Language policy due for another shake-up
It is one of the most fundamental questions facing the local education system: should secondary school students be taught in English or Chinese? And although most people involved - from parents to teachers to government officials - may feel the answer is pretty obvious, they don't tend to agree on which one it is. The issue, which had seemed settled since 2005 following an extensive review and highly contentious consultation process, is now firmly back on the political agenda.
Eight days ago, Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung gave his strongest hint yet that the medium-of-instruction policy was in line for a significant rethink.
Mr Suen has been consulting with secondary school bodies on the policy since November. That's when he announced plans for a review ahead of the introduction of new rules governing which language schools could use in the classroom, due to come into force in 2010.
Those rules, the result of the 2005 consultation, were to retain the strict distinction between English-medium secondary schools and Chinese-medium schools, a product of the mother-tongue education policy introduced in 1998.
Schools had been told they would need to ensure that at least 85 per cent of their Form One intake was in the top 40 per cent of students - the group deemed capable of learning in English - if they were to continue using English in classes.
However, last week Mr Suen said he was keen to exercise greater flexibility in how the policy would be enforced, and hinted he was open to allowing language streaming according to class or subject within individual schools.
Mr Suen spoke of an 'objective and transparent' mechanism for allowing schools to determine their teaching language. He did not give details about what form that mechanism might take or exactly what sort of flexibility schools might be given, saying that a final decision would be made by the summer break.
The move has been broadly welcomed by the education sector, where many had viewed the split between English-medium and Chinese-medium schools - which runs at least to the end of Form Three, though most schools switch to teaching largely in English by the time students reach Form Six - as being overly simplistic and deeply divisive.
Tsang Wing-kwong, professor of education at Chinese University, said he believed the current system was fraught with 'paradoxes and contradictions'.
'Continuing to cut the school system in two will not solve the problem,' he said. 'It will only intensify these contradictions over time.'
A predominantly Cantonese-speaking local community coupled with a global economy which worked mainly in English, and the growing need for people also to be competent in Putonghua, meant the education system was often being pulled in three directions at once, he said.
Professor Tsang conducted a tracking study of the first cohort of students admitted to Form One after the introduction of the mother-tongue policy. It found students in Chinese-medium schools initially scored better in subjects like sciences and social studies, but the gap narrowed as they progressed through school.
'By the time they got to A-levels, the EMI students had caught up,' he said.
His research also showed the labelling effect had a negative impact on students' academic performance and also affected them psychologically.
'Students in CMI schools were less motivated to learn English,' he said. 'This was also true of the better students. In the whole secondary curriculum, English stands out as the one subject they do not understand, the only thing they find really difficult. As a result they give up more easily.' The resulting lack of self-esteem meant they tended to set lower career and life goals than EMI students.
Giving students with sufficient language ability more opportunities to use English in school was likely to have a positive effect on their future prospects, he said, provided efforts were made to ensure a high standard of teaching.
'If these students are to go on to university, there has to be a switch of teaching language at some point. Research clearly shows that it is more effective if it occurs earlier in secondary school rather than being rushed in the last two years,' he said.
Michael Wong Wai-yu, chairman of the Aided Secondary School Heads' Association, said he and other school representatives met with Mr Suen this week to discuss how the policy might change.
'He said he wanted to give schools some discretion,' Mr Wong said. 'He did not give details as to [how] exactly that would happen, but he did say we would need to meet certain criteria.'
Schools would need to demonstrate that the students in each class were capable of learning effectively in English, the teacher was qualified to teach in the language and there was a support system in place for supervision.
Mr Wong is principal of Rhenish Church Pang Hok-ko Memorial College, a Chinese-medium school in Kowloon Tong.
'Even so, a certain proportion of our students are from the top 40 per cent, the EMI-capable band,' he said. 'If what we guess is right and we are allowed to stream for different languages, then we might be able to have four classes learning in English and one in Chinese. That is much fairer on the students.'
Rosalind Chan Lo-sai, chairwoman of the Association of English Medium Secondary Schools, which represents the 112 aided schools authorised to teach in English from Form One, said it was sensible to adjust the rules.
'EMI schools only account for about 20 per cent of the student population,' Ms Chan said. 'Even if all of those are from the EMI-capable group, that means half of the students who are good enough to learn in English cannot, because there are no schools for them.'
Ms Chan said that over time it was likely there would be a blurring of the distinction between Chinese-medium and English-medium schools.
'I feel there will always be a bit of a mixture of languages in all Hong Kong schools,' she said. 'Students will naturally talk in Cantonese during break time, and even a number of traditional EMI schools prefer to use Chinese for a number of classes, such as physical education and religious studies. I hope there will always be a strong group of English-medium schools in Hong Kong.'
The division between English and Chinese-medium schools was made in 1998, when the government introduced the mother-tongue education policy and set the goal for all students to attain biliteracy and trilingualism - able to read and write Chinese and English and converse in Cantonese, Putonghua and English.
The government had previously adopted a laissez-faire approach to the teaching language since the 1970s, with most schools claiming to teach in English. In reality, the lack of qualified teachers meant the majority either taught mostly in Cantonese or in 'mixed code', a jumbled mixture of the two.
Coming almost directly after the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, the policy shift has been commonly perceived as a political decision. In truth, the debate had been going on since the early 1980s.
When the policy finally came into force, all but 114 secondary schools were banned from using English other than in language classes between Form One and Form Three. The situation remains largely unchanged, notwithstanding the emergence of direct-subsidy scheme schools, which have a degree of freedom over their choice of teaching language.
The current policy shift appears, on the face of it, to go against the recommendations of the 2005 commission, whose report was officially adopted as policy by then education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung.
That working group, headed by Michael Tien Pak-sun, chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, had rejected the concept of streaming within schools. Speaking after Mr Suen's announcement, Mr Tien defended his report's findings and denied its core philosophy was being thrown out.
'We were the first to propose an objective test to determine who should be taught in English,' Mr Tien said. 'Basically you are faced with a choice, either you segregate the schools or you segregate classes.'
The working group had originally wanted to allow streaming within schools, which, he said, was 'a more idealistic approach'. However, during the course of its research the team decided there were too many practical concerns, including assessment, maintaining standards and increasing teachers' workload, which had been a key issue at the time.
'If the government feels it can overcome those constraints ... then there is no problem with streaming within schools,' he said.