Suffer Not the Little Children

Our education officials are getting their knickers in a twist again on the subject of the subvention to the English Schools Foundation.

Perhaps we can help them get the right answers by persuading them to ask the right questions.

But first a little history. When the ESF began life several decades ago, it led a somewhat privileged existence because the classes were generally smaller than those in local schools and the facilities generally better and the teachers better paid. As a result the subsidy per child – usually of an expatriate family -- was higher than for a local child in a local school. A fine example of that "Colonial oppression" we read about in the history books.

Some time later, I think in the 1970s, the arrangement was changed so that ESF received a subsidy per child equivalent to the cost of educating a local child in a local school. Parents had to pay fees to meet the difference between the actual costs and the subvention.

Some ten years ago the subvention was frozen on the excuse that the ESF needed to improve its governance and it is now equivalent to only about half the cost of educating a local child. Inevitably this has cause a massive increase in ESF fees. A neat piece of symmetry if you are in to the idea of revenge for historical slights.

Now back to the present and the questions we should be asking. We should begin by acknowledging that every discussion about education should start with the children and what is best for them. Institutions, organisations, sponsoring bodies, teachers unions etc will all come into it later but the children must come first.

First up, why does any society educate its children? Answer, to ensure the survival of the species, to prepare the next generation for adult life in the same way we were equipped by our parents in our turn.

Secondly, is it justified for the government to use taxpayers money to subsidise the cost of education? Just about every civilised country has reached the conclusion that it is justified because it contributes to social harmony and society needs educated people to play a full part in community life.

Pretty straightforward so far but now it starts to get difficult. Should we attempt to distinguish between categories of children for the purposes of subsidising their education? For example it might be possible to argue that only the children of permanent residents should enjoy the subsidy. That would conveniently cut out the children of those expats who only have a short stay in Hong Kong, but those who stay longer would eventually qualify. More seriously, it would cut out the children of new immigrants from the Mainland. Would that be wise?

If we say the subsidy should be open to all the children whose parents are lawfully resident then we solve the new Mainland migrant problem but also let the expat children back in. Moreover we still have a serious problem because there are tens of thousands of children who are themselves lawful residents but neither of their parents is.

Putting the children first, as we said we should, and addressing that situation brings us to the inescapable conclusion that all lawfully resident children should enjoy the same subsidy. It is the only morally reasonable and legally acceptable position.

The problem in Hong Kong stems from the fact that our education officials subsidise schools, not children. Putting the institutions ahead of the humans may be administratively easy, but it has created all manner of anomalies. Many children at our international schools are "local" but receive no subsidy at all to help towards meeting the very high fees.

Specifically in the case of the ESF, nearly three quarters of the children are local but the subsidy is much less per capita than other local children enjoy if they attend a local school. Is this fair and reasonable? In effect, we are squeezing the middle class (most of whom are taxpayers) and then we wonder why they feel neglected.

Whenever here is a public discussion of the ESF subvention, the education officials repeat their mantra that it is a "legacy issue", presumably a reference to the historic background. But this is a piece of sophistry. If you think about it, every subject the government deals with is to some extent a "legacy issue" except those that only came to light in the last few days.

A now retired Chief Secretary was once asked at a lunch meeting of the International Business Committee why the education bureau seemed to be so hostile to international and ESF schools. He replied candidly that there was an institutional bias against them because the officials concerned saw the popularity of such schools with parents as an indictment of the standard of education in those schools for which they were directly responsible. "Which of course it is," he added sotto voce.

Judging from recent public comments, that would seem to be the real legacy issue here.