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With hindsight, the Government badly underestimated the importance that the community attaches to English-language teaching. The case in favour of mother-tongue teaching is overwhelming. There is no doubt most children would learn far more - and even speak better English - if they were taught in their native language. But the opposition to such a shift in recent months has shown that this is not an argument which can be won overnight, although this is not in any way a rushed change. Contrary to popular belief, it is not connected with the handover, having been in the pipeline for almost a decade. Nonetheless, it has become clear that the community is not yet ready to contemplate the wholesale abandonment of English as a medium of instruction.
In such circumstances, yesterday's decision to uphold most of the appeals from schools which were originally told that they could no longer teach in English is welcome. Despite Government denials, the appeals committee has clearly relaxed the criteria for deciding which language a school should use. It has adopted a more flexible approach to the 85 per cent proficiency requirement which the Government was widely accused of implementing in an unfair manner.
Those schools which chose not to appeal may now feel aggrieved at seeing the ground rules changed so late in the day. Nonetheless, the upholding of these appeals should defuse some of the unnecessary tensions that have served to obscure the merits of mother-tongue education in the past few months.
New government initiatives will also help. Yesterday's announcement of priority funding for Chinese-medium schools, coupled with measures to improve their English-teaching, should reassure parents who are worried that their children's English standards may suffer from the change of language. Plans for a quality school award scheme should eventually erase the fallacy that schools which teach in English are necessarily better.
But officials still seems reluctant to take one further step to lessen the divisions the mother-tongue issue has generated. Although the appeals committee recommended greater flexibility for Chinese-medium schools to continue teaching some subjects in English, the Government is down-playing the idea. Officials insist that this will only be allowed for fringe subjects such as typewriting and metalwork. But there is no reason to be so restrictive. As the Education Commission Chairman-designate, Anthony Leung Kam-chung, noted, teaching different subjects in different languages will help to blur the distinctions between English and Chinese medium schools, so forestalling any danger of a two-tier system. Although the Government has now recognised the need to show more sensitivity over the mother-tongue issue, it has still not gone as far as it could to quieten public concerns.