SCMP Tuesday, July 3, 2001


English lesson

Reforming the education system and upgrading the standard of teaching is bound to be a painful process. Change is never achieved without discomfort. The increasing numbers of English-language teachers leaving the profession is one more indication that reforms are beginning to bite.
There is no doubt that the benchmarking scheme has made a lot of teachers restive and dissatisfied.
Some are unhappy because they feel their professional credentials are already established and that it is demeaning to be tested for further evidence of competence. By far the greater number are opposed to benchmarking because they doubt their ability to pass. Last week's disappointing test results show what critics have claimed all along; namely that the poor quality of English teaching is the prime reason for the falling standard of English among the young.
Much of this was foreseen in the early 1990s when it was decided to lower entrance qualifications for teacher-training colleges. The Professional Teachers' Union warned at the time that if students were admitted before they had six Certificate of Education Examination passes it would lead to a lowering of teaching standards. This warning seems particularly apt this year, when just over half the teachers have scraped through the oral test, and only one-third have passed the written examination.
This depressing situation could well be echoed through all the subjects on the school curriculum if benchmarking was applied across the board. The Government must insist that future graduates emerging from training colleges have the highest qualifications.
Today, as private education outlets proliferate, it is unfortunately inevitable that some good English-language teachers will be lured away by the promise of improved working conditions, better facilities and less stress. Some of the less able will leave teaching altogether because the new system no longer has a place for them.
The challenge for the Education Department is to devise a strategy to reward teachers who take courses to improve their qualifications. The department also needs to persuade teachers that reforms will ultimately enhance their status. It is vital to retain the support of teachers if the reform programme is to succeed. But no matter what the resistance, general standards must be enhanced, and since so many schools are already under-manned it will be no easy task to coax pressurised staff into taking extra courses.
Benchmarking may be resented, but it has proved a point. However, it is no good blaming pupils for lacking English skills when many of their tutors are not much better. Nor need teachers feel singled out for criticism. When the foreword to the Education Commission's "Learning for Life" blueprint is peppered with solecisms, it is hardly surprising if the rest of the community lags behind in language skills.