ESF - English Schools Foundation
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Time to reform English Schools Foundation system

The distinction between the English Schools Foundation and private international schools is becoming ever more blurred. Annual ESF fee increases have left parents feeling there is not much difference. Now the ESF has introduced a HK$500,000 non-refundable debenture for each local or expatriate child to gain priority admission to 150 places out of more than 1,000 available every year - a move seen as favouring the wealthy and those whose companies subsidise education.

The ESF says the extra cash is needed to upgrade the foundation's ageing campuses and will help keep school fees affordable. Nonetheless ESF schools are becoming as expensive as many international schools. As a result, many people are asking why taxpayers should continue to support them, which leads to the issue of the ESF's HK$283 million annual government subvention. It has been frozen for more than a decade after a row over the earlier mismanagement of the ESF, which has since introduced sweeping reforms. Lawmakers on Legco's education panel have backed a continuing subsidy but the government is still reviewing it.

The basic choice is to leave the ESF to sink or swim without taxpayer support, or restore the value of the subsidy and set a formula for maintaining it. Under the first scenario, ESF schools would become like international schools. Under the second, taxpayers would be supporting a colonial legacy that is failing its mission of providing an affordable quality education in the English language - which is cherished by local as well as expatriate families - and would not do that much better with a subsidy increase at a level acceptable to the public.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are contributing up to twice as much per pupil for schools in the government's direct subsidy scheme, which provides a more affordable English-language education for local families, but attracts few non-Chinese-speaking pupils. There is something wrong here and now is a chance to fix it. Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong has failed to develop local schools that are an alternative for expatriates and aspirational local parents. In return for comparable funding, ESF schools should liberalise admission policies. At the same time, top DSS schools should be given the curriculum freedom of ESF schools in order to appeal to more expatriate pupils and local families who have turned their backs on their own school system. This would be the foundation of a fairer, single educational system that better serves the city.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Time to make a choice on ESF