IS biblical knowledge a cultural subject? For a number of secondary schools in Hong Kong, this is a question of 'life and death'.
This is not so much because the Bible deals with the meaning of life and death, but because its classification as a cultural subject means it can be taught in Chinese without affecting a school's grouping as an English school using English as the medium of instruction.
For the result of being labelled a school which does not teach all subjects in English will affect its reputation, or even lead to a dwindling enrolment of good students.
As a consequence of school lobbying, the Education Department classified biblical knowledge as a cultural subject last year.
It resulted in a rise in the number of English schools from 223 in 1994-95 to 231 in 1995-96, even though the total number of schools rose during the period by only one to 393.
The lobbying campaign belied the fact that many schools were, and still are, indulging in a scramble to 'stay English' as they are being encouraged to use Chinese, the mother-tongue of most school children in Hong Kong, as their medium of instruction.
But if the schools in question found their students learned the Bible more easily in Chinese, shouldn't that imply their students might have trouble learning other subjects in English? The answer must be yes. Indeed, many of the 231 schools which claim to use English as the medium of instruction in the current academic year are known to be 'cheating'.
While English textbooks are used, teachers actually use a mixture of English and Chinese in lectures - a practice considered educationally undesirable.
The Education Department is fully aware that many schools are lying. The Secretary for Education and Manpower, Joseph Wong Wing-ping, indirectly exposed most schools' claims over their choice of teaching language to be false last month in the Legislative Council.
In reply to a question, Mr Wong revealed that 'some 280 secondary schools or about 70 per cent of all the secondary schools use Chinese as the medium of instruction to varying degrees [in 1995-96]'.
'Of these, some 150 schools use Chinese for most of the school subjects,' he added.
Since 69 have admitted to using Chinese as the medium of instruction and the total number of schools is 393, this means the number of schools which is really teaching all subjects in English is about 44. The trouble is that most parents have no way of telling which schools lie.
Last year's schools list published by the Education Department to help parents decide where to send their children under the Secondary School Places Allocation Scheme still treated the schools' claims over their chosen teaching language as fact.
Assistant Director of Education Lee Hing-fai said the department was aware that many schools which claimed to teach in English were not telling the truth.
But he said the department faced an uphill battle persuading schools to match their claims with reality.
In a society such as Hong Kong, which puts so much importance on English proficiency, schools know that the moment they admit to not using English as the main teaching language, parents will not want to send their children there.
Parental demand for their children to learn in English is so great that schools fear that if they switch to using Chinese - or admit to having switched - they will suffer the fate of Carmel Secondary School, which was shunned by parents when it led such a switch in the mid-1980s.
'The schools say unless you [the Government] tie us together on a chariot to fight the battle, we'll die one by one by going it alone,' said Mr Lee.
The Government's policy, detailed in the Education Commission's fourth report, is to gradually change the 'bigger climate' into one more receptive to mother-tongue education before compelling schools to choose a teaching language which best suits their students.
Seminars have been run for school principals and teachers to drive home the benefits of mother-tongue education, training courses organised to help teachers trained in English to teach in Chinese, and campaigns conducted to sway the thinking of parents.
THE Education Department has also widely publicised research results showing only about 30 per cent of secondary one (12-year-old) students can benefit from learning in English.
For schools, the time of reckoning will be next year, when they will be given 'firm guidance' on whether they should teach in English or Chinese, based on the language ability of their intakes.
For parents, the big expose will come in 1998 when they will be informed of the department's guidance to each school.
However, with only one year to go before guidance is issued to schools, there is a worrying sign that compliance may not be forthcoming from all of them. The Education Department insists an English-medium school living up to its claim must teach all subjects in English, except Chinese language, Chinese history and cultural or practical subjects.
But in the 1995-96 school year, 76 schools teach some subjects in Chinese and some in English, while seven teach different classes and subjects in Chinese or English.
While the department accepts teaching in the two languages by subject as a transitional arrangement which must be phased out eventually, some schools argue it is not such a bad idea.
They argue that while students will benefit from learning such language-intensive subjects as geography, history and biology in Chinese, they should be allowed to learn less language-intensive subjects such as mathematics, physics and chemistry in English in order to enhance their exposure to English.
Such a view is manifestly contradictory. Surely, language proficiency is just as important in learning geography, history and biology as in mathematics, physics and chemis-try.
Mr Lee would only say that he expected some schools to protest against the department's guidance, but believed most would follow it in the interests of students.
He did not want to talk about the penalties which might be imposed on non-conforming schools.
What he wants to stress is there is no conflict between using Chinese as the medium of instruction and learning English well. And there are signs that parental resistance to mother-tongue education is abating.
Schools should realise that their purpose must be to give their students a good education, regardless of their ability.