Be careful what you wish for in education

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 January, 2009, 12:00am

Language is for communication. It's the primary vehicle for our thoughts; the wellspring from which discovery and self-discovery are made. Yet, our public education system perversely relegates learning activities that promote such primary purposes, rooted in human nature, to after-school, extra-curricular classes, if at all.

In Hong Kong, the primary reason for studying Chinese and English is to do well in exams. It was so when I was in school here in the 1970s. It is so now when I put my son in the same so-called elite school from which I graduated. (My wife and I withdrew him after one year and put him in a small but excellent international school and he now walks to classes with a spring in his step.) The reason why our pupils master Chinese is that we live in a Chinese-speaking community; their mastery owes far less to the schools than the community. It is for the same reason that many do poorly in English.

Ten years ago, the government under then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa made what many took to be a political decision and forced most schools to switch to teaching in Chinese. The switch, a key part of the failed education reform, was only political in the sense that there was a confluence, or an impetus, for change among educators, language specialists and policymakers after the handover. The decision was in fact the outcome of decades of research, policy debates and cultural shift, dating back to the late 1970s. Its intention was good and its aims educationally and scientifically sound.

Its real problem was that it was brought about against the wishes of parents and the entrenched interests of schools. If you want a political decision, it is the one that has just been announced last week by the government. It will effectively kill native-tongue education, which henceforth will continue in name only. All the new rules that the government has put in place - to safeguard unqualified schools with ill-prepared students to make wholesale switches to English instruction - are impossible to monitor and impose. The government knows it; they are there because the government needs to keep up appearances that it supports mother-tongue teaching.

Like everything else with this government, it essentially gives the people what they want, provided they make loud enough noises. Since it has no democratic mandate and it lacks authoritarian power, it does not and cannot lead. The same goes with its education policy. Therefore, we are essentially back to the way it was with schools before the handover.

Many teachers will end up teaching English classes in Chinese and/or broken English. Qualified or not, they will be under pressure from their school principals and parents to teach more and more subjects in English. The government's U-turn on language-of-instruction policy will not solve any problems about declining language standards, the labelling effects of academic underachievers and an exam-oriented educational culture - problems which native-tongue teaching aims to tackle. In fact, they will only make them worse. But that will no longer be the government's problem.

Forget about those convoluted switching rules about requiring percentages of students in the top 40 per cent of English exam scores, distributing instruction time in English for classes in different subjects, and the like. No one can monitor them properly and the rules are unenforceable, anyway. Effectively, most schools will be free to make the decision to switch to English, ready or not, with the full support of most parents. So, from now on, if there is failure, it will be the fault of schools and parents. We can't blame the government, which is just giving us what we want.

I only feel sorry for the students who will underperform and lose interest in school because of the ignorance of parents, the vested interests of teachers and the lack of leadership from the government. I know how they feel. I was once one of them.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post