RECENT protests by parents of children at St Joseph's Anglo-Chinese Primary School against a plan by its sister secondary school to progressively teach more subjects in Chinese, instead of English, underscores one thing. Many parents' attitude towards Chinese as a teaching medium has not changed since 1982, when a visiting panel came out strongly in support of mother-tongue teaching. They still feel strongly that their children must have a good command of English and the best way of achieving this is by attending Anglo-Chinese secondary schools where English is used to teach all subjects except Chinese language and Chinese history. They fear that if their children learn in Chinese, their English skills will be weak, thus denying them the opportunity to become lawyers, accountants, doctors and engineers. Parents are mindful of the fact that a good command of English, an international language, is essential for a good career in Hong Kong and overseas. With 1997 looming, many probably deem it doubly important for their children to have good English in case they decide to emigrate. But sadly, in trying their best to give their children a good education, they fail to ask the very important question of whether their children are capable of learning in English. In Hong Kong, where English is taught in primary school only as a subject and Cantonese is spoken by most families at home, 30 per cent of primary six pupils are found to have achieved a level of competence in English that enables them to learn effectively in English in form one. By insisting their children must be educated in English in secondary school, regardless of their competence in the language, many parents have become confused between learning English and learning in English. They do not understand that while using English to learn other subjects will increase the students' exposure to the language and improve their proficiency, students won't learn anything if their English skills are poor to start with. But if so many students are incapable of learning in English, shouldn't schools make the sensible decision of teaching in Chinese? Logic dictates that the answer must be yes, but reality is again a different matter. As the Education Department has pointed out, many schools tend to choose their medium of instruction on the basis of parental wishes rather than on educational grounds. Since most parents want their children to be educated in English, most schools endeavour to meet this demand by teaching in English, even though many students and even some teachers are incompetent in the language. In practice, while the textbooks, written work and examinations are in English, in many schools teachers use a mixture of English and Chinese, dubbed Chinglish, to conduct classes. Much class time is wasted on translating English text and learning is reduced to rote memorisation of facts in English. The use of this ''mixed-code'' does not help the students develop their skills in either English or Chinese, so that at the end of form five many are found to be incapable of expressing themselves in either language. Conscientious educators agree that those schools which purport to teach in English, but are actually using Chinglish, are deceiving themselves and the parents. Just as parents want their children to become high-fliers, the schools' underlying concern is to have a good name. And the surest way of achieving a good name is for their students to score good results in public examinations and this must start with having good students. Given Hong Kong parents' strong preference for their children to be educated in English, the schools fear they will end up with the worst students if they decide to teach in Chinese. Their fear is understandable. In 1987, Carmel English School in Homantin, under the dynamic leadership of principal David Cheung Chi-kong, made a bold move to change its teaching language from English to Chinese, even though it already had a good reputation as an Anglo-Chinese school. A member of the Board of Education, Legislative Council and Education Commission, Mr Cheung, himself an English teacher, was a long-time advocate of mother-tongue education. To assure parents their children's English ability would not be greatly affectedby using Chinese to learn other subjects, he also devised a more effective method of teaching English. But two years later, he was beaten by the school council and his staff, who decided to switch back to using English as the teaching medium because parents shunned the school and the quality of new students dropped. Mr Cheung had no choice but to resign. The case was a stark warning to other schools that they must be prepared to be martyrs if they dare to teach in Chinese. Seen in this light, the Catholic Church's decision to ask its 24 secondary schools to gradually shift to using Chinese to teach more subjects is commendable. PRINCIPALS and teachers of some of the 24 schools are understood to have strong reservations over the church's decision because it means they will get less academically gifted students. ''[But] if all schools want to teach the best students, who would teach the less gifted and the less privileged?'' Mr Lawrence Lo Kong-kai, assistant to the Episcopal Delegate for Education of the Catholic Church, asked. Mr Lo said Cardinal John Baptist Wu decided to promote mother-tongue education in Catholic schools because it was the most effective means of achieving the Catholic aim of holistic education of the person. ''We took the decision in a spirit of martyrdom,'' he said. ''If other schools don't want to teach the less gifted, then we'll take up the task.'' Indeed, educators have long pointed out that if more of Hong Kong's major school-sponsoring bodies had the courage to face reality, more students would have been able to learn in Chinese and thus learn more. The hesitation of the sponsoring bodies and school management to make the switch also shows the Government's policy of positive discrimination - adopted 10 years ago in an Education Commission report, to encourage more schools to use Chinese as the teaching medium - has failed. Under the policy, schools which adopt Chinese as the teaching language are given additional English teachers and more English teaching resources. But as the commission's fourth report admitted, these measures did not achieve the objective of persuading more schools to adopt Chinese as their medium of instruction. At the same time, schools are asked to decide whether to teach all classes in English or Chinese, or to have both an English and a Chinese stream, to match the language ability of its intake. Schools have been given the scores of their form one intakes for the past five years to help them decide which teaching medium they should use. But judging from the schools' response so far, many have still not made the proper choice. Director of Education Dominic Wong Shing-wah said the department felt only about 15 per cent of secondary schools could use English to teach all subjects, while 38 per cent should use Chinese. The appropriate choice for the remaining 47 per cent was to have both an English and a Chinese stream, he said. Assistant Director of Education Man Tsz-fong said the Education Commission envisaged there would be a mismatch between students' language capability and schools' choice of teaching language in the first few years. The department would closely monitor theperformance of schools and students and give ''firm guidance'' by 1998-99 on the appropriate medium of instruction or proportion of English or Chinese classes to suit the language achievements of their students, he said. In choosing to give ''firm guidance'' instead of mandating the use of Chinese as the teaching medium in all schools as some educators advocate, the Government has adopted a pragmatic approach to deal with a potentially explosive situation. For an unelected government to force the use of Chinese as the teaching medium, when parents have a strong desire for their children to be educated in English, is simply untenable. Besides, mandating the use of Chinese in all schools would rob those students who were capable of learning in English of the opportunity to do so. This could deprive Hong Kong of a much needed pool of truly bilingual talents. If everything goes according to plan, the English medium schools should continue to produce students with a good command of English and Chinese. Other students, whose English skills are poor to start with, will receive a meaningful education in their mother-tongue as well as sufficient instruction in English from which to build at a later stage.