At this time of the year in most Hong Kong secondary schools, it's particularly difficult to move about in English language staff rooms. It's hard enough at the best of times, when one has to weave and wiggle past towering bookshelves precariously perched on quite small desks, but the annual English exercise-book inspection brings a new challenge. At this time of year, it's well nigh impossible to even venture within earshot of the desk of the English panel chairperson in a Hong Kong secondary school. They are totally boxed-in by light blue or dull brown skyscrapers of student exercise books. When one considers that every Hong Kong student of English will maintain a minimum of six exercise books and two publishers' workbooks, that there are seven-year levels of instruction and that every teacher in the department would teach at least 150 students, that's an awful lot of books. And if one considers that all the students in any one form all complete the same sets of exercises from the same textbooks in the exact same order - one wonders what on earth can be accomplished by the gathering of all these small books in the already tight confines of the English office. To even ask such a question, however, comes very close to educational blasphemy in Hong Kong, because this is one of the most hallowed rituals of English language teaching here. The English panel chairperson's unenviable duty is to comb these mountainous piles for concrete evidence of their colleagues' professional competence. Such a practice could only have come from the 'copybook' culture of Imperial China, where a teacher's competence could be gauged from the calligraphic skills of his or her pupils. What relevance does such a practice have in 21st century Hong Kong? Yet, every year, most teachers are given an A to D (or even an F) grading for their book inspection. Why does it persist? It is all an integral part of the feudal power structures that characterise so many local schools in Hong Kong. Basically, the inspector of the books is looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack they can use to impress others with their thoroughness. In one moderately famous girls' school where I was once interviewed for a NET teaching position, the principal gleefully reported that a recent inspection of the panel chairperson's own books had revealed flaws so serious that the person would soon be replaced. More enlightened principals have pruned these annual inspections down to the level of class-samples, but few dare to abandon them entirely. How utterly demeaning it is for experienced educators to have their professional competence assessed by the neatness and completeness of their students' books. In Malaysia, Brunei and Sri Lanka, other former British colonies where I have taught, there are different kinds of colonial legacies. In those systems, a teacher's competence is substantially judged by the amount of effort they put into the preparation of their lessons and their maintenance of student records. By contrast, in Hong Kong it is rare to see much interest being paid to preparation at all, for that is the role of the textbook. Most teachers spend their non-classroom time marking - in preparation for the book inspection. When experienced teachers such as myself and many other participants in the Native English-speaking Teacher (NET) scheme are awarded D ratings or worse for our collections of exercise books, think what that can do for a professional's self-esteem. Such archaic practices only serve to reinforce the notion that conformity is the major professional requirement for local teachers. When is the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) going to really 'shake the tree' and get serious about reforming counterproductive educational practices, such as the annual exercise-book inspection? How can a single new idea ever take root when we devalue any teachers who are anything other than robots in an assembly-line school system? Pauline Bunce, a former NET, now teaches in an international school.