Promising compromise on English instruction
Having a predominantly Chinese-speaking society that places a high market value on proficiency in English presents a predicament to Hong Kong's education authorities. The environment makes it very difficult for native speakers to master English. And proposed solutions have always involved imperfect compromises. The latest is the decision to allow Chinese-medium secondary schools to teach some classes in English, while preserving the central aim of the mother-tongue policy.
In the past, it was accepted that all subjects, except Chinese language and Chinese history, should be taught in English from Form One. Schools were allowed to do so without oversight - often with disastrous results as many students were ill-equipped to learn in a foreign tongue. The introduction of the mother-tongue education policy in 1998 aimed to make learning easier for local students and to achieve more egalitarian outcomes. Under the policy, only schools in which at least 85 per cent of the students have been judged capable of learning in English are allowed to use the language as the medium of instruction. Such schools represent a quarter of the total; the remainder are required to teach in Chinese.
But the well-intentioned policy does not meet parents' demand for English-language education for their children. Contrary to its aim, the policy has actually enhanced the status of English-medium schools and unfairly stigmatised Chinese-medium ones. As a result, it is socially divisive. A decade after it was launched, the mother-tongue policy has also been blamed for an alleged decline in English skills among the younger generation, although there is no consensus among experts on whether it is the real cause.
The fine-tuning announced last week by Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung, which could be introduced by the 2009-10 school year, would see a modification of the policy. Instead of strict streaming, schools will be allowed to stream their students internally according to their English-language abilities. Under the refined policy, many Chinese-medium schools will be expected to teach some students in English and others in Chinese. The Education Bureau will tell schools how many English-medium Form One classes they can run, based on how much of their intake is capable of learning in English. Any increase in the number of such classes in Form Two will depend on students' progress in English proficiency in Form One.
English-medium schools tend to take the most academically inclined students and prepare them for higher education. Their status as elite institutions will not be affected by the new policy, but many Chinese-medium schools and their students will 'benefit' from being able to run some classes in English. Social divisions will remain, but they should become less acute.
While the new policy will satisfy parental demand, it raises practical and operational problems by having two streams under the same roof, being taught by the same staff. Local schools have only a limited number of teachers. The authorities need to carefully assess any additional workload and be ready to offer help where needed.
Whatever changes are implemented, the welfare of students must come first. Transparent professional standards must be maintained for teachers assigned to teach in English, and pupils must meet objective benchmarks to qualify for increased instruction in the language. The challenge lies in devising a scheme that both refines the mother-tongue policy and is educationally sound.