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Founded in 1967, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) has grown to a network of 21 schools. As it approaches its 50th anniversary, the organization has a clear strategy to innovate and develop its people and practices in order to offer the best to its students

By Candace Kwan

As the largest network of international schools in Hong Kong, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) has a local family of five secondary schools, nine primary schools, a school for students with special educational needs, two “all through” Private Independent Schools and four kindergartens. A fifth kindergarten is due to open in August 2016. Despite the wide assortment of schools, they share the same philosophies and goals.

“ESF offers a high quality of education which nurtures curiosity and inspires creativity. We want our children to be really engaged in their learning, and to enjoy learning and coming to school. I always say to people, the most important person in ESF is the next student to come through our doors,” says Belinda Greer, CEO of ESF.

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Before moving to Hong Kong three years ago, Greer worked as the first Director of Joint Education for Stirling and Clackmannanshire Councils in Scotland where she was responsible for 85 schools and 23,000 children. The Scotswoman has over 30 years of experience in education.

“I was attracted to ESF because we’re inclusive. We’re non-selective, we welcome all children and we work hard to meet their learning needs, which I think is something that sets us apart,” she explains.

High-performance learning

ESF is renowned for academic excellence. This year, 17 ESF students achieved the maximum 45 points in the International Baccalaureate (IB) exam. 97.7 percent of its students passed their IB, compared with the global average of 79.3 percent.

“Considering worldwide, 208 students scored full marks, and we have 17. It’s amazing. Many of our students move onto excellent universities across the world,” says Greer.

While academic excellence is important and students do need to be able to perform well, Greer believes that education is about so much more. ESF places emphasis on developing confidence, collaborative skills and resilience.

“We encourage our students to be fully engaged beyond just preparing for external examinations,” she explains.

“Taking sports encourages resiliency and challenging yourself. It’s transferable, so students can have a wide range of experiences and life-long learning skills. We want our students to leave ESF with confidence that they can meet whatever challenges lie ahead, we want them to enjoy life and contribute fully to society.”

Maintaining stability

While the government is preparing to phase out its educational subsidy for ESF from next year onward, Greer clarifies that this will have minimal impact on ESF’s quality of education.

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“The subsidy would be phased out starting 2016, for Year One only, making this year’s Year One the last year to go through the system with subsidy. We have another 13 years of subsidy and we will continue to receive subsidy for students with additional support needs. We are working on a financial strategy to ensure we are running an effective and efficient system,” says Greer.

The last group of students to qualify for the government subsidy will be the graduates of 2028-29.

Greer also stresses that increases in tuition fees will be kept to a minimum, and that compared to other international schools in Hong Kong, ESF fees, with or without the subsidy, are at the bottom. Currently, for primary schools, the annual fees are HK$78,700; Years 7 to 11, HK$110,600; and Years 12 to 13, HK$116, 200.

Learning together

All ESF schools are currently operating at full capacity and there are no concrete plans in place for expansion, although the organization is open to the idea.

However, there is a new initiative in the works, the Kowloon Learning Campus. The plan is to merge three schools, primary school Kowloon Junior School (KJS), special educational needs school Jockey Club Sarah Roe School (JCSRS) and secondary school King George V School (KGV) onto one large campus in Ho Man Tin.

By bringing the schools together, ESF is looking to foster an environment of integration and support, especially for JCSRS students. “We will have classes to support children who can manage some time in mainstream, but need additional support in their learning. Our curriculum is arranged so children can access it and learn at the right level,” says Greer.

Teachers at JCSRS, as well as in mainstream, understand the learning needs of the children in their classes. A lot of time is invested for teachers to plan together. In addition, a team comprised of educational psychologists and speech and language therapists is also available to provide assistance.

Developing through sharing

ESF is focused on continuing education and ensuring students in the ESF family have the best they can offer. “We also [foster] global innovation in education. We have a number of principals and education officers who regularly speak at conferences so people are aware of what we’re doing. We certainly have contributed to some of the educational thinking, not just in Hong Kong, but beyond,” says Greer.

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100 new teachers were employed this year out of 5,000 applicants. Greer believes schools can only be as good as the teachers, therefore ESF invests heavily in professional training so that their teachers will continue to develop.

Recently ESF has collaborated with local schools and shared their practices. “We’ve opened places to local schools to take a look at how we’re developing our professional thinking practice and leadership work. We are visiting local schools because we want to learn from them too.”

Greer is very pleased with the progress ESF has made so far.

“I [came to Hong Kong] looking for a new, exciting challenge, and actually, education is a really small world,” she says. “What I found when I came was an organization very open to change. We’re innovative, and we’re constantly looking to develop. We’re celebrating our 50th birthday soon. I think we’re moving into, what I see, as an exciting chapter for the foundation.”