Speech at the Seminar on Fine-tuning the Medium of Instruction for Secondary Schools in Hong Kong
5 December 2008 (Friday)
Seminar on Fine-tuning the Medium of Instruction
for Secondary Schools in Hong Kong
organised by Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools
Speech by Mr Michael M Y Suen, GBS, JP
Secretary for Education
Since assuming the office as the Secretary for Education in 2007, I have been meeting members of the education sector, and coincidentally, the first thing they brought up was their concerns about the medium of instruction (MOI). While most of them agree that mother-tongue teaching is conducive to students’ learning, some consider that the current MOI policy has reduced students’ exposure to English and thus resulted in a lack of confidence and interest in learning English for some students. As a matter of fact, there are voices in the community from time to time about the declining English standard of our students in recent years.
As Asia’s world city, Hong Kong has a role to play in promoting the prosperity and development of our country. To maintain and strengthen this role, we must equip our students with a high proficiency in English. We will endeavour to improve English language teaching in primary schools to help students lay a solid foundation. We are now examining the effectiveness of various measures for English language teaching so as to deploy resources in a better way and further improve the learning and teaching of English. We must also overcome the dilemma of lacking an English-rich environment in the community. We have to create such an environment in schools to increase students’ exposure to English at the junior secondary education levels.
Over the past few months, I have been discussing the proposals on fine-tuning the MOI with stakeholders, including school council representatives present at today’s seminar. Most stakeholders find it necessary to fine-tune the MOI policy and support the objectives and overall direction of the proposal. In mid-July, we briefed the Legislative Council Education Panel on the preliminary direction of the fine-tuning and received overwhelming support from the deputations in attendance. Today, I am glad to be given this opportunity by school councils and the Organiser to share with you the Government’s preliminary thoughts on the fine-tuning framework, listen to your views and address your concerns directly.
Objectives of Fine-tuning
For policy-making, the very first question we have to ask is: “What is it for?” The views exchanged with stakeholders in discussions over the past few months can be summarised into three aspects:
(1) Most stakeholders agree that the MOI policy has to be fine-tuned. The objective is to increase students’ exposure to English in content subjects progressively from junior secondary with reference to their ability, progress and needs so that they can have a smooth transition to English-medium learning at senior secondary and post-secondary levels;
(2) It is also hoped that the bifurcation of secondary schools into “EMI schools” (i.e. schools adopting English as MOI) and “CMI Schools” (i.e. schools adopting Chinese as MOI) will gradually evolve into diversified school-based arrangements to provide a stable and healthy environment for mother-tongue teaching to sustain and flourish; and
(3) Stakeholders have also pointed out that the MOI policy should be fine-tuned in an orderly manner, bearing in mind the need to safeguard students’ learning effectiveness. In other words, we should allow secondary schools to make conditional professional decisions so that they will have greater autonomy and room for development in selecting the appropriate MOI with regard to their students’ learning progress and school circumstances (including teacher capability, support measures, etc).
Review by the Education Commission
The Education Commission (EC) conducted a comprehensive review of the MOI policy for secondary schools in 2005. Stakeholders have reaffirmed the effectiveness of mother-tongue teaching and generally agreed on schools meeting certain prescribed criteria for adopting EMI in junior secondary classes. As we all know, these criteria are “student ability”, “teacher capability” and “school support measures”.
To enrich the English learning environment for CMI students, the EC suggested that CMI schools should be allowed to conduct English-medium extended learning activities in class. However, the proportion of lesson time for these activities, on top of English Language lessons, should not exceed 15%, 20% and 25% of the total lesson time at Secondary 1 (S1), Secondary 2 (S2) and Secondary 3 (S3) levels respectively.
Ways of Fine-Tuning
We have developed the fine-tuning framework on the basis of the three prescribed criteria proposed by the EC’s review in 2005. Our idea is to give schools the flexibility to exercise a school-based professional decision to adopt a diversified MOI approach comprising “by class”, “by-group”, “by-subject” and “by-session” arrangements as long as they have met the three criteria. The purpose is to give junior secondary students more opportunities to learn English from the perspective of content subjects progressively in order to smooth their transition to senior secondary and post-secondary levels, which are normally conducted in English.
