This is part of a three-part critique of the draft report: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory written by Bruce Wilson.
The public release of this Report resulted in a brief flurry of media reports and then nothing. Most of the media reports highlighted only one recommendation: to deliver secondary education mainly in large (non-Aboriginal) communities and close down secondary offerings in most remote/very remote communities (my focus for part three).
However, when I read the report, I found it worrying on a number of levels. The first issue for me was its refusal to address the adequacy or otherwise of funding provided by the NT for Indigenous education. This was the subject of my first piece on this subject.
The second very troubling aspect of the report relates to the early learning experiences of Indigenous children. Now it is clear from his writing that Bruce Wilson is not an expert on this issue nor was he required to be. But given his lack of expertise, it was his responsibility to do his due diligence on this important subject – to deal with the key research findings in a field – before making influential (and conveniently cheap) recommendations.
This is the crux of the problem:
Bruce Wilson notes that in many remote/very remote communities almost all children arrive a school with almost no English. He then immediately narrows his focus to the question – how to get these children up to speed in English reading and writing? And the answer for him is simple – Do what we do for Australian children but do it earlier.
The key elements of Wilson’s recommendation are as follows
1) Children in pre‐ school should be explicitly taught appropriate phonemic awareness skills and English sight words
2) Schools in the early years should implement the standard Australian curriculum in English and mathematics, in English only, until satisfactory levels of English are achieved
This is problematic on so many levels.
So what did Bruce Wilson miss here?
Almost 100 per cent of children who grow up in discrete Indigenous communities in remote NT speak another language, or more frequently languages. This doesn’t just mean that these children speak another language; it means that they don’t speak English and they don’t hear it spoken in the home, in the playground, in the community, at social functions, on the radio, in shops and in church.
They live in a non-English speaking world, until they arrive at school. At school one of the goals should be to support all children to be competent users of the English language. But they don’t just need to learn to read and write, they need first to learn to speak and understand. They will come across English words that have no parallel meaning in their language, home language words and concepts that are not able to be readily translated into English words, phonemes in their language that are not used in the English language and many English phonemes do not exist in their languages.
When the children go to pre-school, the teachers have to work out how to support early play based learning for a whole class of children who do not understand English but who do understand speak and play in a living Indigenous language or languages.
What would your priorities be? You may say start to introduce them to the world of English, but how?
Well how do others learn a whole new unfamiliar language?
If you enrolled in a Japanese language class, would you expect to find the following?
- not one word spoken in English to tell you what was happening, or where the toilets are,
- the lesson is filled with lists of Japanese phonemes to learn – sounds that you have trouble getting your tongue around, sounds in Japanese script that you have trouble trying to replicate, and sounds disconnected from any meaning
- you are given lists of words to memorize as sight words
Or would you expect to find yourself in a fun oral conversation class in the early days, where you are immersed in the sounds of Japanese but given a huge amount of scaffolding support to master a simple conversation?
Australia has a relatively positive record of educating children who are new arrivals from a language background other than English. How did we earn this reputation? Do we explicitly teach these children sets of phonemes and request that they learn them off by heart? Do we teach them sight words so they can respond to picture-less flash cards? Of course we don’t. We provide them with a rich and supporting intensive English oral immersion experience and gradually introduce text that builds on their growing English language oral competence. We fund this rich immersive experience for a full 12 months before we expect them to operate in a standard classroom.
Now I don’t know about Bruce Wilson, but I learnt English in my home, immersed in a loving and oral language rich environment. Many of my peers came to Australia from war torn countries and learnt English in a much more challenging environment. There were no Intensive English Centres back then. But they did mix with English speaking children in school classrooms, in playgrounds, in church and shopping centres. They did hear it in the street, on the buses, on the radio and later TV and in the playground and classroom. They did not have to sit NAPLAN tests and feel the brunt of NAPLAN failure and their teachers expected them to learn English in this accidental way – and so they did.
But children in remote communities only ever hear English language spoken in their formal classroom. They don’t hear it anywhere else, not even in the playground. So if these children learn English ‘just like everyone else learns English’ we need to replicate these oral rich environments, while continuing to support their learning.
In the NT, this unique language challenge was handled in many communities through the two-way education approach known as bilingual education. It was endorsed as official policy because there was a growing body of international research supporting it and because, when well funded and supported, it enabled children to have an English language oral immersion experience while still being able to learn about number, text, letters, the culture of classroom learning, the art of reading, nature, art and music and so on utilizing their already developed language skills of their own language.
For example, in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, children in the early years learn in their own language, Yolnu Matha, using texts that had been developed by trained linguists who worked at the school specifically for this purpose. English exposure is largely oral at this stage. This has been the consistent approach at this school for over 40 years but the implementation details have changed over time as funding for the program has whittled away, leaving a bare bones approach.
A potted history is required here. The bilingual education program was once well-funded and well-supported, with trained linguists funded by the program to work with the schools to develop new community specific resources. Teachers were trained in how to work in two-way classrooms including how best to work as a team with their Indigenous Education Workers.
Early in 2000 the NT abolished the program only to reinstate it without critical funding for as many linguists, or trained two-way specialists. Language specific publications were less frequently upported and there was no funding support for revised programs guidelines or for training. For many years it languished as an unsupported program.
Teachers who arrived at a two-way school found themselves in a two-way classroom with an Indigenous Education Worker, some old language based resources, some old program guidelines and a large number of children many of whom attended on an irregular basis who did not understand them. They were given no training about how to work with their Indigenous colleague or in two-way education or even basic ESL training.
Then in 2008, Marion Scrimgour, the then Minister for Education and an Indigenous woman, in response to severe pressure about poor NAPLAN results, took everyone by surprise by announcing a new NT government policy to teach only in English for 4 out of the 5 hour school day. Scrymgour later apologised for this ‘mistaken’ decision (Rawlinson, 2012).
However, a number of schools, refused to comply, and in 2012 the NT Education Department released their compromise: “English as an additional language policy” which, while never using the words two-way or bilingual, does state that
While there will be a focus on learning English, home/local languages can and should be used where appropriate to support learning in all of the learning areas
Sometimes, particularly in the early years and for students newly arrived in Australia, it is better to introduce concepts using the home/local language. This is good teaching practice and is to be encouraged throughout the day.
It is important for children to learn to read and write in their home/local language as well as read and write in English.
But then it curiously adds the following
The Department of Education and Training values home/local languages and culture and will support communities through the use of school facilities after hours for cultural and language activities and within the curriculum through language and culture programs.
So my take on this is that schools can continue the practices of utilising home languages in classrooms but there will be no support financially, through training linguist support, guidelines or anything else. And there will be no more use of the terms and concepts the communities value and understand – bilingual education or two-way schooling.
The upshot of this is that bilingual approaches limp on, with untrained teachers, no dedicated funding, and no strong community engagement. This is a program condemned to fail for three major reasons:
Firstly, two-way approaches had the strong support of the local communities. When the NT, using Commonwealth funds, negotiated Remote Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs) with Communities, bilingual education was frequently their strongest priority along with including Indigenous knowledge in the school curriculum and employing a senior local cultural advisor. The Actions of Scrimgour undermined all the trust building and shared vision that developed through this process. It killed community commitment and trust in the Education Department.
Secondly, student attendance is suffering from the unsupported approach to English language learning and will almost certainly plummet still further if this recommendation becomes policy.
While data is thin on the ground about the historical situation there is some evidence that bilingual programs led to better student attendance when it was properly supported and funded.
As a blogger who goes by the name Munanga noted in his linguist focused blog article, Northern Territory Indigenous Education Review (Part 1) The 2011/2012 Federal Government inquiry ‘Language Learning in Indigenous Communities‘ which received over 150 submissions and toured the country, … found that using Indigenous languages in the early years of education is linked to improved attendance and community engagement
The report from this Federal Government Inquiry reports on the input from Dr Brian Devlin as follows
I can certify that during my time as principal at Shepherdson College, attendance was 82 percent on average and in some classes, for example, John Greatorex’s year 6 class, attendance was consistently above 90 percent”
It also note the fall-off in attendance since the 2008 policy change and refers to an observation by Greg Dickson, an academic from the Australian National University:
Sadly, evidence shows that Lajamanu School has suffered since its bilingual education program was removed in 2009 under the First Four Hours policy. Attendance figures have barely risen above 45% since mid-2009, down from 60% (and above) between 2006- 2008
Thirdly, Bruce Wilson’s advice on how Indigenous children should learn to read is based on absolutely no evidence and goes against not just common sense but all the evidence. As Lisa Waller, a PhD student, argued in a recent article, Learning in Both Worlds writes, the evidence is consistent and overwhelming
Joe Lo Bianco, professor of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne, says that some 1200 international studies provide empirical evidence of the effectiveness of bilingual education for students who do not speak the dominant language when they start school.
In his booklet Indigenous Languages in Education: What the Research Actually Shows, Australian National University adjunct professor, Charles Grimes, cites 691 of them. “It’s easy to think that if you teach more English, students will learn more English. But that’s not how it really works,” Professor Grimes says. “Study after study shows that children learn best in the language they understand best. That should be obvious.
Now Bruce Wilson has handed the NT Department of Education a gift on a platter. A recommendation to terminate the poorly funded program and put something quite definite and even cheaper in its place, with no evidence – just a half baked bit of ‘wisdom’: It will fail on all three counts – learning, attendance and community engagement. – a triple failure
If the ‘wisdom’ that Indigenous ‘children learn English just like other children learn a new unheard of language’ had been properly examined it would support a well funded two-way approach with a rich English language oral immersion program and teachers trained to deal with the challenge of supporting children’s learning in a language not accessible to the teacher.
Even educators who don’t support a fully developed bilingual education, because of practical concerns about maintaining it, will acknowledge that if it is taken away something that fulfils a similar function – that allows children to learn to speak and understand English while still developing their learning – must be fully funded and implemented.
As Beth Graham, a noted bilingual expert noted in the comments section of the piece by Lisa Waller:
The actions of the NT govt in removing any possibility of Indigenous children having their early education and achieving initial literacy in their own language goes against all the research from The World Bank, UNESCO and the testing carried out over many years within the NT itself. In addition, it slows the development of an Indigenous teaching service and threatens the survival of the childrens’ languages and their cultural identity. It is an action that in years to come will result in a second ‘Sorry’ day. At that time the NT Govt. will not be able to claim they didn’t know because the research that they commissioned makes the requirements for the education of Indigenous minorities quite clear: Educate these children in their mother tongue while they are learning the dominant language. Then when, and only when, children are confident in this additional language should they begin to learn in this language while they continue the development of both languages.
Bruce Wilson’s ridiculous recommendation might not end up as policy but they have still been harmful. They have made it appear as though the NT is currently delivering a coherent and appropriately funded program designed to develop the English language competency of remote and very remote children. What happens moving forward will be critical. Will the NT effectively lock the gate on remote children and continue to roll out under-funded programs? Will the current Indigenous Education Workers who know how to work in a two-way classroom die out leaving none in their place?
This was an opportunity to put on record that whatever approach is taken by the NT, the need for a dedicated fully funded strategy to give all remote children a rich English language oral immersion environment while still allowing learning to take place costs money – for up to date program guidelines, for extensive and ongoing teacher training, for oracy curriculum materials and formative assessment resources and to continually train up a new cadre of Indigenous Education Workers who speak their community language and are competent in the English language.