To Sir With Love

I have begun to wonder whether the Education Bureau is still part of the Government, or secretly declared independence when I wasn’t looking. It certainly seems to be pursuing its own agenda.

The first sign that something might be amiss came with the controversy over national education. Now we can go a bit easy on Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying and Education Minister Eddie Ng because they clearly inherited this unexploded ordinance from their predecessors. That said, they hardly helped themselves by being slow to recognise disaster as it approached and handling it clumsily when they did.

But what about the officials who were on board all the way through the saga? Did none of them warn their political masters that they were sailing into troubled waters?

Once Leung finally grasped the seriousness of the issue and sent the doughty Anna Wu in with a long handled shovel to bury the subject in the deepest hole she could dig, reports suggest there was last ditch resistance from a hard core of zealots who wanted to stick to the original game plan.

Full marks for patriotism, perhaps, if not for political sensitivity.

Now we have the matter of the subvention to the English Schools Foundation, which seems to be approaching a climax of sorts.

It is common knowledge that some in the education hierarchy dislike all international schools, but seem to hold a special grudge against the ESF. Having shamefully frozen the subvention many years ago, the officials in charge are now on the verge of achieving their decades old dream of ending it altogether.

Yet no-one has made a case anywhere to explain why all children of permanent Hong Kong residents should not enjoy the same level of subsidy irrespective of whether their parents opt to send them to local, ESF or international schools.

Moreover, during the Chief Executive election campaign, candidates were quizzed on a variety of issues and their responses were published in this newspaper.

Albert Ho, Regina Ip and Henry Tang all pledged to continue support for the ESF. The successful candidate, Leung, said "I support continued subvention to ESF to enable it to fulfil its duty of providing affordable English-language education for non-Chinese-speaking children in Hong Kong".

When and how did Minister Ng persuade his boss to renege on this campaign pledge? What rationale did he quote? Presumably the arguments must have been very powerful and I think we are all entitled to hear them.

Next up is the subject of educating our ethnic minorities. These people may have come originally from Pakistan, India, Nepal and so on. Now they live in Hong Kong, some of the families having been here for generations. Their first language will be neither English nor Chinese. If they are to integrate fully into our community, it is essential that they learn to read, write and speak Chinese.

Many pick up spoken Cantonese in the streets or the school playground. But learning to read and write in a home where neither parent uses the language at all is a Herculean task.

There is a desperate need to make proper provision for teaching Chinese as a second language. That means a syllabus, appropriate teaching material and trained teachers.

If as a community we fail to do this, then we risk perpetuating a cycle of non-integration with implications for poverty (employment opportunities for such youngsters will be severely restricted) and security as marginalised teenagers are tempted into crime.

Since at least as far back as 1998, an involved NGO, Unison, has been pressing the education bureau to prepare a relevant curriculum but without effective response. Instead the children have a choice of either mainstream local schools where they struggle to keep pace with native Chinese speakers, or so-called designated schools where a majority of students are from minorities and they all achieve an equally poor standard of Chinese together.

Why are we planning to fail these children so dismally?

In the film "To Sir With Love", a dedicated teacher reached across ethnic lines to bring solid education to students from a deprived area.

I fancy our Chief Executive, suffering in the public opinion polls at present, is at least as tall as Sidney Poitier. It would be nice if he got his mojo working on this subject.

A good way to start would be by seizing back control of the education bureau.