English policy will need more than just fine-tuning

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am

Last week, the secretary for education put forward a proposal to fine-tune the medium of instruction policy for secondary schools, with effect from the 2010/11 school year.

Under the scheme, schools where at least 17 in 20 Form One pupils are in the top 40 per cent of their age group will be allowed to decide whether to teach in English or Chinese. Schools that do not meet that criteria can use English for up to 25 per cent of teaching - in subjects other than languages - to promote 'extended learning activities'.

The proposal would allow 80 Chinese-medium schools (in addition to the existing 100 or so English-medium schools) to run classes in English.

So far, it has received mixed reactions from the education sector. The fact that more students would be able to learn in English will be a relief to many parents who believe it will improve their children's English standard. Concern has also been expressed about exactly how schools will implement the proposal.

As the former secretary for education who implemented the medium-of-instruction policy 10 years ago, I would like to point out that the policy has met its primary objective. That was to improve the quality of education in subjects previously taught in English by unqualified teachers to students of lesser ability.

The proof can be found in the improvements in exam results for non-English subjects. Some Chinese-medium schools have also produced students who do equally well in the subject of English, with additional support. But, despite these results, most Chinese-medium schools continue to complain about the policy's negative labelling effect. Many parents still attribute the drop in their children's English standards to the loss of English-medium teaching.

Today, all schools have been given more support in the learning of English, such as through the provision of native-English-speaking teachers. Given this overall improvement, there is a case for allowing schools more flexibility in English-medium teaching. But this should be done with the full understanding and support of the stakeholders, parents included. With this in mind, I would like to make three suggestions.

First, I welcome the government's statement that it will adhere to the English-qualification requirements for teachers using English-medium teaching, as set out in the 2005 Education Commission (EC) report. But, in my view, the requirement - for example grade C or above in HKCEE English -should be the minimum threshold. The HKCEE is not a professional examination for teachers, and the oral test is only one aspect of the assessment in the English exam. The government has already committed to providing more resources for English-medium teachers. It should encourage or require these teachers to attend and pass training courses specifically designed for teaching in English.

Second, the government has stated in the paper submitted to the Legislative Council that schools will be required to keep parents well informed of their choice of medium of instruction for teaching individual subjects, and whether extended learning activities will be conducted.

But, in the press briefing, the secretary for education reportedly said that schools would not be required to publicise the number of classes they will teach in English, to avoid parents judging schools only on their medium of instruction. This is not acceptable. Parents have the right to know how their children will be affected. The government should issue clear guidelines to ensure that schools disclose all detailed arrangements.

Parents' support is vital for the policy to succeed. So my third suggestion is that schools running English-medium classes for the first time should allow parents to observe how they are being conducted. The fine-tuning policy is not a U-turn. But the government must ensure the flexibility given to schools is not abused.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong