With 22 schools and 17,000 students, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) is easily the largest international education foundation in the city. Established in 1967 as part of a Legislative Council Bill, it is also an organisation that has a great deal of influence.
Despite a 48-year legacy in the city, the foundation is about to face a test threatening the very fabric of its existence. The phasing-out of the government's annual HK$283 million funding is due to take effect in the 2016 academic year, with graduates of 2029 being the last group of subsidised students. It's a blow that will force the ESF to rethink the way it operates.
At the helm of the foundation during this tough period is Chief Executive Officer Belinda Greer. Like the organisation she serves, Greer is no rookie. Before joining the ESF, Greer was responsible for 23,000 students and 85 schools in Scotland.
Although Greer has more than 30 years of experience in education under her belt, she is still wary of the challenges that lie ahead. "We are conscious that we do not want to become one of the schools charging the high fees," says the CEO.
The ESF currently charges HK$110,000 a year for Years Seven to 11, and HK$116,000 for Years 12 and 13. The fees are a lot lower than similar international schools, thanks to the long-standing government grants.
As this support comes to an end, parents with children entering Year One next September will pay 22 per cent more, or HK$95,700 per year, compared to the original HK$78,700. Fees for current students are also expected to rise by up to 8.8 per cent. It's a prospect described by some, including Sha Tin College student Jeremy Liu, as "saddening".
"We used to be a 'middle-class school' … now it's going to be for people who are even more well-off," says Jeremy.
In light of the new financial situation, Greer says all possible measures are being taken to make the foundation as efficient as possible. "Using money wisely is at the top of our agenda," says Greer. "We want to be serving the families we've traditionally served."
She also refers to the ESF's unsubsidised private-independent schools, Renaissance College and Discovery College, as rough indicators of the foundation's future direction.
She may be upset, but Greer is certainly not bitter about the government's decision. "The local schools should be greatly encouraged that the government has confidence in them," she says.
"We are keen to work with local schools to strengthen English language teaching."
The ESF currently offers teacher training opportunities to local schools and other international schools.
"It's not about 'ESF's got the answer' - we're not telling everybody to be like us, but we want to share our approach to learning and teaching," she explains. "It's about strengthening Hong Kong education for all."
Greer admits that there is still room for improvement; Chinese language education has long been a concern for ESF parents and students alike. Regarding the issue, Greer says "There might be some aspects of the local school system that we can learn from."
"We're not a bilingual system, but we want our students' Chinese to be at the highest level possible." She adds that it would be a "missed opportunity" if students were to leave the ESF system without feeling secure in the language.
Confidence in the future
The foundation may no longer enjoy the special status it has held on to for nearly half a century, but Greer is adamant the ESF will remain a "separate pillar" unique from local and international schools.
"We want to look ahead and say the education system is stronger if the ESF remains unique in the city."
With their sights set on the future, Greer and her team are ready to adapt to the changing environment, too. "I think the 'traditional' school system is going to be disrupted in the next 10 years," she says.
"ESF is in such a powerful position … we could do something quite different across our schools."
No one can be certain of the ESF's future after government money is taken away, but right now, students, parents, and staff won't be worrying too much.