Colonial rule has ended. But everybody is still clamouring to learn English, so much so that the Government has to force most secondary schools to stop using it as the teaching language because most students cannot cope. From next September, all secondary schools will be required to teach in Chinese - most students' mother tongue - although they will continue to teach English as a subject. If they want to use English as the medium of instruction, more than 85 per cent of their students must have enough skill in the language to benefit from its use in class. Their teachers must also be certified as capable of lecturing in English. According to an unofficial estimate, only about 100 schools will satisfy these conditions. Schools that do not use the right teaching language will be subject to sanctions under the Education Ordinance, which empowers the director of education to bring them into line. The timing of the move towards using Chinese as the medium of instruction could easily lead uninformed observers to label it a step towards de-colonising the education system. While the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty has made the population more receptive to the change, it is important to note that this initiative has been taken primarily for sound educational reasons. For too long, most parents have wanted their children to receive an education in English because the language has a high market value. Schools respond to the demand by professing to teach all subjects - mathematics, physics, chemistry, geography, history, economics etc - in English, regardless of whether their students have the necessary English skills to benefit from the practice. But, since most students cannot cope, most teachers actually lecture in Chinese, although the textbooks are in English. The result is, most of their students fail to learn the subjects, or English, properly. Nor is their command of Chinese up to scratch, because they have limited opportunities to use it. Yet, while almost all teachers agree that teaching and learning are more effective in one's mother tongue, most hope their own schools will remain in the English-medium category. This is because students' English language competence is very much tied up with their general academic ability. These students are more likely to have good family support and fewer behavioral problems. They are easier to teach and more likely to win renown for their schools by scoring well in public examinations. By contrast, schools that use Chinese as the teaching medium attract less able students and are seen as 'substandard' even though their staff are just as good and dedicated, as their counterparts in English-medium institutions, if not more so. In 1987, David Cheung Chi-kong - principal of Carmel English School and an advocate of mother-tongue education - went against the tide by changing his school's teaching medium from English to Chinese. The result was saddening. The school was shunned by parents and the quality of its student intake immediately dropped. The demoralised staff then forced the management to switch back to teaching in English. Mr Cheung resigned. With this in mind, it is perhaps understandable that the Government has to resort to using its power of compulsion to force most schools to teach in Chinese. It is hoped that by requiring most of them to do so, it will result in the removal of the stigma that attaches to the label 'Chinese-medium school'. Compulsion is regrettable, coming as it does when schools are encouraged to stand on their own feet and work out what is best for their students, instead of taking their cue from the authorities. But what other, less coercive, options are available? Until now, schools have been allowed to choose to teach in either English or Chinese, but most have failed to make the right choice, to the detriment of their students. In the end, society as a whole suffers for lack of a properly educated population. Of course, the blame should not stop with the schools, which are merely trying to get the best deal for themselves. Under colonial rule, proficiency in English was the key to a good career in government and almost every other field because it was the language of administration, law and commerce. The termination of colonial rule has not reduced the importance of English, which is an international language through which Hong Kong maintains its overseas links as a financial and trading centre. Hong Kong's elite - be they in government, commerce and the professions - must continue to be able to communicate in English for the sake of continuing prosperity of the SAR. So must its technicians, clerks and all kinds of supporting staff. Moreover, with the SAR being part of China, it no longer suffices that Hong Kong people should be bilingual in Chinese and English. The goal now, as spelt out in a new Education Department booklet issued to secondary schools, is to be 'bi-literate' in Chinese and English and 'trilingual' in Cantonese, Putonghua and English. Yet, Hong Kong remains essentially a monolingual society with Cantonese the vernacular tongue. A century and a half of British rule has failed to entrench English socially. Decades of neglect by the colonial authorities have also resulted in Hong Kong people's lacking good Putonghua skills. The language burden on Hong Kong is heavy and the challenge facing our educators daunting. Now that most secondary schools will become Chinese-medium, the standing of the minority of English-medium schools will be further enhanced. There will be more intense competition among students to get into them. The wash-back effect will be felt on primary schools, which are likely to try by every means to show parents they emphasise the teaching of English. One possibility is an increase in the amount of drilling, which, if not done properly, will discourage young students. This development is also likely to add fuel to the debate on whether those who have completed primary school should sit an English test to determine their suitability to study in English-medium schools. At present, they are streamed according to their school results, which are scaled according to scores in a territory-wide assessment. While officials say the existing streaming mechanism is fair, many teachers are not convinced. Secondary schools that have been purporting to teach in English but are forced to use Chinese, will find it difficult to accept 'down-grading'. Staff at tertiary institutions will grow increasingly anxious about their students' ability to study in English. The good news is that the move towards mother-tongue education in secondary schools will at least ensure that the intellectual development of the majority will not be unduly impaired by their being forced to learn in English. One can only hope that, when they appreciate the utility of mastering English, they will learn it better. Meanwhile, the search goes on for a magic formula to ensure that most members of this monolingual society of Hong Kong can master what remains the most useful of foreign languages.