Meanwhile, how is that ‘education hub’ plan coming along?

Is the Hong Kong government finally going to bite the bullet and rationalize the status of the English Schools Foundation? Yes, or at least a very firm maybe, according to the news reports, much to the concern of panic-prone parents of kids at ESF schools, not to mention the organisation’s well-paid staff. But then again possibly not, according to a common-sense reading of what officials are up to: acknowledging a long-neglected problem safe in the knowledge that another administration will be in place long before anything at all needs to be done.

It is such a complex issue you can hardly blame them. The ESF is a colonial-era anomaly in that it receives public funding but delivers an education that does not conform to the requirements of official education policy. Although its original intended beneficiaries – expatriate civil servants – have mostly gone, large numbers of real or alleged English-speaking, tax-paying families are desperate to get their kids into ESF establishments, either to get a better (subsidized) deal than that offered by pricy private international schools, or to avoid the brain-crushing, fully local school system.

If our government (assuming it is all-wise and knows what is best for everyone) stuck to a straightforward coherent policy, it could solve this mismatch quite simply by telling all parents they have a choice: send your kids to public-sector Chinese schools, or pay up to send them to private establishments with their own language, curriculum and other policies. However, it can’t take a principled stance because its own behavior, and that of its own personnel, is inconsistent and hypocritical.

Looking at the way things currently are, we could say that it is government policy to force kids from non-Chinese speaking homes to go to local schools and learn in the vernacular if they have brown skin (ie are Thai, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Pakistani or Filipino), but to make a concession to the whites and let them have an English-language choice. Of course, no-one puts it this way; it comes down to whether you have enough money to afford an alternative and enough socio-economic clout to make a nuisance of yourself (obviously, there are rich Southern Asians and there are poor whites). But it is worth remembering every time you hear a Western ‘expatriate’ family say they cannot possibly send their kid to a local school, that poorer ‘ethnic minority’ families are doing just that because they have no other option.

As for the hypocrisy, just take a look at where the middle-ranking and top government officials send their own kids: boarding school in Britain, or something else well out of reach of the official curriculum and language policies. Officials tell the population that they must send their children to rote-learning Chinese-language places to which they wouldn’t dream of sending their own little princes and princesses, who after all are going to be doctors, lawyers or Big Five accountants.

This raises the distinct possibility that the government is in fact not all-wise nor knows what is best for everyone. The government implicitly accepts this at least a bit by funding private schools with more varied curricula under the direct subsidy system. In theory it would make sense just to put the ESF schools under that umbrella and provide identical per-student funding to all the subsidized schools across the board. Go one step further, and you could give all Hong Kong residents who are parents the subsidy as a voucher to spend as they wish, and invite all comers to set up whatever sort of schools they want – like the Free Schools idea Britain is borrowing from Sweden.

But that would mean anarchy. It would mean we don’t need an Education Bureau full of officials who, when not phoning their offspring boarding in England, are devising compulsory education policies for the masses who are unfit to decide what their kids need. It would mean endorsing the English-language schooling we have tried so hard to phase out for kids who, not being born to civil servants, professionals or whites, are not up to it. It would mean humbling tyrannical school principals and throwback senior teachers whose idea of a politics class (I heard) is to get 10-year-olds to learn the names of all 29 members of the Executive Council off by heart. It would mean letting people choose. (And it would logically mean extending recurrent subsidies to cover private international schools; the unacceptability of this prospect is one of the main official hang-ups about the ESF.)

So obviously that’s not going to happen. As for the ESF, it presumably anticipated the subsidy proposal some time ago and is now trying to channel the anger of its fractious parent body towards a government that really, really needs yet another segment of the population hating it. One day, an administration may adopt a principled position that either officially embraces or rejects a wider range of schools (or parents’ wishes), but it’s not going to be this one.

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22 Responses to Meanwhile, how is that ‘education hub’ plan coming along?

  1. Brocco Li says:

    If one is familiar with the salaries and perks of ESF teachers (specifically the long-serving ones) then one cannot help but feel that this measure is long over-due.

  2. Maugrim says:

    As the parents of ESF enrolled pupils are presumably taxpayers, the solution would be to treat ESF schools as DSS schools, and receive a per head subsidy. However, ESF schools I believe, are funded under a cushier colonial era negotiated ‘per class’ funding model, enabling them to have lower class sizes, part of why they are attractive. The ESF has elicited (rightly) anger from parents because of its’ expansionary plans in the face of falling revenues. The issue thus is that times have changed.

    This whilst being the fairest solution wont happen. A simple reason is that the DSS school system, set up by Arthur Li to offer HK parents exactly the sort of freedom of choice alluded to by Hemlock, is regarded as being a bastard child by the EDB that they cannot cope with. The Audit Commissioner’s report from last year which indicated the extent to which the EDB is unable to cope with the DSS system shows that making gweilos toe local rules for local funding, whilst fair, is way too hard for them to cope with. They will come up with something less fair but more convenient. Convenient for the civil service that is.

