English needs to improve at all levels
Secondary schools will be banned from admitting more than 40 students per class under proposals to be introduced in September to address the effect of a shrinking school-age population. There is good reason to stop popular schools from over-enrolling, as they are doing it at the expense of others that may have to close because of under-enrolment.
But there is a catch. Only about one-quarter of Hong Kong's secondary schools are allowed to teach in English. They are the most popular among parents and draw the cream of students.
Naturally, most of them have been admitting more students than the recommended class size. Currently, the total number of over-enrolled students at Form One amounts to 1,900. The enforcement of the 40-per-class rule is likely to cut the number of places at English-medium schools by at least 1,000, according to unofficial estimates.
The possibility of parents opposing the change cannot be ruled out. Not so long ago, a group of parents from Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mongkok protested against the authorities' decision to stop allocating about 100 places at English schools on Hong Kong Island to students from those districts.
However, officials have opted not to discuss the issue. A paper on the proposals submitted to the Legislative Council does not even make a distinction between English-medium and Chinese-medium, as if the difference does not matter. That is probably because they know there is nothing they can do about it, barring a change of the medium of instruction policy.
Most secondary schools were compelled to teach in Chinese from 1998 on the grounds that mother-tongue teaching is best for most students. Public examination scores have since shown that students at Chinese-medium schools that used to teach in English are performing better. By and large, their English scores have remained at about the same level achieved before the language switch.
But the city is yet to be convinced that students can become proficient in English by learning it as a subject at Chinese-medium schools, as opposed to using it all the time at English-medium ones.
Policymakers need to continue to strengthen English teaching at all levels. The current policy is aimed at protecting students who have yet to acquire a threshold level of English from being harmed by having to use it to learn other subjects.
Hopefully, when enhanced teaching of English in primary schools begins to bear fruit over time, more students should have adequate English to use it as the medium of instruction in secondary schools. Alternatively, more Chinese-medium schools will have shown that through improved teaching, their students can also study and work effectively in English when they switch to that language in upper secondary school or university.
So far, the jury is still out.