Confusion reigns over language

22nd December 1995 at 00:00
HONG KONG. With just 18 months to go before the 1997 hand-over to China, language has become a major issue in Hong Kong. The government's policy has been far from consistent in the last year. In 1994-95 there were moves to teach in Cantonese rather than in English, despite strong parental opposition.

This December, the education commission - which makes recommendations to the government - noted a drop in English proficiency and said more English-speaking teachers should be brought in from overseas. This came in the wake of several years of cuts in the number of English teachers from abroad.

"Hong Kong's workforce will quickly lose its competitiveness in the Asia Pacific region if nothing is done to upgrade the language proficiency of our students," said the commission's report.

At the same time, with the hand-over looming, there has been some worry over proficiency in Mandarin - China's official language. A Mandarin language curriculum for Hong Kong schools is only now being developed for introduction in 1998, a year after the hand-over, and Mandarin will only be part of the school-leaving exam from the year 2000 - even though its growing importance is being acknowledged.

However, the simplified written characters used in China may be introduced into schools in September 1996.

While confusion reigns on the language front, the government has shown a clear commitment to increasing the number of schools, to reducing the teacher-student ratio and to cutting down the number of schools running two sessions in a single classroom.

It has provided more resources for low-ability pupils and immigrant children from mainland China.

This year some 6,000 children from China have had special assistance and remedial teaching to help them adapt to life in Hong Kong.

Five new primary schools are to be built in 1997-8 to accommodate new arrivals from the Chinese mainland.

A reduction in class sizes from 40 to around 35 has helped improve student-teacher relations following an alarming number of suicides among children.

The government is taking other measures to reduce school stress. It is trying to promote an "activity approach" to learning in primary schools, and many are converting to become full day schools.

A major influx of refugees from China in the 1970s, together with the introduction of free universal education later the same decade, meant construction of new buildings could not keep up with the expansion in school places.

Consequently, many schools ran two sessions in the same classroom - one age group in the morning, another in the afternoon. This limited classroom time to just four hours a day, with vast amounts of homework necessary in order to keep up with the demands of the curriculum.

Working parents and the less educated were particularly burdened by the need to supervise this homework, so children from deprived backgrounds suffered most from the system.

But another 23 primary schools moved to operating a single session per classroom this year, and the programme will continue apace next year.

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