The extreme sensitivities aroused by the forthcoming switch to mother-tongue teaching in secondary schools were evident in this week's accusations that the Government is wavering in its commitment to the policy. Director of Education Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping was forced on the defensive yesterday, insisting that her department remained committed to using all available sanctions to force schools to begin teaching in Chinese. This followed the release of official guidelines which critics claimed failed to make this clear, prompting charges of back-tracking from some educationalists. Such criticism rather misses the point since there is no prospect of some of the more punitive measures ever being imposed. In particular, nothing could be more calculated to turn public opinion against mother-tongue teaching than jailing headmasters for their lack of compliance, although the Government has the theoretical power to do so. By downplaying the threat of sanctions, the Education Department seems to be adopting a more flexible approach, rather than arousing unnecessary resentment by bludgeoning reluctant schools into submission. Nor is it helpful for critics to push for the policy to be extended to force all schools to teach in Chinese, rather than the Government's proposal that those who can show that 85 per cent of their staff and students can conduct classes in English should be allowed to do so. Mother-tongue teaching is not about promotion of Chinese per se. Rather it is about finding the most effective means of education. Usually this will be by using Cantonese. But where a school can prove that it is achieved through teaching in English then there is no reason for it not to continue doing so. This may cause difficulties. Parents will rush to try to enrol their children in the estimated 90 to 100 schools likely to be exempted from the requirement to teach in Chinese. Other schools will be tempted to switch back to using English illegally in order to attract more students. Such problems can be combated by generous subsidies for schools which obey the new rules, coupled with the discreet use of sanctions against those who refuse to do so. Mother-tongue teaching is about educating not only children but also their parents away from the common fallacy that teaching in English is always preferable. This requires sensitive handling. Critics who call for a tougher approach risk putting the whole policy in jeopardy.