A three-year trial giving exemptions to 114 secondary schools from using Chinese as the teaching medium is due to expire next year and it would be a pragmatic move for the Government to extend the experiment for another two years.
Two years ago, the decision to force most secondary schools that had been using English as the medium of instruction to use Chinese as the teaching language sparked an acrimonious debate. The 114 were allowed to maintain their English-medium status on the grounds that 85 per cent of their student intake were able to learn in English, their staff were competent to teach in English and the schools had the necessary logistical support to maintain an English environment.
In practice, however, a declaration by school principals was accepted by the authorities as 'proof' that their staff had the required English skills. That did not go down well with schools ordered to switch to teaching in Chinese. It was generally accepted then that the best way of resolving the controversy was to require teachers to go through a benchmarking exercise to demonstrate they could instruct in English.
With the future of language benchmarking up in the air following recent protests by teachers against the test, embarking on another exercise to determine which schools could teach in English or Chinese next year would be unwise. Apart from reopening old wounds, it would only cause confusion among schools and parents.
Moreover, not until 2003 will the first batch of students taught in Chinese from Form One complete Form Five. Only then will their scores in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination be available for comparison with those educated in English-medium schools.
Already, anecdotal evidence suggests that students at Chinese-medium schools are learning faster and better. Although they are exposed to less English, it is far from certain if their command of the language is necessarily inferior than their counterparts of comparable ability at English-medium schools. Some teachers at Chinese-medium schools even say their students now learn English better as a subject because they are no longer forced to use it to learn other subjects prematurely.
A full-scale comparison of the scores, taking into account students' abilities and differences across schools, should shed light on the pros and cons of mother-tongue education, particularly its impact on students' intellectual development and English proficiency. Before then, caution is advised, lest any hasty policies derail other much-needed reforms mooted by the Education Commission.