Language-skills gap breeds class division
Exactly 10 years ago today, this newspaper carried a story by a young reporter called Shirley Kwok. She looked forward a decade and imagined a Hong Kong where education had gone through big reforms and primary-school pupils 'all speak fluently with their teachers in both English and Putonghua'.
It was, as she wrote, a dream. A lot has changed since 1999 - Ms Kwok, for example, now works for me. But despite a lot of work and reform, our education system still falls short of what we think we need. We still worry that Hong Kong is losing competitiveness because of young people's weak language and critical-thinking skills.
Education reforms take years to have an effect. A new academic structure for senior secondary level will be introduced this September; full results will be seen when the first students graduate from four-year degree courses after 2015. The mother-tongue teaching policy introduced 10 years ago was controversial. But we can now see that children learn more when they are taught in a language they can actually speak.
The recent proposal to fine-tune the medium of instruction policy aims to allow greater use of English where teachers and students can handle it. But it also reflects a major problem caused by the labelling of schools as English- or Chinese-medium. To market themselves to status-conscious parents, many schools want the former label.
Although Hong Kong people are very sensitive about such labels on schools, it seems they could be paying far more attention to the quality - rather than language - of the teaching that goes on inside them.
In international surveys, Hong Kong students rank with those in Japan and South Korea around the top in mathematics and science, while they are weaker when it comes to language (Finland is first). This probably reflects the East Asian emphasis on rote learning; whatever the reason, it is not a bad thing to have highly numerate young people coming out of our schools.
We seem to take this success for granted. But many of us, especially politicians and those in the business community, are less happy about our students' creative thinking and communication skills. Perhaps we worry about poor English more than we did 10 years ago.
Writers on these pages in recent weeks have strongly criticised the English syllabus, textbooks and exam-centred approach. They say that students' English is bad for the simple reason that it is taught as an academic subject - words and complex rules to be memorised in order to pass exams. We teach communication as if it were algebra.
In a small number of schools with bright children, rich parents, superb teachers and a wide range of extracurricular activities, a highly academic approach can produce excellent results. But most people in Hong Kong have little hope of getting their children into 'elite' schools.
Many people who can afford it send their children to local international schools or overseas schools, where medium of instruction isn't an issue. That leaves the large number of parents who are less well-off and have no choice. They have to send their children to local schools.
Some such schools could handle more English, if their teachers are skilled and dedicated (many are) and if the students are up to it. But this is not always the case.
Years of talk and of actual reforms have left teachers feeling exhausted by change and extra administrative work. Many complain of a high workload and too few resources. Yet these schools are still largely focused on rote learning, cramming and exams. Does anyone really believe that the dream of biliterate, trilingual students can become a reality in these schools?
This is not just a problem for business- people wanting skilled workers; it is about class division, social mobility, the wealth gap and the chances of thousands of young people to enjoy fulfilling future lives.
Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils