Call for evidence in language debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am

Unions warn against rumours, speculation

The leaders of the two main teaching unions this week called for a more systematic and evidence-based approach to improving the teaching of English in Chinese-medium secondary schools.

The heads of both the Professional Teachers' Union and the Federation of Education Workers have also warned secondary schools against 'rumours and speculation' about major changes to the medium-of-instruction policy.

'Three-quarters of secondary-schools are Chinese medium,' said federation chairman Wong Kwan-yu. 'The most important question we are facing is how to raise the quality of English-teaching in these schools.

'We hear a lot of empty slogans but little in terms of practical directions on what to do in the classroom.'

Mr Wong said the Education Bureau needed to play a more active role in providing guidance.

'They just give the money but leave it to the school to work it out for themselves,' he said. 'There needs to be more solid research carried out.'

PTU president Cheung Man-kwong echoed his comments and called on the bureau to act as a conduit to transmit ideas between schools. 'At the moment there seems to be no way to spread good language-learning practices,' Mr Cheung said. 'There is a lot of focus on the use of native English-speaking teachers, but there is only so much one NET can achieve.'

The calls come as a study was released by Tsang Wing-kwong, professor of education at Chinese University of Hong Kong, which found students at Chinese-medium schools performed poorer in English and were only half as likely to gain a university place compared to those at English-medium schools.

However, the eight-year study, which followed students who entered Form One in 1998 and 1999 - the first two years of the mother-tongue policy - also found students in Chinese-medium schools outperformed those in English-medium schools in science and social science subjects, where they demonstrated 30 per cent and 20 per cent more improvement respectively.

There was little or no difference in their maths and Chinese abilities.

There has been widespread speculation recently about the possible adjustments the Education Bureau could make to the new medium of instruction policy, after Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung announced last November he would consult on possible 'fine-tuning' ahead of its implementation.

Unattributed reports in Chinese media have suggested possible adjustment under the bureau's consideration include giving schools freedom to choose the language of instruction on a subject-by-subject basis or relaxing the requirements for schools to teach in English.

But the PTU president said schools seemed to be talking themselves into believing there would be a major policy shift.

'The more schools talk about this, the greater the change they think there is going to be,' Mr Cheung said. 'I have spoken with both [Permanent Secretary for Education] Raymond Wong Hung-chiu and Mr Suen and they have assured me that there will be no change to the core concept.'

The federation, which met with Mr Suen on Monday, issued a stern warning against lowering the threshold for secondary schools to continue teaching in English.

Mr Wong said he believed schools should only be allowed to switch from English medium to using Chinese, but not the other way around.

'Increasing the number of English-medium schools would accentuate the labelling effect and put greater pressure on Chinese-medium schools in attracting students,' he said, adding that secondary schools were now facing problems related to declining enrolments.

The new medium-of-instruction policy - due to be implemented in secondary schools in 2010 - was set out in December 2005, following extensive consultation and often heated debate among schools.