Adapted from ViewPoint editorial in The Standard dated 8th December 2009
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
The recent announcement that the English Schools Foundation plans to impose a HK$25,000 building levy on every child entering an ESF school sounds a death knell for many middle-class parents who aspire to a first-class education in English for their children.
When it was founded in 1967, the ESF mission, funded by the colonial government, was to provide a quality English-language education for children of expatriates, particularly British expatriates. But, as Hong Kong’s economy boomed in the years leading up to the handover to Chinese rule, that mission underwent a significant, if unstated, transformation.
As Hong Kong returned to the motherland 12 years ago, the ESF, still receiving a 20 percent government subvention, had become an affordable refuge for middle-class Hong Kong families who were disenchanted with the flawed English-language policy adopted by the Education Bureau and willing to make the financial sacrifice to attend an ESF school.
The subsidy kept the cost of attending an ESF school well below the stratospheric tuition rates at the best international schools but at the same time allowed the ESF to offer an education of equal quality.
Although this ESF transformation was more by circumstance than design, it made the foundation a valuable partner in Hong Kong’s overall scheme for education and thus justified its continued subvention after the handover.
The ESF was now serving not just expat families but many local ones as well – a high point in the foundation’s evolution. Meanwhile, local schools were going through their own torturous transformation and crisis of confidence.
The HK$25,000 levy, however, marks another important shift in the ESF mission.
While the levy keeps the cost of attending ESF schools below that of elite international schools, it nevertheless makes an ESF education too dear for a lot of Hong Kong families fed up with a local system whose flawed approach to teaching English seems a folly of mixed- code that ultimately amounts to no coherent code at all.
Indeed, the new levy, which is intended to raise HK$300 million over the next seven years, returns the foundation to its original mission of serving the privileged in the city, although that privileged class is now predominantly Chinese; children of the sandwich class need not apply.
And, of course, the levy, even though refundable, will be especially painful to families with more than one child in the ESF system.
As ESF head Heather Du Quesnay candidly put it: “If people are going to be able to send their children to an ESF school, they have to be able to afford it.”
To be fair, the ESF administers 20 schools, 14 of which are publicly funded. In other words, it is a major Hong Kong corporation, and its subvention is not enough to pay for badly needed renovations at old schools such as King George V and Island School, or to build new ones. So, at this point, despite the outrage it has generated among parents and students, the new levy is needed, but it also serves as a reminder of the woefully bad governance and planning in the foundation’s past.
The ESF has made a decision to more clearly define itself alongside the elite international schools, which cater to expats and the rich. That decision may have been forced by financial necessity, but it is nevertheless a loss for the city’s middle class – and may ultimately result in the loss of the ESF’s subvention.
After all, why should ordinary taxpayers subsidise the education of the children of the privileged while their own children groan under the burden of a confused local system?
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer.