• Thu
  • Jul 31, 2014
  • Updated: 4:44am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Hong Kong's native-speaking English teacher scheme needs an overhaul

Philip Yeung believes native-speaking English teachers will be at their most effective in raising students' language ability if they are given more support and training, and cultural exchange is encouraged

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 12:29pm

The native-speaking English teacher (NET) scheme has been a part of our local public school system for the past 15 years. It has grown into a HK$710 million, 900-strong operation, complete with its own mini-bureaucracy.

Despite the trappings of a fully fledged scheme, it has within it pockets of immaturity. Periodically, there are rumblings of complaint from both sides. Sweep these differences under the rug, and the programme may never live up to its promise.

The scheme was born of a desire to give our public schools a more English-rich environment. That is the narrower goal. The wider perspective is that we need fresh thinking in our system. Ideally, native English teachers can function as change agents. But change is a bridge too far if catalysts are few and far between.

Native English teachers used to have to split their time between several schools. Now each school has its own. But having one teacher per school, offering a single 35-minute English lesson per week, is like trying to douse a wild fire with a bucket of water. As the Cantonese saying goes, "you can't clap with one hand"; a single teacher can't produce the desired ripple effect. Acting alone, and subject to the vagaries of the system, the teacher's style is seriously cramped.

The figure of HK$710 million sounds like a lot of money, but spread so thinly, it tapers into a half-measure. At-risk schools need more than just a token foreign teacher. They deserve a critical mass, especially if they have cut their teeth on transforming students from challenged backgrounds.

Our education system is splintered. We have a full spectrum of schools, from the private to the public, and everything in between. Sadly, there is little traffic between them. Each school, whatever its pigeonhole, tends to do its own thing. They regard other schools either with apathy or a mild competitive antipathy.

If there is little inter-school co-operation, there is even less inter-system relationship. That is why the new chief executive of the English Schools Foundation, Belinda Greer, comes to us like a breath of fresh air. For the first time, the ESF's head is reaching out to local schools by offering to share its proven pedagogy and best practices. The government should take her up on the offer, with native English teachers perhaps being the go-between.

In return, it should rescind its decision to phase out the ESF subsidy, which may price out many mid-level expatriates attracted to this global city. With this partnership, the ESF would no longer be just another self-absorbed international school system. Native English teachers could also participate in the 80 professional development activities for ESF teachers. Together, they might just create public education's "perfect storm", and a partnership unique in world education.

To induct new entrants, there should be less focus on the mundane mechanics of "living in Hong Kong", such as how to open a bank account, and more on understanding what makes local teachers tick. The yawning cultural gap between locals and foreigners cannot be ignored. Both should leave their own comfort zone and befriend the other. Bear in mind that local teachers who don't appear forthcoming may only be shy or linguistically challenged. For the 15 per cent attrition rate to drop, native English teachers should be encouraged to embrace their local colleagues, if not the local culture.

Typically, local principals accuse NETs of avoiding paperwork, including correcting exercises. Coming from educational systems with an anti-clerical tradition, the teachers' logic is that people don't become teachers in order to be clerks.

Meanwhile, poor local teachers spend about one-third of their time doing paperwork and writing reports that nobody reads. But native English teachers must face the fact that, in this exam-driven environment, correcting exercises is a necessary evil. Granted, a school system where paperwork proliferates is a system that has veered from education's true purpose.

Native English teachers' greater challenge is to help students cross the cultural divide. Language education is never just about language alone, for language is a carrier of culture. The local curriculum is almost devoid of cultural content through reading, the strong suit of these teachers.

Trawling the internet with students for stories or articles that are entertaining or educational, or for lyrics of English folk songs, and sharing English-language movies with students, are all part of teaching them to grow an English tongue, if not an English heart. To deliver the scheme's promise, native-speaking English teachers need to get English into the students' bloodstream. Its practitioners must exploit their art and ancillary resources to the full.

