ESF - English Schools Foundation

ESF's new chief executive Belinda Greer looks to boost efficiency

With a looming subsidy cut and mounting calls for more accountability, the ESF's new chief executive vows to clean house, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 8:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 5:44pm

When the Education Bureau announced in June that subsidies to the English Schools Foundation would be phased out from 2016, it seemed inevitable that the ESF would turn into a network of international schools – with the attendant high tuition charges.

ESF chairman Carlson Tong Ka-shing’s subsequent declaration that fees would increase by 23 per cent to make up for the shortfall only reinforced the notion.

So parents may take some comfort that the ESF’s new chief executive, Belinda Greer, seems intent on ensuring that its schools remain relatively affordable to families seeking an English-medium education for their children.

“The ESF has a very strong position and tradition in Hong Kong. I really don’t want ESF to lose [that], to become another group of international schools,” Greer says.

Just two months into the job, Greer says it will take her some time to learn about the “context of ESF and Hong Kong”. But she recognises that she arrives at a critical juncture for the foundation. “It is an opportunity to revisit and redefine the purpose of ESF and what we want to achieve, and how do we serve the people of Hong Kong in the future.”

Video: New chief vows English Schools Foundation will stay affordable

Set up by the British colonial government in the 1960s to provide English-language schooling for the children of civil servants and expatriates, the ESF has grown to serve a broader community. It now runs four kindergartens, nine primary schools and five secondary schools, as well as two private independent colleges and a special-needs school, catering to about 17,000 students altogether.

That makes the ESF the largest provider of English-medium education in Hong Kong. With annual fees now set at HK$70,000 for primary school and more than HK$101,000 for secondary, however, its tuition is in the upper half of the range, although less than direct subsidy schools offering international programmes. At the secondary level, its fees are not far off those of the American International School, for example, which start at HK$108,000. 

Even if implemented gradually over 13 years, the loss of HK$283 million in annual subsidy is an enormous blow. Still, it will be a catalyst for an institution that many parents have come to view as being somewhat extravagant in its spending while doing little to rein in fees, and Greer is clearly conscious of the criticisms.

“We at the ESF have the responsibility to see how we can be more efficient, and along with efficiency is a close scrutiny of how we conduct our business,” she says.

“I would reassure parents that we would work with them to ensure that we are as efficient as we can be so that while fees increase, we are not increasing them significantly without looking at all aspects of our work.”

Questions have been raised about the substantial portfolio of real estate the ESF has acquired: it owns 202 residential properties across the city valued at more than HK$2.1 billion. About half are rented to staff, while the rest are leased on the open market.

Cautiously, Greer says selling off properties to make up for lost income would be a simple solution, but adds, “ESF is here for the long term and we have to look beyond that.”

Parents who fought for the ESF to keep its subvention and stave off repeated fee increases have largely lost steam – only about 30 people turned up at a closed-door meeting hosted by former CEO Heather Du Quesnay to brief parents on the change.

Hans Ladegaard, a former spokesman of the ESF Concerned Parents Group, saw little point attending the briefing. “We are genuinely disappointed and discouraged; we worked very hard both to get other parents on board and to convince the ESF board, senior management and the Education Bureau. Nothing happened. The people in power had done nothing … that’s why you get frustrated. Most of us have given up,” says Ladegaard, a lecturer at Baptist University. 

“If the ESF and its former CEO had put up a fight [for subvention], fought this strategically, we could have won. If the CEO can pick up this issue again, and the board backs her up, I am sure parents will be on board with them. The initiative will have to come from the CEO.”

Greer, in her 50s, is a veteran educator with considerable experience of making the most of a lean budget. Before coming to Hong Kong, she was the first director of joint education services for Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils in Scotland – a position created when the two towns merged some services as part of austerity measures.

At the ESF, Greer and her team will have to devise new financial strategies, improve efficiency and cut unnecessary expenses such as trips to overseas conferences, and generate income from sources other than fees. One option, Greer suggests, is to extend its existing professional development services (currently restricted to ESF teachers) to other schools in Hong Kong and the region.

Given the drive to streamline operations and the current economic climate, ESF teachers are unlikely to receive significant pay increases in the next few years. All the same, Greer believes this will not lead to an erosion of talented staff. “I want to attract teachers who come not just to come to live in this lovely city but to be part of something that has currency across the world,” she says.

Experience in the trenches – as a supervisor as well as in the classrooms – will stand Greer in good stead. She holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Stirling and taught at an international school in the Middle East for five years. Returning to Britain, she became a school principal at age of 29 and held the  post for 12 years before switching to work as school inspector in Scotland.

Children have always been at the centre of her work. When colleagues and friends asked her why she gave up teaching, she gave a straightforward answer. “I wanted to make a difference,” says Greer, who has five grown-up sons.

As an inspector, she was responsible for 85 schools and 23,000 children. The ESF serves a smaller population by comparison, but the foundation’s potential for further development as a provider of international education is considerable.

Already, she envisages a new identity for ESF, shaking off its colonial past to become an important player on the regional educational scene.
“Times have changed ...  I very much would like to see ESF play a crucial role in Hong Kong’s future. We should not restrict it to ourselves. I am very outward-looking.”

Perhaps the future lies in international education for the region. Like Du Quesnay, Greer supports increased teaching of Putonghua in ESF schools. The foundation has run daily Putonghua classes for primary pupils since 2007.

In some schools, such as South Island, it is a compulsory subject in Year Seven and Eight, and Greer plans to strengthen language training at secondary levels.

More immediately, however, one of her tasks is to regain the trust of parents at Discovery College, the ESF’s independent offshoot on Lantau Island, who have accused the school for poor communication and mismanaging finances, prompting a bid to raise fees by 7.6 per cent.

Steering the future development of the ESF will be fraught with uncertainty.

Fortunately, Greer can count on having some moral support: her husband, Kenneth Greer, a retired district director of education, will join her in January.

“[I’m] sure he is open to support Hong Kong education in some way,” she says. “He has worked in education his whole life. He likes to write and run. I am sure he will have lots of things to keep him busy.”