  3. FB3 says:

    This is going to be a fun one to watch.

    The thought of all those vocal expat mums unleashed against the Govt is a scary one.

    I never understood why subsidising overseas education for civil servants offspring was still in place after 14 years. If the kids were brought home & their parents had to bring them up in this polluted city with a distinct lack of good educational & leisure facilities, they might try working harder to make Hong Kong a more decent place to live.

    Could we swap the overseas education allowance for subsidised asthma inhalers?

  4. FB3 says:

    quick thought.

    has anyone ever done research to see how many Secretary’s for Education have educated their children in HK?

    If they don’t have confidence in education system they are responsible for, why are they qualified to run it?

  5. Stephen says:

    I have a child in an ESF primary school and from what I can see the ‘white’ kids number less than 5% of the school population. The vast majority are local, ethnic Chinese, children. The reason the ESF is full to bursting should be staring the Education Bureau in the face.

  6. Roger Maxims says:

    Big FOUR accountacy firms Hemlock, Messrs Andersen LLP (formerly Arthur Andersen) has only 200 employees now, smaller than the typical ESF school’s janitors’ payroll.

  7. Real tax payer says:

    FB3 : Exactly the same thought occurred to me. I wonder which schools Michael Suen’s kids go / went to ?

    I have a HK Chinese friend who taught English in a local govt school in the 1990’s. I was astonished at her total salary package : with perks it was something well over HK$60K per month (even as high as HK$80 K ? ) . One of her perks was an education allowance for her 3 kids to be educated abroad. They all went to top class private schools in UK ……

  8. Revolution says:

    It’s not expat Mums the Government has to worry about, it’s the parents of the middle class Hong Kong Chinese children – who form roughly 70% of the ESF student body. Anyone who thinks that getting rid of the subsidy will only annoy expats is sadly mistaken, as the Government will soon find out.

    Maugrim – ESF class sizes are lower than those of local schools, but not by the standards of other international schools in Hong Kong. The Primary schools all have 30 in a class, which is the same as your average British state school.

  9. Maugrim says:

    Revolution, here’s the rub,as I understand it, local schools want smaller sized classes though Mike Suen has told them that there isn’t the money available. Yet ESF schools are funded allowing them to have class sizes smaller than local schools. You are right about class sizes being higher than International schools (who charge a lot more in fees).

    Brocco and others, there used to be teachers in the ESF on general contracts. This entitled them to good wages and conditions, trip home on the QE2 or Concorde (true) though in recent years this has changed. In the past the ESF paid good money and got excellent teachers. Over the last few years wages aren’t quite what they used to be at the ESF though teachers still get an attractive and sizeable end of contract gratuity.

  10. Lantau Larry says:

    Like the US in Vietnam, or in Afghanistan today, the obvious answer is to declare victory and respond to local Hong Kong families’ desire for an ESF education by doubling the ESF capacity and providing vouchers or a systemic subsidy on a per-head basis equal to the cost of a local government-run school basis. Just respond to the obvious market forces at play. But that would be too facking sensible, wouldn’t it?

  11. Robert says:

    There is a bigger underlying issue: Hong Kong’s key asset is its people. How will these people earn their living in the future? Hong Kong needs great, multi-lingual education if it is to thrive. So ESF and international schools should be made more affordable and their capacity expanded.

    Secondly; if we have better schools then fewer children will be sent overseas for schooling. That will help the economy and increase the sense of belonging to Hong Kong of our students.

  12. George says:

    Rarely is the question asked
    Is our children learning?

  13. Funding says:


    I have my own thoughts about education and the poor quality provided by the local system as well as the insanely high compensation packages of ESF teachers, both old and new contract. However to keep this brief I will just offer two data points as your assumption about funding is incorrect.

    ESF’s subsidy per student is approximately 29,000.
    Both DSS schools and the local system get approximately 40,000 per student.

    I do like Jake’s suggested, which Hemlock has copied here that each kid should get a $40,000 voucher to be applied to where ever they go to school be it International, Independant, DSS, Local or ESF.

  14. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Two issues implicit in the discussion are the status of English and the status of ethnic minorities.

    One cannot attend the “English-medium” (this post is going to have a lot of quotation marks) “local” schools without knowing Chinese (the language I mean). So, as Hemlock says, there is no free English-medium primary or secondary education: the Basic Law’s stipulation of English as an official language is being “violated” (to use government-speak).

    In a similar way the “ethnic minorities” never include people who arrived or whose ancestors arrived from countries with white populations (including people of Asian appearance?). The ESF schools, perhaps as a result, are, according to the government, not in the slightest bit “local”, but “international” (read foreign). The fact that they teach in English “may” give them no advantage over, say, the Norwegian School.

