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.

“They see their future as very much with mainland China and proficiency in Mandarin is more important to them. Command of English has become a niche market.

“The other is the standard and attitudes of many NET teachers. The program seems to be attracting either youngsters with little experience in search of an adventure or those near retirement looking to make a bit of money out of their last posting. We don’t get many in between who are at the height of their teaching powers and able to make the biggest impression.

“Then, of course there is the professional jealousy from the regular Hong Kong teachers who see the NETs coming into their schools, not exactly extending themselves, but picking up much bigger salaries. That kind of situation doesn’t make for harmonious relationships.”

Alberto’s comments are vehemently opposed by NET teachers themselves with one, an Australian with four years’ experience in the Scheme, saying many older teachers had proved to be an inspiration to their students, Hong Kong-native English teachers and other NETs. “I know one who is an absolute legend,” she said. “I’m not exactly at the beginning of my career, but I’ve learnt from her.”

Not all NETs are that content with another long-serving Australian saying the money was her major motivation. “It’s twice what I would be getting in Australia,” she said. “Then there’s ease of travel, maids are cheap so no housework, massages, beauty parlours and lots of other middle-aged NETs to hang out with.

“Actually, I think I’ve got it pretty good, because I’m in a nice school and respected as a sort of English guru, but many face unfriendly local colleagues - sometimes downright hostile.”

She is scathing in her criticism of the bureaucracy. “The whole thing needs reform. If you are going to employ hundreds of Westerners you need Westerners in charge, a lot of the administrators are culturally out of touch with us.”

Even so she says she will be staying on. “We Australians tend to be tough, humorous and smart, if a little too laid back and keen on holidays and downtime for the Chinese way of thinking, but we’re good with discipline and thinking outside the box,” she said.

“The Poms do quite well here because they are more used to the rigid exam system that the Chinese love.”

Tham insists that the problems are not serious. “Sometimes the community’s aspirations outstrip what can reasonably be supplied,” he said. “We are still turning out a certain percentage of good quality students each year, but there is now more demand for people who are proficient in English.

“If the scheme was not doing what it should the Government would put an axe to it - and there is no sign of that happening.”

An evaluation of the scheme done by Melbourne University revealed that school principles thought the employment of NETs had given students increased opportunities to learn and enjoy English. “The evaluation found that students are now more confident in the language,” Tham said.

“But for every bad report I am getting many more where the NET is a valued member of the school community, loved and supported by principles, staff and students.”

Hong Kong’s economy is on the rebound. Seasonally adjusted, growth resumed at 3.3 per cent in the second quarter, ending the contraction of the previous four quarters. At the same time the United States Federal Reserve is making some of its most optimistic forecasts in more than a year with Chairman Ben Bernanke saying the country is out of recession.

The global slowdown has given the NET Scheme some breathing space as companies reduced their hiring, but if the recovery in China and Asia generally is going to be as strong as some observers predict, coupled with rising demand in a reviving North American market, the quality of English among graduates from the education system is going to once more come under scrutiny.

The NET Scheme’s biggest test may be yet to come.

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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 believes an interest in world affairs grew out of his early years playing soccer - “the truly international game”.