted with such a responsibility, students even in lower forms rise to the challenge. They know their schools and the type of adults who can best serve them and are proving invaluable in the interviewing process for school leaders.

Student participation in such decision-making is not new to the United States, where democratic traditions begin in school, and is becoming more prevalent in the British state system. There is no reason why Hong Kong students in public-sector schools should not have a say in appointing the leader who has such an impact, positive or negative, on their lives. They can be equally as mature and responsible as their ESF counterparts.

The appointment process for ESF principals is an indication that despite the ongoing conflict between management and staff, vibrant school cultures thrive. And while the ESF is kept at arms-length by the government, there is no reason why this kind of practice should not be shared with others, even those in the public sector.

It is also a reminder of how valuable the ESF is to Hong Kong. The foundation needs to address the low morale of its staff. The review of teachers' working lives it is now embarking on, which mirrors a similar review responding to teacher stress in the public sector, may help. The teachers, in turn, should not dash parents' hopes by derailing governance reforms expected by the government and legislators before the ESF's future can be determined.

But what is also needed is for the government to acknowledge the value of the ESF to the Hong Kong community, as part of publicly funded education. Once the foundation has modernised its ordinance to match the kind of enlightened practice going on in its schools, the issue of its subvention should be settled once and for all.