    It’s a bit like yuan and lychee trees. There are local local yuan, foreign foreign yuan, and as far as I can see, local-foreign and foreign-local yuan. Similarly, some fruit trees are local and good ; some are exotic (ditto) and must be cut down; and only experts can tell the difference, and only then by looking at the “intentions” of the person who planted them.

  15. Maugrim says:

    Funding, not quite. The DSS per head subsidy is closer to $35,000 for the majority of students (its much higher for the defunct S6 and S7) and yes, is meant to represent the cost of educating a child in a local school.

    You miss my point, yes, ESF schools should be funded the same as other options in HK and yes, parents do deserve freedom of choice. But I’ll say this, let ESF schools be managed by the same rules that locally funded schools are, including salaries, the number of days in which a school must operate classes, and exactly the same financial accountability and transparancy (if any) and so on.

  16. Real Tax Payer says:

    Yet again we a govt decision that is shallow, ill-thought out, and overlooks the fact that we have trillions in the bank unused.

    Does the govt want to raise a generation of students who are even more stupid than the clods now running this place? Seems so. (Maybe that’s the only way the next generation will admire them : “Oh I wish I was as clever as were John Tsang and Stephen Lam in their time and could think up such clever policies” )

    HK’s only real long-term asset is it’s human capital. Long term China will probably make both our harbor ( or what’s left of it) and the airport redundant. If we neglect to teach our kids well for the next and the next-next generations then that’s the end of HK. We will be taken over by much better-educated kids from China .

    I would say :

    A) increase funding to schools across the board. Attract top-rate teachers, both local and from abroad

    B) give all schools the same funding / free land etc so they are all on a level playing field.

    C) A + B are paid by our taxes 100%

    D) if some schools, eg ESF and International schools want to spend more, they must charge the parents extra.

    PS : What is the ESF funding that is being argued about ? I vaguely recall it is HK$235M p.a. Now let me see …..( this is very advanced math, far beyond John Tsang, and remember I have a Ph D in Mathetmatics) 235M/138B = 0.2% . ( 3% if it’s 235M for 20 years). Well, at least we’ll have a big enough airport for all the better-educated guys from China and the West to land here and take our kids jobs

  17. Revolution says:

    When people comment on how “insanely high” these ESF teacher packages are, what are they comparing them with?

  18. Ross says:

    Their own wage

    Fnar fnar

  19. George says:

    Call me naïve or crazy, but it seems fairly self evident that everyone here thinks education is very very important. In that case, why gripe over how much teachers are paid? If you want talent, you have to pay for it, or the private sector will. With teachers losing prestige and pay, is it any wonder quality has plummetted? Fund education properly, across the board, from the public purse, and spend enough to make it world class or regret it later.

    In any case, from a non-parent, non-expert POV I find FB3 and Real Tax Payer’s posts to make quite good sense.

  20. Walter De Havilland says:

    The whole ESF needs greater transparency starting with the details of Heather Ds pay and conditions of service. As an organsiation that accepts public funds I think its only fair and proper we know how much she is paid.

  21. Real Tax Payer says:

    GOVERNMENT SANITY WARNING ( for govt officials only):

    Reading the responses on Big Lychee may seriously damage your brain ( not to mention your conscience and morals)

  22. Richard Charles says:

    Recent news reports have indicated that Hong Kong is failing to attract major international corporations as a relocation centre in Asia because of the lack of education choices for employees’ children.

    In addition, I know of a number of cases where native English speaking children from native English speaking families have not been offered places at ESF forcing them to look at primary schools where monthly fees are as much as $12,000.

    Meanwhile, a significant percentage of ESF places are filled by children whose mother tongue is not English. The local system is not an option for ex-pats as it is largely racially biased against non-Cantonese speakers. Where English medium state schools do exist, the Pavlovian pedagogical approach is the preferred teaching method.

    Therefore, what options are left? Whatever solution, it appears that someone is going to blamed for educational ethnic cleansing because that seems to be at the root of the problem. The solution? Provision needs to be made by the government for non-Cantonese speakers here in Hong Kong.

    But, oh hang on, it already is – ESF, which is only subsidised, not paid for in total by the government. The rest is paid for by the parents who are also amongst that elite little group of people here in Hong Kong who actually pay income tax which is used to pay for, among other things, the state education. It should also be noted that the ESF subsidy is quite frankly a poultry figure when one takes into consideration the fact that the HK Government has an absurd surplus. So the answer to the current ESF question is:

    1. do not change anything
    2. or increase the number of ESF schools
    3. or do as they do in Singapore where parents must prove that their children require an English language medium education; if they can’t do that, then they should to enter the local system.

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