Mind Your Language


The Northern Territory Education Minister, Marion Scrymgour, recently made it mandatory for all schools in the Top End to teach in English for at least four hours of the day. The announcement has had mixed reactions across the education sector, and feeds into a long running ideological battle between proponents of bilingual education and those who believe the only way for Aboriginal kids to get ahead is for classes to be conducted predominantly in English.

In 2004-05, the NT Department of Employment Education and Training produced a report entitled Indigenous Language and Culture in Northern Territory Schools. The forward to the document, written by the then CEO, Margaret Banks, noted that there was "irresistible evidence to show that when the home languages and cultures of students are reflected in their learning experiences and learning environments, students achieve better levels of learning".

Recently, the same Margaret Banks was sacked by Scrymgour. On Friday 10 October, Banks was notified that she no longer enjoyed the confidence of the Minister. Scrymgour, who is from the Tiwi Islands, told the NT News that "since the beginning of this year, I have made it very obvious to Margaret (that I) had major concerns about the direction of education in the Northern Territory, particularly our results in our remote settings".

Some days later, on 14 October, Scrymgour, issued a media release entitled "Education restructure includes greater emphasis on English". Her direction that the first four hours of education in all NT schools was to be conducted in English caused fear and loathing among education professionals, linguists, and a number of influential Aboriginal people. The announcement was not supported by any substantive data. That was to be weeks away, and when it was eventually arrived it would have the look of a hastily cobbled together rationale, rather than a considered justification for a significant change of policy. But more on that later.

Politics in the Northern Territory doesn’t suffer from the intellectual blandishments that accompany the pursuit in Canberra and the cities of the south. Politicians who fail to be seen to act quickly and purposefully stamp themselves as candidates for political crucifixion. That this shabby circumstance is significantly a mess of their own making doesn’t make it any less true. Scrymgour — and the Henderson Government more broadly — had been deeply embarrassed by literacy and numeracy tests which showed that students at bush schools in the Northern Territory languished way below the benchmarks for the rest of the country. The pressure to "do something — anything" was immense.

Whether it is legitimate to expect a school in Maningrida to achieve educational outcomes comparable with those of schools in Manly or Malvern is a moot point. The litany of disadvantage encountered by those who live on remote communities does not bear repeated recitation, suffice to say that children who do not eat properly or sleep properly, and who only sporadically attend overcrowded and under-resourced schools are unlikely to be academic high-achievers.

In any case, the Minister’s precipitate pronouncement has been interpreted as a frontal attack on bilingual schools across the Territory, and has caused deep division. Those who support the Scrymgour scripture are damned as having no respect for traditional Aboriginal cultures, while the professionals who have rushed to defend bilingual education stand accused of indulging careerist motivations.

Only nine of the 150 public schools in the NT run a bilingual program, yet some 35 per cent of students across the board fail to meet national benchmarks — making it highly unlikely that bilingual programs are the chief culprit of these failings. During the early years of education in all remote community schools, it is common practice for first language teacher’s assistants to be present in the classroom, suggesting that the "bilingual versus English" battle is a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, it appears that bilingual — or "two-way" as it is often referred to — education is a sacrificial lamb destined for execution to appease the capricious gods of educational attainment.

Some weeks after Scrymgour’s announcement she tabled in parliament a document entitled "Data for bilingual schools in the Northern Territory". Forty pages of ill-explained bar charts and tables were appended to a sheet of nine damning dot-points which together purported to demonstrate that bilingual education wasn’t succeeding. The larger sheet, which encapsulated the sheaf of "explanatory" documents, included a diagram entitled "Transforming Indigenous education in Territory schools". It espoused principles such as "sturdy foundations" "growing our own" and yes, "four hours of quality teaching and learning in English daily". In the centre of the diagram was a circle emblazoned in large-point type with the magical term "attendance".

The main reason that children do not do well in remote community schools is that they do not attend them frequently enough. Rather than beat them, their parents, or their grandparents — or the government and the education bureaucracy for that matter, the urgent task is to find out what is going wrong. The ugly truth of the matter is that on any given remote community a 50-year-old Aboriginal woman is likely to have greater command of written and spoken English than her 30-year-old daughter.

On a recent visit to the community of Wadeye I spoke with educators — black and white — about the future of bilingual education. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School receives government funding via the Catholic Education Office, so the effect of the Scrymgour edict on the school is problematic. But the feelings of the teachers in respect to "two-way" learning are crystal clear.

Tobias Nganbe, co-principal of the school, is a Kirnmu man whose traditional country is just a few kilometres to the north-west of Wadeye. "The minister and the educators must come together to talk about improving education and life out on the communities" he implores. "She must listen to the educators — the people on the ground. It’s very important that our school continues with bilingual education. It’s the lifeline to later learning."

Michelle Rowe, a teacher of accelerated literacy at the school, echoed Nganbe’s sentiments. "We want to keep the bilingual program strong in the context of two languages running side by side," She said. "Bilingual allows children to get a grounding for their conceptual understanding in their own language, and thereby accelerate their learning. International research consistently shows that the stronger the first language is, the stronger the second language is. Children who are learning two languages get a double shot at learning how to read."

Perhaps the way forward is for Scrymgour to announce a moratorium on her pronouncement ("The Henderson Government listens to the people…") and invite all interested parties to sit down at the table. Resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and search for scapegoats. Start from the position that everyone in the room wants to see the best possible educational outcomes for Aboriginal kids in remote communities. Then find out what the research says: this stuff has been studied both here and overseas. What works? Talk to the experts: academics, educationalists, linguists. Talk also to the experts less-heralded: students, parents, community elders and teachers. Produce a thoughtful discussion paper for public comment and sit down again in three months time. Then decide.

Genuine political courage will be required, and regrettably this commodity is in short supply. Let the Minister stand up and say "we are not sure of the best thing to do here, but we’ll work hard to find out". There is no silver bullet – this much must be conceded at the outset. The solution won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it won’t be achievable within the timeframe of a single electoral cycle.

UPDATE: There are a number of media reports emanating from Darwin today that suggest that Minister Scrymgour has softened her position on bilingual schooling.

However, advice from the Minister’s office this afternoon is that the policy position announced in the Minister’s media release of Tuesday 14 October 2008, is rock solid — but that bilingual schools will now be permitted a "transition year" in which to adopt the new arrangements.

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