Partnership of equals
The government has finally come up with a modified policy on the medium of instruction for secondary schools, known as 'fine-tuning' arrangements. While parents groups and some schools welcome the change, the new policy has been decried as a sell-out by some teacher and educational bodies, including the Association of Chinese Secondary Schools, whose committee resigned in protest.
Our schools have been agonising over the medium of instruction for several decades. While parents agree that their children may learn more effectively through mother-tongue teaching, most still prefer English-medium education of some kind. Schools know this well, too.
The enforcement of the mother-tongue policy for secondary schools in 1998 was met with a huge uproar from schools and parents alike. Many accused the government of jeopardising students' future with one administrative stroke.
By allowing an exception - 112 'elite' schools could be English-medium ones - the policy created a divided system of two language streams, serving ironically to denigrate Chinese instead of enhancing it. Recent studies have also found that Chinese-medium students are disadvantaged when competing for admission to local universities, which mainly teach in English.
Parents want change. Employers attribute youngsters' declining English competency to the mother-tongue policy. Many Chinese-medium schools want to switch to English to recruit better students. These forces have to be reckoned with.
Officially, the government still believes in the advantage of students learning in their mother tongue. However, it also accepts the importance of giving them more exposure to English and enhancing their ability to learn in English through an enriched environment. This may or may not be to the detriment of Chinese; it depends on whether the community can get out of the binary trap. By abolishing the distinction between English- and Chinese-medium schools, all schools can now decide for themselves the right mix of English- and Chinese-medium lessons, based on their pedagogical needs and with reference to their students' ability to learn and their teachers' readiness to teach in English.
Existing English- and Chinese-medium schools can simply stay put; there is no government pressure to force the latter to use English but, admittedly, there is market demand to do so. So, in practice, a spectrum of school modes is likely to exist.
Most schools will take up a policy of flexibility and adopt varying percentages of English teaching - whether up to 25 per cent of total lesson time across subjects or, as the fine-tuning allows, converting such a percentage into one or two wholly English-taught, non-language subjects. Still, the policy treats the mother tongue as the default language, and English as 'supplementary'.
There is nothing wrong with this in policy design. But problems arise from the potential moral hazards of schools facing competition for better students within the context of a falling student population.
If parents overwhelmingly prefer English-medium education for their children, then schools may be forced to switch to more English in class, even though their students and teachers may not be fully competent to learn and teach in English, thus creating a classroom nightmare.
Both school management and parents face a test of will and choice. If parents, as some critics of fine-tuning claim, really support mother-tongue education, then there is no worry about moral hazards. However, detractors fear that, behind the criticism, the opposite is actually true. This is the real 'devil' that we as a society must tackle in policy implementation.
Why don't the various stakeholders put aside the rhetorical disputes and concentrate on action? By all means, let schools and parents unite to keep Chinese as the main medium of instruction at the junior-secondary level, but take advantage of the new flexibility and the government's supplementary resources to help lift students' standard of English.
At the end of the day, we should groom a future generation of Hongkongers who are truly bilingual. We should not see English as superior to Chinese. Both are the leading lingua franca of this century.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education