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Speech by Secretary for Education and Manpower at Foreign Correspondents' Club


Following is a speech by the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Mrs Fanny Law, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club tonight (March 30):

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been looking forward with anticipation to this evening's function. The Foreign Correspondents' Club has built up quite a reputation as a challenging venue for guest speakers, particularly for those who may be a little wary of the media. But I think anyone who has survived the media frenzy on day one of holding the education portfolio - no matter in what country - will feel at home in a club such as this! Having said that, however, it can still feel a little intimidating when speaking on education. As you know, it is one subject on which everyone seems to be an expert!

So, there are no prizes for guessing the topic of my speech. Education reform tops the agenda of many countries around the world. While the approach to reform may differ between countries, the objective is remarkably similar - "learn to know, to do, to live together and to be".

In a compact community like Hong Kong, and facing the twin challenges of a knowledge economy and growing competition in the global market place, our Education Commission embarked on a comprehensive review of education in 1998. After more than two years of deliberations and public consultation, a comprehensive reform agenda was mapped out and announced by the Chief Executive last October. The guiding principle behind the reforms is to build an education system that is conducive to lifelong learning and all-round development.

However, as education is such a huge subject, tonight I will focus on three areas. First, I will give you a brief overview of the key elements of the education reform. Next, I will address the 'hot' issues of the English standards of our students, which is a matter of considerable concern to both the local and international communities. Finally, I will share with you some thoughts on how the community, in particular the business community and the media, can support education in Hong Kong.

The Education Reform

Amidst the noise and fury generated by the education reform, it is easy to forget that the education system we have is basically sound. Our students still excel in international competitions and our universities rank among the best in the region. I wish to stress that the education reform seeks to build on existing strengths. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Preserving those features in our system that motivate students to perform well, and the gifted to excel, and providing for choice to suit diverse needs are essential for student success.

At the heart of the education reform is the need to change teaching and learning practices, and to make learning an enjoyable experience, so that students will be motivated to learn on their own, and to be lifelong learners. For this to happen will require changing the paradigm among teachers and their teaching skills.

Ten years from now we envisage an education system that provides enough school places for all pupils from the ages of 3 to 17, during which there are nine years of free education from primary 1 to secondary 3. We would like to see more private schools, including direct subsidy schools1, each with a distinct character and diverse curricula to suit varying needs. Beyond the age of 17, we have set a target of enabling 60 per cent of secondary school leavers to receive tertiary education. We are committed to ensuring that no one is denied an education for lack of financial means. We will expand the various student finance schemes to offer grants, low-interest loans and non-means-tested loans to all students pursuing full-time education up to the age of 25.

We see considerable potential for overseas education institutions to play a role in the provision of tertiary education. True to the grain of Hong Kong, we will provide a level playing field for all training providers. Bona fide non-profit making overseas institutions with a viable proposal to run their programme or set up a branch campus in Hong Kong will be eligible for the same assistance given to local providers, including start-up loans, and a concessionary land grant in meritorious cases.

They may also consider collaborating with one or more of our local tertiary institutions. I see a lot of merit in this model. It will give our students the opportunity to pursue a part of their programme overseas, which will enhance their English skills, build confidence, develop a global perspective and improve their opportunities for further education.

English proficiency

Let me now turn to a subject that is of concern to the local community, as well as investors in Hong Kong, both present and prospective - our proficiency in English. As the principal official charged with the education and manpower portfolio, I need no prompting about the importance of maintaining a high standard of English in schools, universities, and the workplace.

When I took office, the first question I asked was "have English standards declined?"

Notwithstanding public criticisms about our English proficiency, I have been assured by the Examinations Authority that Grade C of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination is recognised internationally as being equivalent to the GCE O-Level Pass. So, it is safe to say that the English proficiency of our top students is still very good. Indeed, I would even say that the best students of today are far better than before. However, as the Hong Kong economy expands and becomes more service-oriented, we need more people with good communication skills. This is where the criticisms arise, as our education system has not been able to produce a sufficient number of people with the requisite skills to meet the demand in full.

This prompted us to take a number of bold steps to improve English teaching and learning. Three years ago, we started the Native-speaking English Teacher Scheme. We now have close to 500 teachers recruited from English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the United States teaching in all our secondary schools. They have successfully forged an authentic environment for speaking English, something that was lacking in our schools and in the students' daily lives. And it is now being piloted in a small number of primary schools. As a supplement to the NET scheme, we also have a team of 70 overseas gap-year students working as English Language Teaching Assistants in various primary and secondary schools.

One positive outcome of the injection of native-speaking teachers is the introduction of more innovative methods of teaching English and a new, more participatory and interactive teaching culture. The impact of this new culture on some of the more conservative schools and teachers can be quite significant, but I believe it is more beneficial to the students. From the feedback we're getting from schools and students, the English classroom is now a much happier place. Notwithstanding lingering doubts and criticisms in some quarters about the cost of the scheme, I firmly believe we have done the right thing and I will try my best to secure resources to extend the scheme to more primary schools.

At the same time, we have not spared any effort in upgrading the standards of our local teachers of English. In the face of tremendous resistance from the teachers' union, we have established English language benchmarks which all teachers of English will need to meet in five years' time, either by undergoing a language proficiency assessment or by pursuing specified training programmes. We are exploring with the teacher training institutions an overseas immersion programme in the training of language teachers, and the expansion of training places for English teachers, including admission of mature students seeking a second career.

With the resources provided by the Language Fund and the Quality Education Fund, more and more good practices in English teaching are now being implemented and they are achieving impressive results. Full credit must go to those schools and teachers who took the initiative to implement these practices. For instance, the 'Big Book' approach has proved to be effective in developing the oral skills of pre-primary and primary students. It also lays a good foundation for developing their reading and writing skills later on.

The learning of English should not stop when a student leaves school. Indeed, the real test of English only comes when students enter university and after that, the workplace. Apart from allocating specific funding on a recurrent basis to all universities to run English language courses for undergraduate students, we have asked the universities to consider establishing a common English language test which all students have to sit before graduation. Barring unforseen circumstances, I expect the test to be in place by 2002. We get unanimous feedback from universities and employers that students who have spent some time studying overseas have a much better command of English than their local counterparts. We are therefore considering the possibility of increasing the opportunities for university students to join exchange programmes with institutions in English speaking countries.

For the workplace, the $50 million Funding Scheme for Workplace English Training has been in operation for about a year now. So far, around 15,000 employees are being supported under the scheme. We would like to see more employers participating in the scheme. I must point out that if there is a language problem, we all own it. The problem of falling language standards, which is experienced by many countries, is too complex and has too many roots and causes for governments to tackle alone. The community and the business sector in particular, need to realise that they also play a part in the solution. It is not enough just to voice discontent.

Finally, I think our famous medium of instruction policy, better known as 'mother-tongue teaching policy', deserves a mention. I would like to address three very common misunderstandings of this policy. First, and the most unthinkable, is that this policy means English is no longer taught in Hong Kong. The truth is very much to the contrary - English as a subject remains a core part of the curriculum, taking up a quarter of the curriculum time, and Chinese-medium schools have been given extra resources and English teachers to enhance the teaching of English.

The second misunderstanding is that all schools and all classes are now being taught in Chinese. Our policy is that where the teachers and students have the necessary capability to learn through the English medium, the schools are allowed to remain English medium schools. Roughly a quarter of our secondary schools fall into this category. In terms of English proficiency, and in recognition of the need to prepare students progressively for higher education and the workplace, Chinese medium schools may choose to use English as the teaching medium for some or all of the subjects, at the senior secondary and matriculation levels.

The third misunderstanding is that teaching all subjects in English will necessarily raise the standard of English. Well, yes and no, and taking into account the circumstances in most schools in Hong Kong, the answer is more likely to be no. If the necessary conditions are in place, such as teachers with high English proficiency, a language-rich environment, and students with a good grounding in English, there is no doubt that teaching in the English medium will raise English standards. But to think that this is the case for all schools in Hong Kong is just wishful thinking. Critics of our medium of instruction policy should realise that if a school without these enabling conditions insists on using English as the medium, not only will the students' English not improve, their understanding of all the other academic subjects will also suffer as a result of the language barrier. This was exactly what happened extensively before the present policy was implemented. Hong Kong can ill afford to pay this price again.

Community Support

Ladies and gentlemen, the education agenda is an enormous one, and education is far too important to our future to be left to the schools alone. People are our most valuable asset. The whole community needs to work together to support education and provide a healthy and enabling environment for our young people to grow and develop their potential to the full.

There are many ways in which businesses can contribute to education. The English in the Workplace Campaign was the first joint project with the business community. The Business-School Partnership Scheme, which is aimed at providing an authentic English speaking environment for students visiting the workplace, is now being reviewed. We plan to extend the partnership to include more in-depth exchanges at the school management level and summer job attachments for students.

We also wish to involve employers in parent education by holding talks in the workplace which, given the working pattern of Hong Kong people, offers better access to parents than through the school. Home school co-operation is crucial for the success of a child. Indeed, various researches have shown that behind every problem child, there is more likely than not, a problem family. Unless there is timely intervention, the problem will be exacerbated beyond redemption.

The business sector has responded enthusiastically to the public consultation on education reform with the establishment of a Business Coalition on Education. Membership of the Coalition includes all the major chambers of commerce. We will work with the Coalition on possible areas of co-operation between schools and businesses.

The local media has also responded constructively to the education reform programme with dedicated newspaper columns and special television and radio programmes on education, all of which arouse awareness of the aims of education in the 21st century and the reform agenda. In fact, the media has an immense impact on our community, particularly on impressionable young people, as we try to create a healthy and inspiring environment for them to grow and develop.


Ladies and gentlemen, you'll be pleased to know I've almost finished. But education is such a multi-dimensional process that there's no simple formula, and certainly no quick fix. So perhaps I could conclude by summing up in the words attributed to Aristotle, in the 4th century BC, "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet". Thank you.

End/Friday, March 30, 2001