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Class of her own

Heather Du Quesnay is retiring after reforming the ESF

It is mission accomplished for Heather Du Quesnay, the woman responsible for overhauling the English Schools Foundation (ESF) and securing its new future in the provision of international education in Hong Kong. Du Quesnay, who was recruited in 2005 to lead the organisation out of turmoil, retires after steering through most of the reforms that were on her to-do list.

Hong Kong’s education system has undergone radical reforms over the last decade. ESF reforms implemented during Du Quesnay’s years at the helm as CEO have been no less seismic. These have encompassed areas such as governance, financing, curriculum and student admissions, as well as new commitments to teaching Chinese and extending provision for children with special educational needs.

The ESF, founded in the colonial era to provide British-style education to the mainly expatriate population, was the subject of a nightmare sequence of dramas before Du Quesnay’s arrival. Her predecessor, Jonathan Harris, who survived less than a year in the post, threw the first punch, accusing the ESF of what amounted to mismanagement and over-indulgence in a letter leaked to the media.

The foundation suffered further humiliation when its members rebelled at the attempt to appoint insurance salesman Mike Haynes to take the reins, prompting the resignation of the previous chairman and board. Its woes continued when it faced a public grilling by the Audit Commission and Legislative Council over governance and funding issues.

Meanwhile, teachers were rebelling against reforms to colonial-era contracts aimed to bring costs under tighter control. On top of everything, it faced a hostile government determined to cut its public funding with the polity intent to ensure a level playing field with other international schools.

There was no doubt that the ESF needed tough leadership – someone who could manage change, handle the political mess and who was also at heart an educator – in order to drag it firmly into the post-colonial era. Under its new chairman, Felice Lieh Mak, it found Du Quesnay, who at the time was the founding director of the UK’s College for School Leadership. Together with a previous position as head of education for the London borough of Lambeth, where she had overseen a major school improvement programme, it seemed she was just the person for the job.

Today, Du Quesnay describes the ESF as a harmonious community focused on giving children a good education. This is despite some issues – notably the rising cost of an ESF education as the government subvention has been whittled away in real terms – had having been uncomfortable for parents.

“It is quite a change from the more fractious environment when I came,” she says. “The government was attacking. Media was attacking. There was a lot of public debate. It was tough for Felice and me to keep the ship steady.” She had to adapt to working with a particularly “voluble” community, where at every dinner party she would meet people with views on the ESF.

Du Quesnay hopes that the ESF – the largest provider of international education in Hong Kong, with 20 schools and kindergartens and 17,000 students – can retain its high profile, but for more positive reasons. These should be to do with the successes of its students and schools, as well as by being a professional development hub for international education in the region.

While she says that she won most of the battles that awaited her arrival in 2005, her record of achievement does not include persuading the government to retain, in principle, the ESF’s subvention, which has underpinned the ESF’s financial model since its creation in 1967. She is disappointed that the Education Bureau refused to side with arguments for the need for subsidised English-medium education outside the local curriculum and school system, which could provide a more affordable alternative to the costlier international schools.

She insists, however, that the final deal struck is good for parents as it safeguards funding for those schools that joined the ESF before 2016. Her bottom line in negotiations had been that children in the system now would not be affected by the changes, she says. Plans are in place to make up the shortfall once the subvention ends, not only from higher fees – estimated at 23 per cent for newcomers from 2016 – but also with schemes for individual and corporate nomination rights.

She regards one of her greatest challenges during her eight years in charge to have been securing governance reform. The ESF’s many stakeholders had to be persuaded to agree to dismantle the previous structure. The Legislative Council had to be persuaded to show interest, so the ESF Ordinance could be amended.

It took three years to achieve the task. The previous governance, in which a board answered to a foundation of more than 100 members representing political, religious, corporate, and other interests, was seen as having failed to provide the level of accountability and oversight needed in a modern organisation.

For students, the most notable change in the last eight years has been replacing the English National Curriculum at primary level and GCE A-levels at secondary level with the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years and Diploma programmes – another major step away from the ESF’s colonial heritage. This, Du Quesnay says, has transformed teaching practice, offering opportunities for greater challenge and inspiration in what is taught, and how.

