Our much-maligned education system and language policy are once again under the spotlight as a result of a controversial proposal to 'fine-tune' the medium of instruction policy. The proposed changes will end strict segregation of schools into Chinese and English streams and allow Chinese-medium schools to set aside some time for 'extended learning activities' conducted in English.
Announced yesterday, the policy was welcomed by most parents. However, some educators and politicians have been critical of the plan since it was unveiled last June by Secretary of Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung. They fear it will effectively kill the mother-tongue policy and exacerbate the stigma attached to students who learn in Chinese. The changes will allow schools to teach a class in English if 85 per cent of students in the class are in the top 40 per cent of their age group academically.
The mother-tongue policy was forced upon most schools 10 years ago by then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Many believed it was politically motivated. The policy failed mainly because it did not have support from students and parents. But, worse still, it created a rift between English medium-of-instruction schools and their Chinese-medium counterparts.
The debate about the medium of instruction has dogged parents and educators for years. Most parents prefer English-medium schools as they think such schools are top rate.
In the face of mounting opposition, the government conducted a review in 2005 to try to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, it attracted even more criticism as it proposed that those English-medium schools that failed to recruit 85 per cent of students qualified to be taught in English should be forced to teach in Chinese. The review also allowed Chinese-medium schools to set aside 10 per cent of their lesson time for 'extended learning activities' in English. Not only did these proposals fail to solve the original problem, they inadvertently created confusion and worsened the labelling effect on Chinese-medium schools. The 85 per cent benchmark also led to intense competition among schools to offer English classes to boost recruitment.
Michael Tien Puk-sun, who was chairman of the working group responsible for the 2005 review, criticised the fine-tuning policy, saying it lacked public support. Mr Tien, who also chairs the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, is a product of the colonial-era education system. Given his support for mother-tongue teaching, perhaps we should ask why he has, like many other members of the local elite, sent his children abroad to study.
Mr Tien urged the government to shelve the fine-tuning idea after citing a survey he commissioned that showed most parents knew little about the concept. Critics like Mr Tien said the fine-tuning plan would replace the division between English- and Chinese-medium schools with more severe forms of labelling. Schools would be rated according to the number of English classes they could offer, creating rivalry and chaos within each school as students were allocated to English- or Chinese-medium classes.
Such fears are unfounded. The government is, in fact, giving schools autonomy to decide their language policies based on the needs and abilities of students.
The fine-tuning policy's aim is to create an environment conducive to English learning. And, by widening exposure to English beyond language subjects, students will be given more opportunities to improve their English proficiency. And, hopefully, before too long, the demarcation between English- and Chinese-medium schools will fade away.
English has always been Hong Kong's biggest advantage. Over the past decade, it has been proved that mother-tongue teaching is an utter failure. The fine-tuned language policy alternative offers the best of both worlds, which should be roundly applauded. Those detractors, such as Mr Tien, would be digging themselves into a hole by refusing to accept the reality that mother-tongue teaching is obsolete in an international city like Hong Kong.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator