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English Schools Foundation: What next? Education expert Ruth Benny gives us the lowdown on changes to the ESF

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Most parents know of the English Schools Foundation, and it is the default option for many who educate their children in Hong Kong. However, it is changing and as a parent considering schools, this article may help you assess how those changes may affect your family.

Established in 1967, the ESF operates five secondary schools, nine primary schools and a school for students with special educational needs. They exist to offer, ‘without regard to race or religion, a modern liberal education through the medium of the English language to boys and girls who are able to benefit from such an education.’ Elsewhere, their stated purpose is to ‘provide education to those who cannot access the local system’.

The Subvention

A lot of parents don’t realise that the ESF is government funded. Their funding, known as a ‘subvention’, has been frozen at $283 million for more than a decade. Nevertheless, it means that the fees that parents pay are substantially less than most international, independent or private schools. For 2012/13, primary fees are $61,000 per year. Their subsidiary, ‘ESF Educational Services Limited’ (ESL), which operates extra-curricula classes, ESF kindergartens and two Private Independent Schools (Renaissance College and Discovery College,) is private and does not receive government funding.

However, the subvention is currently in jeopardy. ESF is unique in receiving government funding to offer a non-local curriculum. The government believes that the subvention is no longer relevant in modern Hong Kong and must be phased out. However, it’s complicated. Since 70% of the 17,000 ESF students have at least one parent who is a permanent resident, they would most likely go to local school if they weren’t in ESF, thereby costing the government almost double the current subvention. The debate rages on as current ESF Chief Executive Mrs Heather Du Quesnay, prepares to leave in August 2013. As it stands, the government has agreed to guarantee the subvention at the current level for all existing ESF students for up to 13 years.


ESF schools are NOT international schools

Whilst ESF schools do offer an international curriculum; which is not that which is stipulated by our local Education Bureau (EDB); ESF schools are not international schools. An international status is acquired by meeting specific requirements set down by the EDB. In fact, ESF schools are their own category of schools, as defined in the ESF Ordinance.

ESF is NOT the only affordable English language education option in Hong Kong

This is often the argument put forward by advocates when defending the government subvention. Whilst it is true that the fees at many international, independent and private schools far exceed the current ESF fees, it is not fair to say that ESF offers the only affordable English language education in Hong Kong.

In fact, the most affordable English language education is totally free. All Hong Kong residents aged 6-15 are entitled to free education, and the Education Bureau has designated 20 primary schools as primarily for non-Chinese Students, which mean their medium of instruction is either  in English or they provide a lot of extra support for English speakers. Otherwise, there are plenty of schools charging between about $15,000 and $85,000 a year, including the following examples:

  • Po Leung Kuk Camoes Tin Siu Lin $14,800
  • St Margaret’s Co-ed $29,000
  • Lantau International School (LIS) $58,400
  • Kiangsu Chekiang International School $51,000
  • Korean International School $79,500
  • PLK Choi Kai Yau $55,000 (English/Putonghua)
  • St Stephen’s College Preparatory School $67,000 (English/Putonghua)
  • Hong Kong Adventist Academy $68,000
  • Island Christian Academy $85,000

Entry into an ESF primary school is NOT guaranteed 

It is unwise to rely on getting into an ESF school. Even students earning priority by any means (alumni, sibling, kindergarten students) are not guaranteed a spot in a primary school. While it is unusual for priority applicants not to get in, it is becoming more commonplace for regular applicants to be placed on a waiting list. They may even not be offered an interview. So, it pays to put in several applications to different schools.



Ruth Benny backpacked from the UK to Hong Kong in 1995. All these years and two kids later, she has recently survived the “ordeal” of the school hunt: searching, selecting, seeing, schmoozing and, yes, sobbing… until finally securing places. As a long-time resident, former educator of local students and teachers, and now Head Girl of, Ruth ‘gets’ the Hong Kong education system, its complexity and fierce competition. She is committed to helping families navigate through and get their kids into the ‘right’ school.


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