Language question a matter of choice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 December, 1997, 12:00am

Article 137 of the Basic Law says: 'Educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom.' Does this autonomy include the choice of medium of teaching? In pushing its mother-tongue teaching plan through, the Government obviously does not think so, but the alumni of St Stephen's College clearly believe otherwise.

An English-medium secondary school forced to switch to mother-tongue teaching next year, it has made a collective effort to challenge the Government's decision.

In a newspaper advertisement placed on Monday, the college's alumni association adduced the Basic Law article as evidence that the Government was in potential breach of the law and urged it to respect parents' wishes and the school's right to choose its own medium of instruction.

In another advertisement, the college council highlighted the school's pass rate of 94.5 per cent for English language in the 1997 Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (compared with the territory-wide average of 56.9 per cent) and vowed it would fight to retain the college's 100-year-old tradition of excellence in English-medium education.

In yet another advertisement, the parents' association of the college noted that 97 per cent of parents accepted the school's English-language teaching tradition.

Regardless of whether the 'autonomy' stipulated in the Basic Law includes the choice of teaching medium, strong reactions from parents and schools should make the Government mull over some of the points raised in these ads.

Education officials should ask whether they have been too dictatorial and mechanical in deciding the fate of the schools.

The statements from the council and parents of St Stephen's College raise an important point - school tradition.

Of the 24 schools disqualified from teaching in English, many are run by Catholic or other Christian churches. These schools, probably for historical reasons, have always used English as the teaching medium. It has become part of their culture.

Officials should ask whether it is fair to the schools that, with a mere administrative order, they should be forced to end their long tradition. How are students going to adapt to this abrupt change? The Government may argue the switch is not sudden as it has been on the education agenda for decades. But it is precisely because of a lack of real action by the authorities over many years that some schools, parents and students may have been caught unprepared.

Changing the tradition of any established institution is not a small matter: many people will be affected and there should be compelling reasons to justify any sudden change.

Supporters of mother-tongue education say that English-teaching schools do not really teach in English. They believe the students' incomplete grasp of English forces teachers to lecture in a bad mixture of poor English and not very good Chinese.

That may be true, but it may also not be the whole picture. A problem in some English-teaching schools is that the teachers' own English standard is not up to scratch and they feel more comfortable and confident speaking Cantonese in class.

In that case, can we really blame the students? Should we not blame the system instead, in that it fails to produce enough teachers who can command a minimum standard of proper English to enable them to teach in that medium? Politically, the language-teaching plan is a difficult problem. But one should not shift all the blame on to the schools and students who want to stay in the English stream, just because part of a fault lies in the education system itself.