She adds, however, that she is pleased that GCSEs have been left in place at foundation secondary schools. “Parents have a sense of a … benchmark so they can take stock of how their children are doing,” she says. Importing the BTEC qualification from the UK, which provides a more practical alternative to the IB Diploma, has also enriched the ESF’s offer.

Du Quesnay is also proud of the development of the provision for special education needs, so that all schools now have learning support centres. However, the ESF has not been able to expand the Jockey Club Sarah Roe Centre as it has wished. This means long waiting lists for children with more severe learning disabilities remain.

Du Quesnay and her team also made inroads in upgrading the infrastructure of ESF schools. Two new schools – Renaissance College in Ma On Shan and Discovery College in Discovery Bay – have been opened, plus a new kindergarten. Kowloon Junior School has a new campus. Island School, built in the 1960s and long deemed not fit for modern purpose, will be rebuilt as part of the funding settlement. The government will fund its reconstruction on its Borrett Road site.

Leading change in any education organisation involves working in collaboration. “It is not just me,” she says. She likes to share credit with the two ESF chairmen she has worked with – Lieh Mak and Carlson Tong – and the ESF boards. While it was her role to initiate discussion and “put stakes in the ground”, the vision had to be a shared one. “There has been a lot of listening, a lot of patience,” she says.

“I now feel pretty confident we are in a place we wanted to be,” she adds. “The ESF is strong and happy. We have teachers who enjoy working here, students who have a glorious time going to school and supportive parents. When you leave an organisation, you must leave it in a sustainable state. We have a fantastic senior management team in place. I have no qualms about the ESF’s capacity to manage and lead itself.”

She plays down any gender influence on both the challenges she has faced as a leader, and how she addressed them. “You can overdo the difference between men and women as leaders,” she says. “Every leader needs a combination of cognitive skills, emotional intelligence, the ability to make decisions, and a far-sighted vision into the future. I know men with very high emotional intelligence and women with very low. You cannot stereotype.”

There are, however, more women in senior leadership positions within the organisation than when she arrived – four women to two men in the senior management team.

She does not believe organisations deliberately block the progress of women, but that women themselves find it hard to reconcile the needs of motherhood and work – particularly in Hong Kong, where she found the norm to be to work well into the evening.

Of her previous roles, she says her position as CEO of the ESF will be one of the ones she will look back on with the most affection. “It has offered a particular combination of personal and professional challenge,” she says, adding that the foundation was small enough to have a strong sense of community, where she could get to know principals, teachers and parents. Its size also meant she could also feel more involved in its successes and experience greater sorrow in times of trouble. “We are mainly an expatriate community. We know more about each other than we would in the UK context,” she says.

Professionally, the greatest reward had been seeing the development of the schools under the ESF’s umbrella. “They do seem to be in good shape and happy places,” she says.

Du Quesnay, who has two grown-up daughters, is returning to her home in Cambridge. She will miss Hong Kong, a city she has grown to love for its youthfulness and gaiety. She has no firm plans, but will soon be looking to how she can serve the community. “I don’t like the idea of retiring,” she says. “I have got lots of energy and interests, and wish to make a contribution. I must find some way of staying in touch with young people.”


Highlights of Du Quesnay’s years as ESF chief executive

Creating harmony  “The ESF [is now] a very harmonious and focused community.”
Setting up a new governance structure  “Our practice now meets best corporate standards.”
Ensuring a sustainable ESF  “We have made the ESF not just solvent, but financially stable.”
Building new schools  “Renaissance College and Discovery College were built and opened in my time, as well as a new kindergarten.”
Reinforcing pride  “We are proud of our Special Educational Needs Provision. We have been able to realise our vision of providing learning support in every school.”
Spreading Joy  “[For the primary school choral concerts held at Queen Elizabeth Stadium], the numbers and sheer raw enthusiasm of children singing their hearts out [is a delight].”