Overall, a Chinese success story
Seven years after the so-called mother-tongue education policy was adopted in 1998, it is interesting to note how far its critics have moved the goal posts.
Under the policy, only about one-quarter of secondary schools - those whose teachers and students are judged capable of teaching and learning in English, respectively - are allowed to use it as the medium of instruction in junior forms for all subjects, except Chinese language and Chinese history.
The other schools must teach in Chinese, but are given additional resources to boost the teaching of English as a subject.
Back when the policy's pros and cons were still hotly debated, critics expressed concern that it would lead to a decline in English standards because of reduced exposure to the language in the classroom.
When the first batch of students from schools that changed their teaching language to Chinese graduated in 2003, the policy was blamed for a slight drop in the overall pass rate in English in the Certificate of Education Examination. A detailed analysis has since revealed that the pass rates of students from schools that made the switch to Chinese did drop in both 2003 and last year, compared with 2002.
This week, however - after results of this year's CEE showed higher pass rates than 2002, for both the lower-standard syllabus A and higher-standard syllabus B - critics have changed their focus.
A prominent educator was reported as saying they could not be regarded as conclusive proof that the mother-tongue policy was successful. As more students switched to the easier syllabus A, the policy could be considered a success only if there was a significant rise in the number of credit passes, he said.
The educator is a supporter of mother-tongue education, and he did not mean to disparage the policy. Unfortunately, his comments - assuming he was not quoted out of context - have been seized upon by critics as proof the policy has failed.
From saying the mother-tongue policy would lead to a decline in English standards, to saying it failed because it did not lift proficiency in the language, the critics have made a truly big leap.
But why should a policy that aims to remove language as a barrier to learning be judged by students' subsequent performance in the language concerned, in this case English? It is simply illogical to use students' English proficiency levels as a yardstick to assess the success or failure of the mother-tongue policy. Rather, its efficacy should be measured by students' overall performance in all subjects.
The past three years' CEE results have clearly shown most students from Chinese-medium schools that used to teach in English have scored better across the board. The only subject in which scores have fallen was physics, but that applied to students from both English- and Chinese-medium schools.
As far as English is concerned, a careful analysis of the scores for all students, after adjusting for the two syllabuses' different standards, has shown that overall performance has risen slightly. Many factors might have contributed to the modest improvement, including better teaching methods and activities to promote the use of English. Overall, English standards have not fallen after students stopped using it to learn other subjects. That is further proof that the past practice of using English to teach every subject as a means of enhancing students' skills in the language was an utter failure.
If the critics were right, there should have been a calamitous drop in English proficiency by now. On the contrary, standards have not dropped, but gone up a bit.
C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy