Hong Kong's reputation as Asia's world city is threatened because a shortage of school places for English-speaking students with special education needs is driving away international talent, lawmakers were told yesterday. Addressing the Legislative Council's education subcommittee, American Chamber of Commerce president Richard Vuylsteke said the lack of places was more than just an educational and social issue. 'We also see this as a reputation and practical issue for Hong Kong, both as a world city and also a place that attracts international talent,' Dr Vuylsteke said. 'People who have children with special education needs can't come here because their needs cannot be met. That's a serious issue.' The English Schools Foundation (ESF) has eight schools providing 126 places for children capable of learning in ordinary classrooms with learning support, and 60 places in the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School for those needing intensive special support. However, there are 103 students, mostly aged between 41/2 and six, waiting for school places, with the waiting time between two and three years. Half of the students are non-Chinese and the rest are Chinese with English as their first language. ESF chief executive Heather du Quesnay told the subcommittee the foundation's schools 'have to advise parents who want to come to Hong Kong that the provision is simply not enough' and that 'the pressing situation' would need to be addressed. 'This is a very tragic situation; there is nothing they can do,' Ms du Quesnay said. Education Bureau principal assistant secretary Wu Po-ling said the parents of non-Chinese speaking children had the option of integrating their children in local public schools where there would be enough places. But she came under fire for the comments and the government was criticised for failing to address the problem. The chairwoman of the special needs pressure group Growing Together, Virginia Wilson, said the shortage of ESF places was a just part of the overall problem. 'ESF is just one part of the bigger picture because there are children who will not even wait for ESF knowing the wait-list is so long,' she said. 'They either leave Hong Kong or try to find other schools that will take them, depending on the children's abilities. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.'