NT gov't fails on bilingual education

January 28, 2011

The NT government has failed to change its policy of "First Four Hours" of English in remote Aboriginal schools, despite the trial period expiring in January.

The policy was introduced in January 2009, supposedly as a way to improve English literacy for Aboriginal students. The policy mandated that schools teach only in English for the first four hours — the most productive hours — of school, leaving teaching in local language to the last two, least productive, hours of the day.

It effectively banned Aboriginal language in the classroom.

Students in these remote communities usually have English as only their second, third or fourth language after local Aboriginal languages.

On January 17, ABC News reported that school attendance had dropped in Lajamanu by 23% since the introduction of the First Four Hours policy.

Lajamanu had extensive language support in its school before 2009. There was a great deal of support for the local language, Walpiri, and one of the key figures behind its innovative teaching method, Steve Jampijinpa Patrick, was awarded the 2007 Innovative Curriculum Award by the Australian Curriculum Studies Association for his work.

The First Four Hours policy undid much of his good work.

Crikey.com's Bob Gosford reported on January 18 that Lajamanu students are now scared to speak Walpiri at school and that the culture of supporting local language and religious beliefs has broken down. Gosford said it was this policy that was most to blame for the drop in attendance.

Linguist Greg Dickson agreed. He told the ABC: “I don't think it's a coincidence that some schools like Lajamanu have really seen a big drop in attendance since they haven't been able to run a bilingual program, which they have been running for almost two decades.

"You can't say that is the only reason school attendance is falling, but I think it’s a factor.

"So it seems like Warlpiri education was sidelined, bilingual education was abandoned and it's affected how the community engages with the local school."

In the face of falling attendance and community opposition, the NT government had an opportunity to overturn the policy and promote bilingual education as a way to make schools relevant to Aboriginal students.

Instead, the government has said it will punish parents whose children don't regularly attend school.

The January 18 Sydney Morning Herald said the government would offer rewards to students with regular attendance and heavily fine families of children who did not regularly attend school. Lengthening the school year to make up for time lost to ceremonies, funerals and sporting events was also suggested.

These are old ideas that haven't worked.

The partial ban on bilingual education happened at the same time as a truancy policy that threatened to cut Centrelink payments to parents whose children did not regularly attend school. This has failed to stop the free-fall in school attendance over the past two years in the NT.

But there are signs that the NT government is backtracking.

A policy document called "Literacy for both worlds" was released by the education department in December 2010. It restated commitments to teaching in English but also stated the importance of Aboriginal language in education — a turnaround from the previous policy.

It relegated Aboriginal language to a secondary status and focused on it in early years of schooling, but was a shift nonetheless.

However, the document was removed from the education department website within a week.

On January 17, the NT government claimed its policy had been "misunderstood" and that "from time to time it will be better to introduce a concept in home language", ABC news reported.

The NT government should re-instate Aboriginal language programs in schools — a policy that recognises the right to be taught in one's own language and is proven to improve school attendance and educational outcomes.

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