Mother-tongue policy needs more flexibility
Ask any group of parents whether they support mother-tongue teaching, and many may say they do. But in reality, the vast majority will opt for English-medium schools for their children if they can. They may support the idea of native-tongue teaching, but most have simply rejected the government's decade-old policy of mandatory Chinese-language teaching for most secondary schools.
This is why the minority of schools that teach in English are most sought after by parents; their prestige is paradoxically enhanced by the very policy that aims to encourage mother-tongue instruction. The academic and social standing of many Chinese-medium schools has, unfairly, been diminished. And as legislator Tsang Yok-sing has pointed out in an opinion piece on the opposite page, the findings of a recent Chinese University study will only worsen the growing gap between the two types of schools.
By tracking students who entered secondary school in 1998 and 1999 - the first two years of the mother-tongue policy - the eight-year study finds students at Chinese schools had poorer English skills and were only half as likely to gain university entry compared with their peers at English-medium schools. Most parents probably have not read this study, but they have already drawn a similar conclusion. Since the list of English-medium schools is to be revised soon, the study will add to growing pressure from parents to fundamentally alter or even scrap the mother-tongue teaching policy.
However, scrapping it would be a major step backward. There is no indication that it is even being considered, despite rumours in some teaching circles. English being a foreign language, most students are simply better off - from a cognitive standpoint - learning subjects in their native tongue. But however compelling the arguments for mother-tongue teaching may be, the reality is that English has a high market value in Hong Kong. The desire of parents for schools to teach their children in English is, therefore, wholly practical. By forcing most schools to teach in Chinese, the government's mother-tongue policy fails to meet this demand.
What is most controversial about the policy has always been its mandatory nature: it's either English- or Chinese-medium, leaving little leeway for schools. This needs to be changed. As a start, officials should set directions, general goals and best practices. But they need to introduce greater flexibility to allow schools to decide how best to achieve them.
Chinese-medium schools should be allowed to choose to teach some subjects in English and identify students who have the language competence to benefit from extra English instruction. What is important is that permission be granted based on professional considerations. Benchmarks should be set to pick out qualified teachers who can teach in English. Objective standards are also needed to choose students with the required English-language skills. These are necessary because a Chinese school's desire to teach in English may outstrip its ability to do so. Schools in the same neighbourhood and those with institutional ties should be encouraged to pool their resources, such as sharing qualified teachers and students.
Fundamentally, the sharp distinction between Chinese- and English-medium schools should be increasingly blurred for those who have satisfied benchmarks for English instruction. Hong Kong needs a more flexible mother-tongue policy to produce a trilingual workforce competent in Cantonese, Putonghua and English.