Keep classroom battle out of court
A lobby group for ethnic minorities' rights has shelved for the time being plans to take the Education Bureau to court in its fight to get Chinese language teaching for their children. Hong Kong Unison has an argument, at least, on equality grounds. Educational disadvantage can translate into life-long inequality of opportunity. But legal action under the anti-racial discrimination law passed in 2008 should be a last resort. It would be a lengthy and expensive business and whether a uniform local education system discriminates on grounds of race is debatable. The group has wisely opted to fully explore the processes of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and to cling to hope that a new administration to take office in six months will look at the issue again.
That said, Unison's frustration over an unsympathetic hearing from Chief Secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung and education officials last week is understandable. The government's line remains that it is doing enough following an EOC report last July accusing the bureau of failing to implement the government's integrated education policy. The bureau said at the time it would work with the commission to offer more support to non-Chinese students. It remains to be seen whether it is co-operating enough to forestall the commission's stated willingness to use its own powers if the bureau did not follow up on its recommendations, which could mean it will launch an inquiry or even a court action of its own.
Talk of court action by Hong Kong Unison to force the government to provide adequate educational opportunity for minorities may be premature, but it reflects the frustration of families and students. Effective teaching of Chinese surely should be instrumental in the integration of a claimed 14,000 ethnic minority students into the local education system. Language difficulties can be reflected in overall results and in opportunities for educational and career advancement. Even in schools designated for them, many ethnic minority students and their parents say they feel part of a disadvantaged majority.
The city can ill-afford the waste of human resources and risk to social harmony implicit in educational disadvantage. We are, after all, a multicultural society that likes to think that diversity adds to our competitive edge. We hear a well-orchestrated clamour for more international school places for the children of expatriate businessmen and professionals, and for an increase in the English Schools Foundation's HK$280 million-plus public subsidy. A fraction of that would make a difference if it were spent on Chinese teaching for other minorities who, unlike many expatriates, make their home here. The commission's suggestion of pre-primary language programmes and separate curriculum and assessment remain worth considering.