At a time when all sectors of the community need to pull together to enhance Hong Kong's competitiveness by raising the quality of school education, it is regrettable that the education authorities and teachers have failed to reconcile their differences over the benchmarking of English teachers.
Notwithstanding changes to the scheme exempting more teachers from passing a proficiency assessment, the Professional Teachers' Union has vowed to continue its fight against its introduction. They insist that the test is an insult to serving English teachers and amounts to stripping those who fail of their teaching permits. Instead, they argue that teachers should be given continuous training to achieve the required level of competency.
The union's stubborn stance is baffling. Assessment is an integral part of training, so all teachers who go through a language training programme will have to be tested eventually.
But why bar those teachers with good English skills from taking a test to prove their competency when they will have to go to the trouble of going through a training course they do not need? It is also unfortunate that the union cannot see the test positively as a mark of recognition for competent teachers who have so far been unfairly blamed for the declining English skills of young people.
Admittedly, due to years of neglect in the past, many serving teachers with no formal training in language teaching have been allowed to teach English. The problem is particularly serious in primary schools where almost every teacher is asked to teach some English classes to suit the timetable. These teachers understandably feel aggrieved that their jobs may now be on the line if they fail the benchmark test.
But if they are conscientious teachers, they should have tried to enhance their English skills when they were assigned such duties. Even now, they will still have five years to train up and reach the required standards. Of course, school chiefs should see to it that those who want to stop teaching English are assigned other duties and are not unfairly dismissed.
Teaching used to be an attractive career for many graduates. Over the past 20 years, however, as Hong Kong became a financial centre, more career opportunities were opened up to those with good English. While the teaching profession has continued to attract some quality graduates who relish having a stable and respectable job, the overall quality of teachers has gone down. This was evident by the fact that for several years in the 1980s, the entry requirements for the colleges of education had to be lowered. Action to redress such a legacy is long overdue.
With hindsight, the authorities could have handled the benchmarking exercise with more sensitivity so that it was not regarded by teachers as an affront to their dignity.
But it is time teachers looked forward to the days when all of them can proudly say they are up to standard.