'Political suicide' to withdraw funding The chief executive of the English Schools Foundation has fired the first salvo in the battle for the future of its subvention, claiming it would be 'political suicide' to take the funding away overnight. Heather Du Quesnay spoke out ahead of the first meeting of the ESF's new-style governing board on Tuesday, which is to put the future of the subvention at the top of its agenda. The new 26-member board replaces a governing foundation of about 130 members that voted to abolish itself after it was found to be too large for effective decision making in the ESF's damning 2004 audit report. The Audit Commission also called for a review of the subvention to be completed quickly, but the Education Bureau has repeatedly stressed it would not discuss the future of the subsidy - which has been cut by more than 10 per cent since 2003 - until the new board was in place. The government first proposed cancelling the subvention in 1999 and alternatives put forward by commentators include making it part of the Direct Subsidy Schools scheme and going fully private, with a possible voucher scheme. In her most full and frank interview with the South China Morning Post since taking over at the ESF, Ms Du Quesnay said it was 'critical to the ESF's future with Hong Kong' to resolve the issue as soon as possible and the new board would probably appoint a subcommittee to negotiate with the government. 'I think the ESF is something that Hong Kong ought to be very proud of - an absolute foundation stone of its next round of economic development,' she said. 'And I think it is going to be a very important part of Hong Kong' education framework, for Hong Kong Chinese families as much as for expatriate families. 'I'm sure we could manage without the subvention but it would be very challenging. And I don't think they would take it away overnight - it would be political suicide. I don't think the government wants to do away with the ESF. It wants us to survive, it's a question of on what basis. 'We are looking for an arrangement that would be unique to ESF and appropriate to the needs of ESF. 'It's not appropriate to simply join the DSS system as we have different origins.' It might be worthwhile to look into the possibility of a voucher scheme for international schools, but such schemes had always been politically controversial and involved considerable administrative costs, she added. Parent Nick Bilcliffe, who sits on the new board, said: 'I will be doing everything I can to ensure the subvention is retained. The debentures and high fees of international schools price a lot of people out of the English-language education market.' But Sue Page, acting chair of the ESF teachers' union, said management had used the subvention as a 'bogeyman' to press teachers to accept cuts in their pay and conditions, and it was nothing like the 'political issue' it was made out to be. 'We would accept the removal of the entire ESF subvention,' she said. 'And we would accept it if the ESF became part of the private international school sector. 'The ESF could manage independently very well and then we would never have to be accountable. It could then raise fees and salaries and make the package really competitive in the international school market.' Cyd Ho Sau-lan, new chairwoman of the Legislative Council's education panel, said she would be raising the issue of the ESF subvention at its agenda-setting meeting with the education secretary next month. 'The most viable option is for the ESF to go to the DSS scheme.' A spokeswoman for the Education Bureau said the aim was to discuss the subvention later this year when the governing structure was in place. 'The Education Bureau is reviewing the matter and we do not have any predetermined view.'