Bilingual cuts reveal racism in education

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Bilingual cuts reveal racism in education

By Natalie Zirngast

DARWIN — In December the Country Liberal government in the Northern Territory decided to phase out bilingual teaching programs in 20 schools in remote indigenous communities. The $3.7 million in funding for these programs will now pay for the provision of English as a second language (ESL) programs. The government justified this on the grounds that the bilingual programs were not providing an adequate level of English literacy and that Aboriginal communities were concerned about this.

The move, however, has prompted expressions of outrage from Aboriginal communities. The bilingual programs have been strongly defended on the grounds of educational value, cultural preservation and international human rights conventions.

Since the decision, numerous calls have been made for it to be reversed. A rally in Nhulunbuy on December 10 attracted 250 people. On December 16, 700 people, from both town and bush communities, attended a rally in Alice Springs.

Petitions with more than 8400 signatures have been presented to the NT parliament, and more will be tabled at the August sitting. This is the largest petition ever presented to the NT parliament.

A review of education programs headed by former Labor senator Bob Collins has been overwhelmed with submissions about bilingual education. The review is expected to finalise its recommendations in approximately a month.

The lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities on this issue has been a major concern. Gurrwun Yunupingu from Yirrkala's Community Education Centre stated that the move "disadvantages our students and the future of indigenous peoples. They have made this bad decision without any consultation with our communities. I was part of the Education Review consultations last year, and the issue of ending the program was not discussed."

However, the NT government has defended its consultation process. It also argued that the ESL programs will increase English literacy. NT education minister Peter Adamson has stated that there will still be a local language component to the schools once the ESL program has been implemented.

Rather than the bilingual programs being examined for the benefits they provide, they seem to have been scapegoated for the lower levels of literacy of Aboriginal students.

Only 4% of indigenous students reach tertiary level, as opposed to 24% in the general population. A Northern Territory government report found that Aboriginal students from remote areas had the education levels of eight-year-olds from urban areas when they left school at 15, and that many students fail to complete schooling.

Figures from bilingual schools, though, show that Aboriginal students attend more regularly than in non-bilingual schools. But if Aboriginal students from bilingual schools are ahead of other Aboriginal students, they are still behind the national average. Factors that affect the education of Aboriginal students in remote areas include lack of housing, recreation and health facilities, and the likelihood of unemployment and poverty.

According to NT Australian Education Union president Robert Laird, an emphasis on attendance and community responsibility has appeared to place the blame on parents for children achieving slightly less in relation to English and maths benchmarks. He said, however, that the achievements of indigenous children in language learning are far above the average, since they acquire up to four languages by the age of eight.

Laird also said that low staffing levels and lack of housing and training for staff contribute to the difficulties of educating Aboriginal students in remote communities.

The aim of the bilingual language programs is to facilitate English language education for students with an Aboriginal language as their first language. Both languages are taught simultaneously.

In a statement to the secretary of the NT Department of Education and the minister for education, members of the Faculty of Education at the NT University rejected the decision to phase out bilingual education. They said proficiency in the first language has been proven to have a positive effect on second language learning, while initial literacy in a second language may be detrimental to cognitive development.

Teaching exclusively in English in remote communities can lead to communication problems. In addition, United Nations conventions on the rights of indigenous people and children's rights dictate that every child has the right to attain literacy in their own language. The NT government has been accused of breaching these conventions, both of which the federal government has signed.

The bilingual program has been in place since 1972. One of the main benefits for Aboriginal people has been their role in preserving languages and indigenous culture. However, according to a radio interview by acting NT education minister Mike Reed in January, this role has to be played by the communities, not the school.

In the same interview, Reed argued that for all their faults, the "mission schools" did provide Aboriginal people with English literacy.

Education minister Peter Adamson echoed this comment in the NT University paper Delirra when he stated, "It's mainly the schools and the education system that have preserved Aboriginal languages. Before the white man came along most Aboriginal languages weren't written down and it's only the education system and things like that that are helping it to happen. My position is that we as a government, as an education department will offer support by all means to encourage preservation of languages. But the custodians of culture have to be in the community."

But without government support and funding, it is virtually impossible for Aboriginal people to be the custodians of their culture, particularly when they don't have control of their land. By removing the bilingual education program, the government is continuing the process of cultural assimilation. However much the community seeks to preserve its languages, they are in jeopardy if young people can't learn in their own language at school.

The bilingual schools are also a major source of employment for Aboriginal teachers, and they give the community pride in their school — a pride that they can produce resources in their own language.

Dr Christine Nicholls, senior lecturer at Flinders University and former principal at Lajamanu School in the Tanami Desert, commented, "There was a link with the self-esteem of the children and the community. The children had their identity affirmed, and it brought the adults from the community into the school; many of the Walpiri people went on to do teacher training in order to teach in the schools. In my time at the school, the attendance rate went up from 65% to 90%."

At a hearing in Yirrkala of the committee for the House of Representatives Reeves review of the Land Rights Act, community representatives urged the committee to support the continuation of bilingual education. They emphasised the strong links between language continuity and land rights.

A linguist at the Yirrkala School, Raymattja Marika, told the committee, "Our languages should be recognised as part of the land rights story ...

"Our leaders used our languages to tell the country about the importance of land to our culture. Land is also important for language and education. Everything in the land is a text that we learn to read. Our songs carry important stories about our land. Our children need to learn about all these things.

"This means that our students learn multiple languages, learning about paintings as maps, about the things plants tell us, about the things that the moon, stars and planets tell us. This is the link between our land, our environment and our languages. We don't want the land controlled by the same people, the NT government, who want to stop resourcing us to use our languages to educate our younger generation about the contemporary world."