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Speech at the Grand Opening Ceremony of the St Margaret's Co-educational English Secondary & Primary School

Speech by Mrs Fanny Law, GBS, JP

Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower

at the Grand Opening Ceremony of the

St Margaret’s Co-educational English Secondary & Primary School

                                 on Friday, 25 February 2005                                



Mr Lei, Ms Chan, Rev Tsang, Mrs Tam, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Today’s grand opening of a Y2K school premises also opens a new chapter in the history of St. Margaret’s. Beginning as a private secondary girls’ school, St Margaret’s has grown into a publicly funded Co-educational English Secondary & Primary School. The government subsidy and the allocation of the Y2K school premises through a competitive process are a tribute to St Margaret’s contribution to education in Hong Kong over the past 40 years and recognition of the quality of education that St Margaret’s provides.   


I am very pleased to join you on this joyous occasion and, in particular, to thank the principal, Mrs Tam, for her leadership and the teaching staff for their dedication and hard work over the years in making St. Margaret’s what it is today. With enhanced facilities and being a “through-train” school with the flexibilities offered by the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS), St Margaret’s is poised to scale new heights promising an all-round education that will equip students well in reaching for their goals, and in facing the many challenges, in life. 


“Through-train” school

As a “through-train” school, St Margaret’s is able to establish closer ties with students and parents through a longer term relationship.  Teachers get to know the students better, and are more able to cater for individual needs through a differentiated curriculum and learning activities that will maximise the potential of every student.


A “through-train” school, also smoothens the interface between primary and secondary education with a more coherent curriculum and more interaction between primary and secondary students and teachers.  For example, the whole school may take part in a drama or the sports day. Secondary students may mentor primary students and benefit from the experience in terms of consolidation of knowledge and leadership development. Teachers may teach both primary and secondary classes to provide better continuity and to develop their professional expertise in specialised subject areas.


Direct Subsidy Scheme

As a DSS school, St Margaret’s has the freedom to charge a tuition fee on top of the government subvention and the flexibility to deploy resources and design the curriculum in a way that suits the students best. For example, St Margaret’s offers more language subjects and has more native English speaking teachers to support students in using English as the medium of instruction. 


As a DSS school, St Margaret’s also enjoys complete autonomy over student admission. This is conducive to a better alignment between the values and expectations of parents and the school and provides a solid foundation for home-school cooperation. Parental support is an important factor for effective student learning.  


Medium of instruction

Furthermore, DSS schools enjoy more flexibility in the choice of the medium of instruction.  Earlier this month, a Working Group under the Education Commission published a consultation document on the review of the secondary school places allocation system and the highly controversial medium of instruction (MOI) policy. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you, in particular parents who are present today, the key issues behind the controversy and the vision for the future. 


Language is the medium through which students process, assimilate, integrate and formulate knowledge. There is solid research     evidence to suggest that students learn best using the language with which they are most conversant, and which creates the least barrier to learning.  Thus, for most students, in particular during the formative years of basic education, mother-tongue teaching is most effective. The HKCEE results in the past two years also lend support to the merits of learning through the mother-tongue. On the whole, students of similar banding achieved higher value-addedness after five years of learning through the Chinese medium compared to those who learned through the English medium.


For students to learn effectively through a second language, that is English in the case of Hong Kong , they must have reached a  threshold level of English proficiency, and must have a strong motivation to learn. Learning through a second language involves an inevitable trade-off between improvement in English language proficiency through increased exposure, and impediment to higher order thinking due to the language barrier.


Nonetheless, in view of the prevailing culture in the community, the Working Group recommends that schools may choose to use English as the medium of instruction if they fulfill three conditions, i.e. students have the motivation and ability to learn through the English medium, teachers are proficient in using English to explain subject matters, and there is adequate support for students to make the transition from using Chinese in primary schools to using English to learn in the secondary school. These criteria are founded on sound educational principles, and should be upheld in all circumstances.  


In the case of DSS schools, the Working Group  acknowledges that there are wider cross-year fluctuations in the student intake, in both number and language proficiency, rendering it necessary for   DSS   schools  to  respond  quickly  through  curriculum   adaptation,  teaching strategies and the medium of instruction. The Working Group therefore recommends that DSS schools should assess their students’ English proficiency at the point of admission to determine the most suitable MoI. In other words, DSS schools will have the flexibility to stream their students into CMI or EMI groups, according to their language proficiency.  This will mean additional work for teachers as they have to prepare bilingual instructional materials but is necessary to safeguard the interest of students.


Learning English as a second language is different from learning through the medium of English. To master a second language, students must integrate and practise the four skills in real life context.  It is over-simplification to expect students to learn English well simply by exposing them to English in the classroom that centers on subject matter knowledge. Various tests have shown that students of Hong Kong are generally proficient in reading and listening (the receptive skills), but weak in writing and speaking (the productive skills).


A recent study on effective practices for enhancing students’ English proficiency, conducted by Professor Amy Tsui of the University of Hong Kong, shows that more effective learning activities take place outside the classroom.. All schools can adopt these good practices, irrespective of the medium of instruction. Our language policy is to nurture students to be “biliterate and trilingual” and we expect our schools to  provide  for  a  trilingual  and  language-rich environment.  By language-rich, I mean students should be exposed to and be given plenty of opportunities to use English and Putonghua, e.g. during the morning assembly, in the playground, in drama, debate and other student activities.  It is only through active engagement in the use of language and in practising the four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking – in real life context that students will improve their language proficiency.   


There is no question about the importance of English as an international language. However, it is also important to realise the potential of Chinese becoming an international language.  More and more foreign students have travelled all the way to Beijing to learn Chinese; more and more overseas secondary schools and universities are offering Chinese as a second language. More and more Hong Kong students attend universities in the Mainland; more and more Hong Kong investors and workers have opted for development in the Mainland.  To uphold Hong Kong ’s position as Asia ’ world city and an international city of China , people of Hong Kong must attain a high level of proficiency in both English and Chinese, including Putonghua. 

The key to learning a language well is motivation.   Practice makes perfect.  There is no short-cut. I believe every student can learn as long as they put in the effort and have the necessary support, including a language-rich environment and parental guidance.   


To create a trilingual school environment, let me share with you the successful experience of a primary school in Hong Kong . All English teachers of the school speak English throughout the day, both inside and outside of the classroom, among colleagues and with students as if they are native English teachers who do not speak Chinese.  All Chinese teachers use Putonghua to teach the Chinese Language, as well as outside the classroom throughout the day. Other teachers may use English or Putonghua as it suits them but once they have chosen a language they will stick to it. Students use English or Putonghua as they come across different teachers during the day and are encouraged to use English or Putonghua in communicating among themselves. Cantonese is used in the classroom, to most students, this is the mother tongue which presents the least barrier to learning. Immersion in a truly trilingual school environment must be the ultimate goal. The present debate over the bifurcation between CMI and EMI schools is therefore largely irrelevant.


St Margaret’s has a dedicated teaching force, a multi-cultural student body, strong English language education, and a good track record of innovation. Building on these strengths, St Margaret’s is well placed to realise the vision of a trilingual school. On this auspicious occasion, I wish St Margaret’s success in nurturing a new generation of leaders for Hong Kong , taking full advantage of the flexibility accorded under the Direct Subsidy Scheme who are rounded in their cognitive, moral, social, aesthetic and physical development and are proficient in English, Chinese and other languages of importance in a globalised economy.


May I wish you all happiness and success in the Year of the Rooster.


Last revision date: 25 February 2005
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