Contentious in any language

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 12:00am

Six years after most secondary schools were required to teach in Chinese, the so-called 'mother-tongue education' policy remains a contentious issue. The release of the results of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination this week has provided fodder for those both for and against the policy to make their case.

On one side is the government, which is keen to use the results to confirm that the policy is bearing fruit. Officials say that the pass rates of students of Chinese-medium schools have continued to rise in many subjects. In particular, they note that in 80 schools which made the language switch in 1998, their pass rates in English surpassed those in 2002, compared with 40 schools last year. This is evidence that learning most subjects in Chinese does not necessarily mean students' English skills will suffer, they say.

On the other side, some schools which used to teach in English have continued to argue that the mother-tongue policy is affecting the English skills of their students as well as their performance in other subjects. Their claims certainly bear close scrutiny.

These schools were so concerned about nurturing their students' command of English that they switched back to teaching every subject in English when their students reached Form Four. However, many students found it difficult. With barely 18 months to prepare for the HKCEE in a different tongue, a lot failed to achieve high grades in English or other subjects.

Students can sit the HKCEE in either English or Chinese, and tertiary institutions do not discriminate against those who take the test in Chinese. So, it is difficult to understand why these schools should now blame their students' poor grades on the mother-tongue policy, rather than their stupidity in changing their teaching language. Had they stuck with Chinese for most subjects and adopted suitable English-teaching strategies, their students might have done better.

Still, despite the obvious benefits of using Chinese to teach most students, it must be pointed out that officials have been selective in presenting their interpretation of the HKCEE results. They have chosen to highlight the 80 Chinese-medium schools whose pass rates in English have improved over 2002, but played down the fact that the overall pass rate in the subject for all Chinese-medium schools has dropped compared with last year. It would be a worrying development if this was the result of a change of students' attitudes towards learning English, now perceived to be less important.

Nor should we focus just on students' performance in English, as the issue must be considered in the broader context of ensuring that every student gets a quality education. This year, 51.2 per cent of day school candidates achieved passes in at least five subjects, including Chinese, English and maths. This means that almost half our children are finishing school without gaining the minimum qualifications needed for further education or employment. Reversing the mother-tongue policy is unlikely to help these young people, because most schools would probably switch back to teaching in English, and their performance could then be worse.

In a mass education system, a one-size-fits-all policy can never meet the needs of students of varying abilities. The mother-tongue policy has helped most students learn better, but their English has obviously been affected due to reduced exposure. If we are serious about raising their English standards, a policy of 'positive discrimination' might be the way to go. How about funding Chinese-medium schools to hire more English teachers so that their students will learn English in classes of 12, not 40?

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy