22 October 2016
Hong Kong government has been accused of a short-sighted approach in relation to the policy on English medium secondary schools. Credit: wikimedia commons
Hong Kong government has been accused of a short-sighted approach in relation to the policy on English medium secondary schools. Credit: wikimedia commons

Why the secondary school education policy needs a rethink

Hong Kong’s Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim announced on July 3 a new arrangement regarding the government’s policy on the medium of instruction (MOI) in secondary schools for the period 2016 to 2021.

Under the proposal, the secondary schools that currently use English as the MOI, the so-called EMI schools, can continue to preserve their EMI status and maintain the number of their English classes even if their students fail to meet the admission requirements laid down by the Education Bureau.

Such arrangement spells big change in the government’s MOI policy, and has immediately drawn criticism from the education sector, which is worried that the overall quality of our education might be undermined if more and more students who are not proficient in English are allowed to be admitted to EMI schools.

Some even described it as a big “bombshell” in relation to the local education policy.

As a matter of fact, such mismatch in student admissions which our schools are encountering today could be avoided if the Education Bureau had accepted the proposal put forward by the education sector back in 2012 to reduce the class size as a response to the decline in the number of school-age children in our society.

The fact that Secretary Ng failed to “defuse” that bomb decisively back then and allowed the problem to worsen has finally taken its toll on the quality of education in our secondary schools.

In face of the continued decline in the number of secondary school students in Hong Kong, a group of secondary school principals and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union had proposed in November 2012 that the standard class size in the secondary schools be reduced by 6 students within three years’ time.

Initially, the government refused to give the proposal even the slightest consideration. It wasn’t until 200 secondary school principals, all wearing black clothes, staged a protest in front of the Legislative Council Building over the issue that the government finally agreed, rather reluctantly, to cut the class size in secondary schools by 3 to 4 students.

At that time, the education sector already warned of a possible chain reaction, which might lead to an oversupply of EMI school places, if the government failed to cut the class size in a determined manner.

And there has been growing concern in the education sector that in order to survive, these EMI schools might be prompted to admit a large number of students whose English is not up to standard. Such mismatch is likely to undermine the overall academic standard of EMI schools in the long run, it was feared.

Unfortunately, the grave concern of the education sector has quickly become the reality over the past three years, and the so-called “upward mismatch” is becoming more and more widespread among EMI schools. According to the original timetable, one-third of the EMI schools would have to switch back to CMI status this year (schools using Chinese as the MOI).

However, to the dismay of the education sector, the latest measure announced by the Education Bureau puts this timetable on hold and allows these schools to keep their EMI status, and to continue to admit students with below-average English proficiency.

This measure will not only exacerbate the current “upward mismatch”, but also violate the original intention of the MOI policy, which was initially aimed to provide the right MOI to match the needs of students whose language competence might vary greatly from one another.

Some even suspect that the new measure has been introduced for the sake of political expediency, as most parents in our society prefer EMI to CMI schools, regardless of their children’s true English proficiency.

Therefore, providing more EMI school places can definitely gain favor with parents, helping the Leung Chun-ying administration to win some popularity. Sadly, it is being done at the expense of the overall interest of our students.

As far as students are concerned, enrolling students who are not fit for being taught in English in EMI schools could spell predicament for both students and teachers, and could seriously hinder the learning progress of students themselves and create extra pressure and workload for teachers at the same time.

Like I said many times before, cutting the class size is the only way to get to the root of the problem and fundamentally address the issue of the decline in student numbers. All other methods, including the latest measure announced by the Education Bureau, can provide nothing more than a quick fix.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 9.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member from the education sector

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