Blurring the distinction between English and Chinese-medium schools may encourage parents to take a more balanced approach to choosing secondary schools, an influential education academic said this week.
University of Hong Kong assistant professor of education Cheung Kwok-wah was speaking in response to the education secretary's strongest hint so far that the rules governing schools' teaching language are likely to be relaxed considerably.
He said giving schools flexibility to teach some classes in English and others in Chinese would generate a shift in the public's mindset.
'It will no longer be a black-and-white division between English- medium and Chinese-medium schools,' he said. 'You will instead be dealing with black, grey and white, and from there to many different shades of grey.'
While some schools would teach almost exclusively in English and some almost completely in Chinese - through choice or default - the majority would fall somewhere in the middle.
'It's just too complicated for the parents,' he said. 'How do you know when you have crossed the line [from Chinese to English medium]? If you have a large grey area it will be difficult to do a linear comparison, then there is a chance parents will start to look at a wider range of factors.'
He hoped parents could be encouraged to look at the school as a whole when choosing whether or not to send their child there, rather than place too much emphasis on what medium of instruction it used.
The strict divide drawn between EMI and CMI schools has drawn fire from many in the education sector for being divisive and cutting schools into 'winners and losers'.
Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung announced last week that he would unveil plans before the summer break on how to give schools greater 'flexibility' in the implementation of the policy. He said he was open to allowing schools to stream students into different language classes according to ability.
However, Dr Cheung - a member of the Education Commission's 2005 working group on medium-of- instruction policy - said that changing the policy should not be seen as a cure-all solution.
'We still do not know how much flexibility schools will have or what the mechanism will be,' he said. 'More flexibility will not remove the labelling problem.'
Dr Cheung said he still had a number of practical concerns about how that flexibility would be implemented, particularly how schools would apply to make changes and whether the Education Bureau's permission would be needed.
'What happens if the bureau does not agree with the school's language plan? Will they have the power to say no?' he said. 'What happens if the school is too ambitious? What happens if you get it wrong?'
The need for close monitoring by education officials could be a source of strain. 'Schools might view that as interference,' he said.
But Dr Cheung said there was one important factor which had changed recently. 'The relationship between schools and government is a lot better than it was three or four years ago,' he said.