The Northern Territory government’s latest proposed approach to teaching Aboriginal students, like its previous policy, places a primacy on reading and writing in English. It allows for students’ first language to be used to help teachers explain new concepts, but critics fear it falls short of valuing Aboriginal languages.
The draft Literacy Framework for Students with English as an Additional Language was released on August 31. It slightly amends the controversial “First Four Hours” policy, introduced in January 2009, which expired earlier this year.
Many criticised the First Four Hours policy, saying it ended the NT’s “Two-Way Learning” policy, which used bilingual education approaches and recognised the central role of Aboriginal teachers and teacher assistants. Under the First Four Hours policy, the first four hours of the school day — the most productive learning time — were taught in English only.
The government came under much pressure over the policy. At a time when it claimed to be focused on improving school attendance in Aboriginal communities, critics said ending bilingual education discouraged students from taking part in the mainstream schooling system.
Case studies of four Warlpiri schools showed no improvement — and sometimes a drop in attendance rates — since the policy was introduced.
When the policy was announced in 2008, Yolngu educator Yalmay Yunupingu said: “The decision to make English the only important language in our schools will only make the situation worse for our young people as they struggle to be proud Yolngu in a world that is making them feel that their culture is bad, unimportant and irrelevant in the contemporary world.”
Article 14.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, to which Australia is a signatory, says: “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.”
The new draft policy was released in August. Many who saw the First Four Hours policy as an attack on Aboriginal identity and self-determination, and thought it contravened the UN declaration, eagerly awaited it.
The draft is based on a government-commissioned report by the Menzies School of Health Research, which reviewed the literature on “Early years English language acquisition and instructional approaches for Aboriginal students with home languages other than English”.
The draft acknowledges the linguistic diversity of Aboriginal students in the Northern Territoty. It says: “More than 100 Aboriginal languages and dialects are spoken in the Territory. About 30% of NT school students are English as Additional Language (EAL) learners with one or more Indigenous home languages.”
Yet the policy does not recognise that teaching and nurturing literacy in these languages is of inherent worth.
Australia is home to some of the world’s oldest living languages. But UNESCO says it also has the world’s highest rate of language extinction. Yet the draft policy says teaching in the first four hours should remain “predominantly in English”, with home language used to explain new concepts.
Meredith Davies from the Darwin Aboriginal Rights Coalition told said: “Through supporting bilingual education, government respects Aboriginal culture, signalling that it has an equally valid place within the education system. This new policy does not recognise the inherent value of Indigenous languages but rather sees that they may be a useful tool through which to achieve better English literacy outcomes.”
The Menzies review covered several approaches to teaching EAL students. These included “Bilingual 50:50 instruction”, which aims to have students read and speak in both languages, through to “Culturally responsive instruction with strong [EAL] support”, which teaches students to speak and read in English only, but leaves space for “cultural maintenance”.
The Menzies report said effective bilingual approaches require support from the community, leadership from the school and Indigenous teachers, competent staff (including first-language speakers) and appropriate resources.
Failing these conditions, the report said EAL strategies were “the best approach to achieve improvement in student educational and language outcomes”.
The government’s draft policy most closely resembles such EAL strategies. This is despite evidence that bilingual education has strong support in communities, that there are many qualified and skilled Indigenous teachers working in the NT, and that some schools have teacher-linguists and language resource production centres.
The draft policy acknowledges “some communities will identify a desire to have their children learn to read and write in their home language as well as … English”. The education department will support communities by allowing them to use school facilities after hours “for cultural and language activities”.
The draft policy does not address how this option will work in practice. It is not clear whether teachers will have to work overtime or if extra funds will be allocated.
The draft proposes a further option for schools that want to teach Indigenous children’s first language in school hours. Directors of School Performance will consider “arrangements in schools where communities want their children … to read and write in their home language”.
The draft policy says such arrangements may be approved if the school can prove it has community support, competent staff and suitable curriculum resources.
There is no requirement that the government help communities meet these criteria.
Yingiya Guyula is a Liya-dhalinymirr man from north-east Arnhem land who was taught in the bilingual system. He is now a senior Yolngu Studies lecturer at Charles Darwin University. He said learning to read and write in one’s own language — not just maintaining the ability to speak it — was vital for his people to keep their strength and identity, while they negotiate their way through the non-Aboriginal world at the same time.
“Bilingual education did work. It did work,” he said. “I am one of the students who learned Yolngu Matha and Balanda Matha [English] in school. And now, I am here, working in the university, teaching language and culture. I sometimes help [my non-Yolngu colleagues] with grammar.
“Bilingual education never got in the way of a mainstream education. It fitted very, very well. It fitted perfectly. A lot of us are now teaching, and I am able to write, and I do lots of transcriptions, translations, for the stories that our old people have recorded.
“If I had never learnt Yolngu Matha, through bilingual education, back in the late ’60s and ’70s, I would have never got this far.”
[A version of this article first appeared in Tracker magazine.]