Teaching by numbers
Now, class, I want you to listen carefully. This is important to your future. Hands up if your parents bought you a new blazer this term, despite the stock market crash.
Now, please lower your hand if you live in a public housing estate, your grandparents are under 55 years old or illiterate or you still have relatives over the border.
Still got your clammy little fist up, Chan? Well, let's see if this catches you out. Lower your hand if your father did not go to this school and your mother did not receive a convent education.
Thought as much, Chan. Now that leaves Wong, Mak One and Mak Two (faster than the speed of sound, eh, boys? Hahaha!), Lee, Li, Lo, Loh, Lau and Lai, Ho, Ha and Tsui. Those boys will be permitted to stay in this school and study, using English as the medium of instruction. The rest of you can ask your parents to apply for places in the Chinese mother-tongue system from September.
Any questions? Yes, Choy? Why have I emptied my desk? Why, boy? Because I've been told I have to teach in Chinese myself from now on, that's why. This school only wants teachers capable of teaching in English.
Yes, Law, I know my Cantonese is worse than my English. But I really don't think it's for you to say so. Stay back after school and write out 500 times: 'I will not show disrespect to my teacher.' OK. OK. Week Ending is well aware that the decision on which schools should be allowed to teach in English is not based solely on students' middle-class credentials. If it had been, at least some of the 24 schools whose applications to remain in the English-medium system were rejected would have been up there in the English stream with the top 100.
But a bit of social status certainly helps. Wherever you go, middle-class children in middle-class areas tend to go to the best schools and get the best results. Just the same, there is something worrying about the way the 100 favoured schools were chosen. Not the least worrying thing is the figure of 100 itself. Numbers like that have a certain sleek allure, don't they? A pleasing roundness that 124, for instance, just can't match.
You don't suppose, do you, that the figure might have been plucked out of the air by some bureaucrat, as an unofficial quota for English-medium tuition? No, not at all. The Director of Education, Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping, did say, back in September when the guidance notes on medium of instruction were issued, that she had 'no idea about the number, or the list' of schools which would be allowed to teach in English. What's more, there are good educational criteria to go by. At least 85 per cent of a school's intake should be defined as having the ability to learn in English, for example.
Teachers should be able to teach in English and the schools must show the necessary 'support strategies and programmes'. So one would not want to suggest for a moment that the vetting committee, led by Moses Cheng Mo-chi, was told only 100 out of the SAR's 407 schools must be exempted from the mother-tongue teaching requirement. The figure just seems suspiciously neat, that's all.
Nor would we want to go here into the matter of why only 11 per cent of schools were inspected before the decision was taken. That must have been because the respected members of the vetting committee knew perfectly well which schools would have that quality of intake without checking them out each year.
What interests us here is how you conclude this is a sensible system in the first place. Does one assume, for instance, that a child will be a good linguist simply because he or she is bright? Or, for that matter, that a person with a good ear for languages will necessarily be of above-average intelligence? And if 85 per cent of the intake in a particular school is capable of learning in English, what happens to the 15 per cent that isn't? Do the minority pupils fall by the wayside, or should there be a Chinese-medium stream within each elite school? For that matter, if children do better in their mother tongue, why is 25 per cent of the student population so delighted to be allowed to study in precisely those schools that will supposedly put it at a disadvantage by teaching in a foreign language? There is no denying there are social and parental pressures to learn in English. However, if Chinese is better for 75 per cent of the SAR's schools, one does wonder if some of the elite pupils are really so lucky.
We all know and work with native Cantonese speakers whose English, learned exclusively in the local school system, is as near-perfect as any non-mother-tongue speaker of a language could hope for. It is hard to imagine all of them would have done as well in Chinese-medium schools.
It really would be more reassuring to see some research to indicate that exactly 100 schools, no more, no less, could genuinely be expected to achieve near-perfect bilingualism in 85 per cent of their pupils. If there is none, perhaps one would be entitled to question the logic of the Government's position, to say nothing of its commitment to the very principle of mother-tongue teaching.