With local schools being given more freedom to choose whether to teach classes in English or Chinese, there are worries that few will be able to resist the temptation to abandon the mother tongue. Previously, just 114 of the 400-plus schools were allowed to teach in English. It is to be expected that many want to remove the 'second class' stigma that parents often attach to schools teaching in Chinese, even if their students will struggle to learn in English.
Under the so-called fine-tuning introduced last September, secondary schools can teach a class in English if 85 per cent of the pupils in it belong to the top 40 per cent of their age group academically. The change enables more schools to teach some classes in English. But a recent study by academics from Oxford University and the Hong Kong Institute of Education showed some schools were not ready to teach in English. When the teaching medium switched to English in higher forms, there was less interaction in the classroom; students were more reluctant to ask questions, while teachers appeared less skilful at helping students answer challenging questions, according to the study. This is not at all surprising.
The assessment criteria were laid down by the government for good reasons. They were meant to guard against schools adopting English regardless of their students' language proficiency. Forcing students with poor English skills to learn in the language will prevent them fully engaging in class and hinder their development. The situation will be even worse if teachers are also found to be struggling when required to teach in English.
Schools must act responsibly when deciding whether they want to switch some lessons to English. A critical assessment of the students' and teachers' ability is essential. Otherwise they will be abusing the system and putting the students' interests at risk.