An increasing number of parents with students enrolled with the English Schools Foundation are applying for financial assistance amid the economic downturn. The ESF received 40 applications for financial help in the six months to January, compared with 50 applications throughout the whole of the last academic year. The hardship fund helps students facing financial difficulties due to a sudden change in circumstances to continue their studies. It covers 70 to 90 per cent of the annual school fees, with the exact amount decided by principals. The foundation approved the applications of 31 families in the 2007-08 academic year, with assistance totalling HK$1.86 million. The ESF's chief financial officer, Rob Bennett, said: 'While we have seen an increase in applications for financial assistance this year, with around 40 applications received in comparison to 23 at the same time last year, the numbers are still small given our student population of over 12,500.' The annual fee for ESF secondary schools is HK$89,250 a year, and HK$58,100 for primary schools. The Yew Chung Education Foundation, which runs international schools, said at least two parents who had applied for fee assistance had been directly affected by the financial downturn. But no students had left because of difficulties in paying fees, a spokeswoman said. 'We may see an impact [of the economic downturn] on admission numbers in the next school year, but parents [affected by the crisis] wouldn't transfer their children to other schools immediately,' she said. Chan Siu-chu, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Alliance of Parents Association, welcomed the provision of crisis funding and called upon other international schools to extend a helping hand to parents. 'Of course, a 90 per cent discount [in tuition fees] would help parents ... if other schools are capable of doing so it would be great,' Ms Chan said. She predicted that more middle-class families with children enrolled in international schools would be forced to switch to public schools because of the financial downturn. Despite the recession, the ESF said it was not cutting staff positions. More than 1,000 people applied for 115 positions this year, a spokesman said. This year was the second the organisation conducted job interviews using the internet programme Skype, which cuts the costs of overseas telephone calls. The software saved the foundation more than HK$60,000 last year, the spokesman says. 'Online interviews increased the flexibility for recruiting staff overseas,' he said, adding that he looked forward to vetting applicants online.