'Quick fix' no solution for language policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 June, 2008, 12:00am

Expert says not enough time to resolve all issues

Tinkering with the medium-of- instruction policy is a thorny issue that defies a quick fix, a member of the group that drafted the current policy has warned the government.

'They will find that this gets increasingly complicated the more you talk about it,' said Cheung Kwok-wah, assistant professor of education at the University of Hong Kong.

Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung is consulting with school groups on ways to 'fine-tune' the policy ahead of new rules - set down by Dr Cheung's group - to come into force next year.

Mr Suen has said he aims to remove the rigid distinction between English-medium and Chinese-medium schools, which critics say creates a negative labelling effect.

He has promised to deliver his final report ahead of the summer break, but Dr Cheung said he doubted it would be possible to iron out all the issues in time.

'They are due to discuss this in the Legislative Council on July 17. I don't know how they are going to be able to resolve everything in less than 20 days,' Dr Cheung said.

Following a meeting between Mr Suen and school groups on Wednesday, the bureau was now 'willing to consider' allowing schools to teach some subjects entirely in English, regardless of their students' ability in the language.

This was in response to a request from school groups to give them complete flexibility over the teaching language in a quarter of class time.

The 25 per cent threshold had already been floated to allow Chinese-medium schools to teach lessons in English across the curriculum.

Some school groups at the meeting equated the bureau's comments to tacit agreement to allow them to set their own language policy.

However, a bureau spokeswoman said that even if adopted, this would not give schools carte blanche.

'There would be a credible quality assurance mechanism,' she said, adding that one option would be to have language plans vetted by a three-way panel involving the bureau, school management and an independent academic.

Dr Cheung was a member of the working group, headed by Michael Tien Puk-sun, that conducted the first extensive review of the medium-of-instruction policy following the introduction of mother-tongue education in 1998.

The group delivered its final recommendations in December 2005, which were subsequently adopted wholesale as government policy.

The report rejected calls for class streaming and setting language policy by subject, ruling instead that schools would need to maintain 85 per cent of their Form One intake coming from the top 40 per cent of students in order to teach in English.

Dr Cheung admitted the current discussion appeared 'very different' from the group's proposals, but stopped short of calling it a complete rethink.

He said any move to allow schools to stream classes and have different subjects taught in different languages 'creates a whole range of administrative difficulties'.

It was 'very important' a monitoring body was in place to ensure schools' policies were professional.

Tai Hay-lap, principal of Yan Oi Tong Tin Ka Ping Secondary School, Tuen Mun, and another member of the working group, said he still had doubts about the effectiveness of teaching a few subjects in English.

'Most schools would opt for maths and science, as they are seen to have a lower language loading, but the teachers tend not to have a very high standard of English.'

Rosalind Chan Lo-sai, chairwoman of the English Medium Schools Association, said even weaker students would benefit from more exposure to English. 'It could be that if you taught a world history class in Chinese, students might learn 10 things about the Romans and they would learn four if taught in English. I think many parents might be quite happy to compromise some subject learning for the sake of better English.'