Philip Yeung is co-founder of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English and former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. pky480@gmail.com


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This article is now closed to comments

I am a native of Britain where I gained a degree and a teaching certificate. I taught in a number of countries before arriving in Hong Kong as a NET sixteen years ago. I don't think its fair to say that most of us are employed here because we can't get jobs in our chosen field. Most of us are fully qualified English teachers and most of us have taught in a variety of different environments. We teach because we love it.
Yesterday I was told by a local English teaching colleague that 'He jumped higher than anyone else' was grammatically incorrect and that I should have written 'He jumped more high than anyone else'. Today I have been told that my English is unnatural, coming as it does from a native speaking environment which is changing with the times. I have adopted 'Hong Konger' as a noun into my normal usage and 'whatsapp' as a verb, which my local colleagues refuse to do.
I agree that the NET scheme as it is at the moment is a waste of public money. We are a drop in the ocean. The standard of English in Hong Kong is declining and nothing is being done to challenge that. NETs can leave. What will happen to local people, with neither proficient English nor Putonghua?
The NET Scheme is a bit more than a drop in a bucket, but it's certainly not enough. The author is quite right that one teacher spread out over 36 classes is not going to have a large effect on the learning outcomes. Drop that down to 12 classes and you'll start to see substantive results.
Right now, how effective the NET scheme is depends on how each individual school uses the resource given it. Some spread the appointed NET's time too thin, minimizing the benefit. Others concentrate the NET's efforts on one area, which, depending on how the program is administered, can make a difference.
Unfortunately, the goal of NETs as an agent of change is unlikely to be met as things are. Sure, some skills are transferred, improving the quality of local teachers, and some schools (such as the one I teach at) do make use of ideas and suggestions the NET makes. But even the most skilled, qualified, experienced NET cannot bring change to schools when the policymakers and decision makers choose to continue ineffective practices and programs.
What the NET Scheme gives gives HK schools right now is a well trained teacher with the advantages of native language competence in the classroom. It's a good start, but one teacher is not a magic bullet.
Hong Kong schools need more teachers with both the language skills and teaching skills of experienced NETs, not less, but more importantly, the scheme needs to have a greater hand in shaping school policy.
Dai Muff
No one who has been in a typical classroom with local English language teachers would say that.
"Mary had a little lamBBBBB."
Mr. Lam (pslhk)
Were your children turned down by the ESF? Couldn't afford the fees?
Did a NET teacher punish you for not handing in your homework once-upon-a-time?
Are you still hurt? Ahhhhh, poor little fella...
1. the standard of english in hk is doomed, that much is certain. everyone is abandoning english for putonghua, and they're bad at that too..!
2. local hk-ers are basically just bad at languages except cantonese.....they feel that cantonese is the best dialect in the world. That may be so, but i sometimes feel sad that the kids are not exposed to any other language and are not encouraged to learn another language. Its probably the same with kids in uk and america.....growing up monolingual.
3.the problem with the NET prog is that it made very little impact. If it had made a bigger impact, then everyone would support its continuation.
The future is bleak for hk....once china become a true free market with their currency and financial markets, hk will be a backwater. spore and shg will be the true hub, as the citizens are far better with their language skills.
Dai Muff
Some will only be happy if "native English teachers" can come from the mainland. You will see some of their comments here.
My impression of NETs is that many end up doing the job because they can't find employment in their preferred careers. Hence, the high attrition...the NETs leave as soon as they find a job in their originally preferred field.
The native-speaking English teacher (NET) scheme is a waste of public money.
Whatever the banding of a school, the NET needs to provide something that the existing teachers in that school cannot. If one particular school feels confident enough in the ability of their local staff, there's no need for a NET. The proof of the pudding, however, is whether 99%, not 39% of their students are doing well in English.
The NET scheme is really a misnomer - it's effectively a govt. fund spent by schools in any way they want, using a native English speaker. Each school is different and one teacher taking an allotted 35 mins. a week with every student in the school is just one model of deployment. To make it a more effective "scheme", uniformity is not necessarily needed (in fact it might be damaging) but greater accountability by schools is so that everyone knows the NET is doing something worthwhile. In too many cases, the NET is merely a token and that is a huge waste of money!




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