Scrymgour's Bad Language

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In 1972 Kim Beazley Senior, then the Federal Minister for Education, played a key role in introducing bilingual education to the Northern Territory — an innovative educational strategy using Indigenous languages alongside English to teach the school curriculum.

In 2008, after 34 years, bilingual education was abandoned by the NT’s Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour. This week, Scrymgour announced her departure from politics, presenting an opportunity to reflect on the legacy she leaves for Indigenous languages and education in the Northern Territory.

In the late 1960s, Beazley was concerned about the poor educational outcomes of remote Indigenous education. He travelled to Central Australia and visited the Lutheran mission school at Hermannsburg (now known as Ntaria) and found something remarkable: the teacher was teaching not in English but in the student’s first language, Western Arrarnta, and students were learning to read and write their mother tongue as well as English. Not only that but he noticed that "nobody swung around and looked at me. Their focus was on what the teacher was saying" which was in contrast to the distracted, restless students he’d seen in English-only classrooms.

When Labor came to power in the early 70s, the rollout of bilingual education to two dozen or more remote government schools in the NT began, and with this the troubled story of bilingual education in the Northern Territory also started.

Bilingual education in the NT has brought some amazing benefits. It exponentially multiplied the number of trained Indigenous teachers and made a valued contribution to remote Indigenous employment, it drastically increased the level of resourcing of many Indigenous languages, some of which had barely ever been written down before (although some had written traditions for a few decades already). Remote schools became places that were integrated into communities, rather than alienating monocultural bastions of seemingly nonsensical colonisers. The NT Education Department developed sophisticated models of how to use Aboriginal languages to teach various parts of the curriculum and scaffold the learning of Indigenous-language speaking students to produce excellent English outcomes.

Best of all, kids learned. They learned to read and write in not one but two languages. They became biculturally competent, as well as bilingual and biliterate. They didn’t have to leave their language, history and culture behind them when they entered their classrooms.

But the fruits of bilingual education didn’t always ripen. Not all programs were delivered well and poorly delivered education programs will not produce good outcomes, no matter how great the premise is. The idea that kids could learn the curriculum in languages that baffle virtually the entire English-speaking world was a leap of faith too great for many urban bureaucrats and voters. Programs were often undermined, reviewed, scaled back.

By the time Marion Scrymgour was elected to parliament in 2001, bilingual education already had an illustrious but complicated history and had been a political hot potato for some time.

Marion Scrymgour’s arrival into NT politics is more than a little noteworthy, becoming the first female Indigenous cabinet minister in an Australian parliament. She was not immune to speaking out against her party and as deputy chief minister of the NT, was harshly critical when Mal Brough’s scribbled jottings turned into the beast that is the Intervention. She was vocal in opposing her own party’s policy that threatened the existence of homelands and outstations, almost bringing down the NT Government.

But for me, as a linguist who has spent years working alongside Aboriginal people struggling to document, revive, revitalise and maintain their precious languages, Scrymgour’s greatest legacy is her decision in October 2008 to scrap bilingual education after 34 years in the NT by introducing a policy dictating that the first four hours of teaching in all NT schools must be delivered in English.

The "First Four Hours of English" policy was not based on any data or research. In fact, it contradicted significant international research supporting bilingual education and mother-tongue instruction as successful pedagogies. Nobody was consulted. It went against Scrymgour’s own Education Department’s three-year strategic plan and "Remote Learning Partnership" agreements that the NT Government had been spending millions on developing.

Criticism was loud and immediate. Letters were written, meetings were held. Scrymgour visited Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education not long after her policy announcement and was publicly heckled by Indigenous language speaking students.

One of her senior advisors, Eva Lawler, was ordered to leave the community of Areyonga while Scrymgour "consulted" them about the threat to their Pitjantjatjara-English bilingual program that had been running for 34 years. (The community subsequently lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission). Four Corners got wind of the issue. And this was just the beginning of a long list of condemnations fired at Scrymgour and the Northern Territory Government as a result of the policy.

The roll-call of critics is impressive and includes:

• 2008 Australian of the Year, Mick Dodson

• 1993 Australian of the Year, Mandawuy Yunupingu

United Nations Human Rights Council

United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Australian Human Rights Commission

• 2011 NSW Australian of the Year, Larissa Behrendt

• 2011 NT Australian of the Year, Michael Christie

• NT Government’s opposition, the Country Liberal Party

• Labor’s NT Senator Trish Crossin

Australian Education Union

Australian Linguistic Society

Australian Greens

• Former Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma

Australian Council of TESOL Associations

Speech Pathology Australia

Criticisms take multiple forms — some decry the rights breaches against Indigenous students and parents who weren’t consulted and are denied the right to an education in their own language. Some point out the fundamental educational flaws in teaching kids in a language they don’t yet understand. Others point out the flimsy or non-existent evidence Scrymgour claimed supported her policy move, inferring that she in fact misled the NT Parliament. Others have demonstrated how alienated parents and communities were by their schools as a result of the policy.

Not to be deterred, Scrymgour stubbornly stood by her snap decision right to the end, justifying it with misleading statements about the nature of the bilingual education programs she’d abolished. In 2009, she told ABC’s Radio National that "90 per cent of the teaching, or the delivery, in those schools, 90 per cent was done in language", failing to disclose that the 90 per cent figure applied only to five-year-olds enrolled in their "Transition" year (the year of schooling students complete prior to moving to Year One).

As Scrymgour is farewelled from NT politics, the legacy she leaves when it comes to Indigenous languages and bilingual education still burns and corrodes. Indigenous languages are relegated to the camps, playgrounds and wishy-washy culture programs that schools are permitted to hold in the afternoons once kids have had their four hours of English-medium instruction. Indigenous student outcomes remain poor and attendance in remote schools has declined since the introduction of the First Four Hours policy. I’ve spoken to a number of teachers on the coalface in remote schools who understand that the policy is morally and pedagogically bankrupt but do as public servants must and keep their lips zipped.

In an interesting twist, the Federal Government is currently putting a national spotlight on the issue with a parliamentary inquiry into Indigenous language policies. The committee of the "Language Learning in Indigenous Communities" inquiry has received dozens of submissions criticising Scrymgour’s policy and they have heard plenty about it in their public hearings.

On 5 May, the committee reaches Darwin and it will be very interesting to see whether Scrymgour is asked to address a public hearing on Indigenous language education and bilingual education.

At the very least, we will certainly hear from NT Government representatives attempting to justify the maintenance of Scrymgour’s policy after four long years of criticism, backlash and poor outcomes for remote Indigenous students and the languages they speak.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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