After passionate appeals from parents, students and teachers who believe that English is the key to success, Hong Kong's education authorities have decided to allow 14 secondary schools that had been ordered to switch to Cantonese instruction to continue teaching in English.

The reversal comes after the government's decision last year to compel most of the territory's secondary schools to abandon instruction in English and teach in Cantonese, the native language of most students here.Education authorities were concerned that students were falling into a linguistic limbo and would learn more in their mother tongue.

Of Hong Kong's 400 secondary schools, 300 were ordered to switch to Cantonese; 20 schools appealed the decision.

At one of the schools that won the appeal, St. Stephen's College, students lined the school's balconies and cheered when they heard the news.

On the other side of Hong Kong, disappointed pupils at St. Antonius College protested the ruling that they must switch to Cantonese. A group of uniformed girls hung a banner reading: "We Must Be Given Choice."

Officials had not expected the emotional backlash from parents who are convinced that English is important for their children's future success and business leaders who fear that Hong Kong will lose its international edge if the territory's English abilities fade.

On Friday, education experts tried to reassure the public that the policy will not harm students' prospects.

"Teaching in English is not a reward, and teaching in Chinese is not a punishment," said Moses Chang Hsin-kang, the head of the appeals committee. "The focus should be whether the students will be educationally benefited when taught in English or Chinese."

Although the move away from English instruction began more than a decade ago, it was only in 1997, just before Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, that the government officially mandated the switch.

The timing, said Rosie Young, who heads the Hong Kong Education Commission, seemed practical and politically correct.

For many schools, being able to teach in English is a matter of prestige - many of Hong Kong's business and government leaders were educated at English schools.

At the Maryknoll Fathers' School, which has used English for 40 years, students festooned the campus with banners declaring, "We Love Learning in English!" The principal, Ken Lee, had vowed to resign if the school did not win its appeal.

On Friday, he learned that he will be able to keep his job.

For other schools, the decision may be a matter of survival.

The number of applications for St. Antonius Girls' College dropped sharply after being designated a Chinese school last December. The secondary school normally receives between 200 and 400 applications annually, but so far, 19 students have applied for next year's class, Vice Principal Yau Hing Wah said.