SCMP Monday, June 12, 2000

Reprieve for English schools


The 114 secondary schools currently allowed to teach in English are likely to retain this status until 2003 even though the three-year trial of exemptions from mother-tongue teaching ends in 2001.

News of the likely two-year extension comes as the Government tries to gain support for its sweeping education reforms and avoid further antagonising teachers, who have been enraged by a proposed benchmark test for language teaching.

Extending the exemptions would allow teachers more time to prepare for the language benchmark tests, an official source said. But he warned that if teachers did not pass the benchmark in the next few years then the schools would have to switch to mother-tongue teaching. The source said Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had demanded all teachers who used English to teach other subjects must meet the benchmark by 2008.

The source said parents were the major obstacle to mother-tongue teaching. "They should understand that their children's English standard will not necessarily improve even if all subjects are taught in English," he said.

In September 1998, 223 secondary schools were ordered to switch to Chinese as a medium of instruction under the mother-tongue teaching policy, while the remaining 114 were allowed to continue instruction in English. Checks conducted by the Education Department in the 1998-99 academic year showed that in many schools which had switched to mother-tongue teaching, students' academic results had risen, including those achieved for English.

The benchmark tests require the more than 14,000 English-language teachers to meet a certain standard by 2005, either by sitting a test or attending accredited training courses.

Some members of a government-appointed Working Group on Medium of Instruction suggested 90 per cent of teachers in English-medium schools should meet the minimum standard of language benchmark assessment if those schools wished to continue teaching in English.

Currently, a school may teach in English if more than 85 per cent of its students in the Form One intake are judged, on the strength of their examination results in Primary Five and Six, to be able to learn in the language. If this condition is met then teachers' English standards are guaranteed by the school's principal rather than by objective tests.

Many educators welcomed the move to maintain the status quo of the English schools. The Professional Teachers' Union, a strong supporter of mother-tongue teaching, agreed the difference should be maintained in the short run. "It is unwise to trigger controversy by making drastic changes," said union president Cheung Man-kwong, who helped organise the 6,000-strong protest march against benchmark testing on Saturday. "The present arrangement has set a balance between facilitating students' learning in Chinese and also preserving some English-medium schools."

A member of the working group, Louisa Tang Mei-sin, said: "Many parents will be unhappy if the Government reduces the number of English-medium schools. More effort should be put into improving the quality of the teaching at English-medium schools."

Hong Kong Subsidised Secondary Schools Council chairman Stephen Hui Chin-yim said the Government should leave the schools alone for now. "Cutting the number of English-medium schools is tantamount to making enemies of parents, and puts education reform at risk," he said.