Lessons to be learned from a return to English
Even with big changes under way in the structure of school education, the language of instruction remains a primary concern for many parents. This week, they have voted with their feet after a significant relaxation of the mother-tongue policy that has divided the community. Schools switching from Chinese to teaching in English from September have been flooded with applications for Form One discretionary places. That was to be expected. The switch is a response to strong and sustained parent demand for an English-language education.
Sixteen schools now teaching in Chinese will switch to teaching entirely in English. Another 80 will adopt a mixed approach - using Chinese for humanities subjects and English for science subjects. As a result, 199 schools - or nearly half the city's secondary schools - will be teaching entirely or mainly in English.
In a perfect world parents have the right to choose what kind of education their children will have. In our public system the basic right to an education takes precedence, and choice of what kind is often limited by intense competition for places at preferred schools, or financial means.
In Hong Kong's unique historical circumstances, this has presented parents with a dilemma, both before and after the government ordered all but selected secondary schools to switch the medium of instruction from English to Chinese in 1998. They have had limited or, in practice, more often no choice in which of two official languages their children are to be educated - the mother tongue or the de facto world language of English. For many, the educational and cultural benefits of the former came at the price of the worldly benefits of the latter. The relaxation of the 1998 order has introduced a measure of freedom of choice, albeit imperfect, which addresses that dilemma and is therefore to be applauded.
It has been driven by parents. It remains to be seen how much further they drive schools back to English. That could become a concern. A Chinese-language education retains a lot of support, and indeed Chinese fluency should be a key goal of any policy. But critics of the change fear it is the first nail in the coffin for the mother tongue in schools.
Officials must strive as far as possible to preserve freedom of choice. The public has always been divided over the introduction of the mother-tongue policy. There is no question that learning in one's own language has education benefits - for example, in efficient transmission and processing of information, and building confidence in a classroom environment. It also came to be pushed as a means of protecting young people who have difficulty learning in English.
But in the end the market value of English has prevailed. The public remained sceptical about officials' claims that children could acquire good English by taking it as a subject at a Chinese-medium school. Mastering English is seen to be all about getting ahead. Indeed, the language is often the key to a good career and a bridge to the outside world, as evidenced in many job advertisements.
That said, if secondary schools find the parent-driven trend back to English irresistible, the government has a duty to see that no student capable of an English or bilingual secondary education is denied the opportunity through lack of resources. That will call for a big investment in recruitment and training of teachers, and from primary school upwards.