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The place to be

Published on Sunday, 17 Apr 2011
Heather Du Quesnay
Chief executive officer, English Schools Foundation

There has never been a better time to work in education, at least as far as the English Schools Foundation (ESF) is concerned. We employ about 2,500 full and part-time staff as well as another 600 or so, on a casual basis. Our turnover rates are fairly low – about 8 per cent among our 1,100 teachers and 14 per cent among support staff. And when you talk to staff, you get the impression of people who are highly motivated by their work.  Why?

The most important factor is a very simple one – our students. The ESF student body, which is approaching 17,000 if you include kindergartens and private independent schools, operated by our associated company, ESF Educational Services Ltd (ESL), comes from a variety of backgrounds: 45 per cent Chinese, 11 per cent Indian, 20 per cent other Asian, and 20 per cent Caucasian. Some are from families – whatever their nationality – who have always lived in Hong Kong and they have grown up here. Others have travelled with their parents who have worked in many different countries, mostly English-speaking but also in Europe, Africa, India, South America.

The students know what it is to work hard and believe it is really cool to learn and to achieve. They celebrate each other’s successes without envy, and delight in taking on leadership roles as house-captains, prefects, playground buddies and student council representatives in order to help others. No adult, from the most experienced teacher to the newest educational assistant or janitor, can help but feel a sense of privilege to work among so many committed, energetic and confident young people.

There is something of a quiet revolution going on in ESF schools at present, partly facilitated by the character of our student body, which allows teachers to be innovative in their approaches to teaching, partly by the teachers themselves, and partly by the availability of cutting-edge learning technologies, which enable research and the exchange of information in ways unthought-of even 10 years ago. 

Our primary schools are buzzing with purposeful, probing conversations as children use enquiry-based methods to investigate key concepts relating to the way society is organised and the workings of the natural world. Of course, we still ensure that they learn the basic skills of mathematics, English, science and Chinese, but the Primary Years Programme, introduced over the past four years, has released extraordinary levels of creativity and collaborative problem-solving. The relationship between the teacher and the class remains an authoritative one, but the teacher’s role is to facilitate and support enquiry, to question and to suggest, not to tell or expound. Children’s learning thrives and teachers and educational assistants, who have been thoroughly trained in these new methods, love the transformation – so do parents.

Similar changes are taking place in the secondary schools, with the introduction of the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which has opened the doors of universities worldwide to ESF students. At a recent ESF Higher Education fair, over 100 universities were represented. And as we introduce alternative applied learning study programmes, we expect to see even more world-class art schools, hotel-training schools and polytechnic universities pursuing those students who are showing early technical and design talent.

Staff can make these kinds of opportunities real for students only if they feel that the culture of the organisation promotes creativity and (responsible) risk-taking for them as well. ESF delegates most of the money it spends and a great deal of power to the principals and school councils. ESF provides a framework of HR policies, but schools have a good deal of freedom to develop to meet their students’ needs as they see fit.  Many of the best ideas that are influencing practice across the ESF system – from one-to-one laptops to higher education counsellors and from applied learning to the use of teacher librarians – originated in individual schools. The ability of schools to innovate and then to share their findings through our advanced learning technology systems is one of our great strengths.

We have tried very hard in recent years to make sure that the basic factors – pay, benefits, supportive and consistent policies and an abundance of high quality training – are available to staff so that they can devote their energies to being creative in the classroom, not arguing over conditions of employment. We have a performance management scheme that is both rigorous and supportive: all staff receive feedback on how they are doing regularly from their principal or line manager. And we put a lot of effort into recruitment to make sure that we get the best possible people in the first place.

When it comes to staff motivation, you can have the wisest HR policies in the world, supply the most modern facilities and equipment, offer the most dazzling rates of pay and benefits, but there is no substitute for the basic need we all have to feel that our work has meaning and purpose. A day spent with ESF students in any of our schools leaves one in no doubt about that. If you work for ESF, you are working for the future of the young, of Hong Kong and of the world – it’s hard work, but it’s great to know that what you do matters.

Heather Du Quesnay is the chief executive officer of the English Schools Foundation

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