Our preferred framework is outlined below:
* Our requirement on the “student ability” criterion as proposed by the EC remains unchanged. However, we suggest removing bifurcation of schools into CMI and EMI. Our preliminary thought is to make reference to a school’s S1 intake data under the Secondary School Places Allocation System in the previous two years to decide the number of classes within which a school can exercise full flexibility on professional school-based MOI arrangements, i.e. having 85% of students belonging to the “top 40%” group in a class. In other words, we will inform each school of the number of “approved classes”, a soft indicator for its professional MOI planning. Therefore, we will not make it mandatory for schools to adopt a uniform approach to teach these classes entirely in English. Schools may select the appropriate MOI by class, group, subject or session under the diversified arrangements, taking into consideration their circumstances, students’ learning progress and needs, teachers’ capability and support measures in each class.
* For other classes in which a school is required to adopt mother-tongue teaching, we will enrich their English learning environment. Our initial idea is to allow schools to conduct English-medium extended teaching activities at each of the S1, S2 and S3 levels to a uniform rate of not more than 25% of the total lesson time for subjects other than English in order to increase students’ exposure to English in content subjects. I have learnt that some schools prefer more flexibility so that they can allocate a maximum of the mentioned 25% for teaching individual subjects in English under the “by subject” arrangement. I am open-minded and inclined to give schools some flexibility. I will continue to listen to the stakeholders’ views in this regard.
* The majority of stakeholders accept and support the “teacher capability” requirement to ensure the quality of teaching. We will adhere to the English qualification requirements as set out in the EC’s report.
* Schools will be required to report their MOI arrangements to the Education Bureau (EDB) and to keep parents and the public well-informed. If necessary, we will consider requiring all schools to release such information in a standardised manner at the initial stage of fine-tuning.
* For monitoring, the EDB will conduct external assessment and focus inspections under the existing mechanism in order to help schools to review the effectiveness. In case of schools’ non-compliance, we will make it known to the public.
Stakeholders’ Concerns over the Fine-tuning of MOI
Recently, some school councils have voiced concerns over the “by class” arrangement mentioned above. Let me stress that this “by class” arrangement is only one of the many arrangements that schools could opt. It is absolutely not the only way out for schools. We do not require schools to operate the so-called “EMI classes”. For any class falling under the criterion of “student ability”, full EMI teaching is not a must. Schools may adopt a diversified EMI teaching by subject, class and session flexibly with regard to their school circumstances and students’ needs. Therefore, we envisage different choices and combinations in schools.
To illustrate this, let’s start with a school running five classes. With students’ interest as the prime concern, this school has selected its appropriate school-based MOI by adopting CMI or EMI in different classes to varying extents. When the same practice is extended to over the more than 400-odd public sector secondary schools, I am confident that the school-based MOI arrangements will better suit students’ abilities. Of course, we cannot eliminate the “labelling” effects immediately. However, such effect(s) will not be as obvious and strong under the bifurcation of schools into “CMI” and “EMI” a decade ago. In fact, we have consulted individual CMI schools on their school-based plan under the proposed fine-tuning. About 60% of the CMI schools responded and only one of them intended to use English to teach all subjects at the junior secondary levels when their classes have met the “student ability” criterion. We also note from previous admission statistics that for schools with one or more classes having met the “student ability” criterion, 40% of them expressed clearly that they would use English to teach only some subjects.
Shared Commitment of the Government and the Education Sector
As a policy-maker, I definitely wish to formulate policies with everyone’s blessing. However, MOI has all along been a controversial issue involving many stakeholders. To improve the overall learning effectiveness of students and to achieve the objective of “upholding mother-tongue teaching and enhancing English proficiency concurrently”, we have to pursue fine-tuning in an orderly manner and balance the views and needs of all parties concerned. I am sure you all agree that although individual stakeholders may have their own views, our ultimate goal is to work for the interest of students.
Is it possible to make fine-tuning a success? Will it benefit our students? It all depends on our concerted efforts with you, school heads and educators, to realise our common vision and honour our shared commitment professionally for the well-being of our students. I expect to report to the Education Panel in mid-January next year, followed by further consultation with all of you on the details. We aim to finalise the arrangements for implementation in the 2010-11 school year.