LANGUAGE teachers are rebelling against plans to make them take tests in English and Mandarin.
About 14,000 English teachers and 4,300 Mandarin teachers are required to pass the language tests by 2005 or be moved to other subjects.
The government has set aside HK$240 million (pound;20 million) for training courses to support its drive to raise language standards among teachers.
On Saturday, more than 6,000 teachers demonstrated against the "insulting" tests and demanded that the government apologise. The 75,000-strong Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, which organised the protest, has called for a boycott, with more than 37,000 teachers signing a petition.
"We should not blame teachers if standards are not high, but the system," said the union's president, Mr Cheung Man-Kwong.
"For a long time, even during British control, teachers did not receive a proper education." Class sizes of 40 or more had also contributed to low standards, he said.
The union and the Democratic party have called for training to be improved, rather than teachers being put to the test.
The tests are to be introduced in October. But, according to a survey by education pressure group Education Convergence, only 6.4 per cent of the 504 teachers it polled were willing to take them.
In a climbdown from its original stance that all teachers be tested, a governmen-appointed advisory committee on teachers, education and qualifications agreed last week that those with English degrees and a professional teacher's qualification could be exempted.
But Education Convergence vice-chairman Tso Kai-lok said that he opposed the government's pre-conditions on exemptions.
He estimated that only one in seven English teachers had English degrees and professional qualifications. Other qualifications should also be considered, he said.
According to an Education Department survey, about 25 per cent of English teachers at secondary schools and 48 per cent in primaries have not majored in English at university and were not "subject trained".
Outgoing director of education Fanny Law described the row over the tests as the "most regrett-able incident" of her 19-month term. "For those teachers with high English standards, I'm really sorry they have to sit the test," she said. "Since the standards among teachers vary a lot they need to prove that they meet the benchmark."
David Dodwell, convener of the Business Coalition on Education, said that the testing exercise was necessary to raise English standards to meet the needs of Hong Kong's economy. "We have to tackle the problem in terms of both numbers of teachers and their competence."
Many English teachers did not have the competence to meet their students' needs, he said.