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A successful Hong Kong is China’s shop window

By Graham Cooke - posted Thursday, 24 September 2009

Almost 12 years after it was introduced, the jury is still out on Hong Kong’s much-heralded Native English Teacher (NET) Scheme.

Its origins date back to the handover of the city and its surrounding territory to Mainland China in 1997 after a century-and-a-half of British colonial rule. During that time English had been the teaching medium in most schools providing a steady stream of bright young graduates fluent or near-fluent in the language who were snapped up by Hong Kong’s steadily expanding business community.

That came to a shuddering halt 12 years ago when it was decreed that with the return to the motherland, the Chinese language should be the teaching medium in Hong Kong schools. Worse, most Mainland Chinese speak Mandarin, while the indigenous tongue of Hong Kong is Cantonese, similar in written form but almost completely different in speech. So in effect classes had to be set up to teach Hong Kong children the language of their new home.


Where did that leave English? Taking very much a back seat - or at least that was the fear of Hong Kong business people. The representations they made to the fledgling Provisional Legislative Council were blunt: Hong Kong depends for its prosperity on its position as a premier financial and trading centre; like it or not English is the language of business and without English the city will lose its competitive edge and go into decline.

The new rulers listened, especially in Beijing where the leadership saw a successful Hong Kong as China’s shop window to the world. The result was the establishment of the NET Scheme under the Education and Manpower Bureau to recruit teachers, either native English speakers or at least fluent in the language, to attach themselves to schools, supplementing the Hong Kong teaching staff and hopefully, contributing to an increased standard of instruction.

Perhaps inevitably, the majority of teachers recruited were Australians, followed by New Zealanders, Canadians, British and tailing off with a smattering of South Africans, Indians and Singaporeans among others. Simon Tham, the Hong Kong Education Bureau’s Chief Curriculum Development Officer, who oversees the scheme, says that it has been a success.

“There is an Education Panel within LegCo (the Legislative Council) and all members of the Panel support the NET Scheme and said there should be more NET teachers in Hong Kong,” he said.

“I am sure that if the scheme were taken away now there would be uproar.”

There have been hiccups along the way. NETs were first restricted to secondary schools with primary schools entering the scheme only in 2002. This is against the wisdom of most educators who believe the emphasis on second-language learning should be at the younger age.


Tham says that it is still too early to make a definitive judgment on the expanded scheme “but I would say that in general there have been improvements that can be shown through various international data,” he said. “PISA [Program for International Student Assessment run by the OECD] and PIRLS [Progress in International Reading Literacy Study] reports do verify the fact that English standards in Hong Kong are improving.”

While both the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong failed to respond to requests for comments, individual businesspeople have been more forthcoming. Jo Alberto, the principal of export company China Gate International, does not believe there has been a significant improvement in English standards.

“I think there are two reasons: One is that a lot of young people simply believe they no longer need English to survive and prosper,” he said.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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