[ From Carmel O'Shannessy, who's worked in the NT Department of Education for many years, and has recently finished a PhD on children's Warlpiri]
Mal Brough shows how much he doesn't know about Australian Indigenous children's schooling when he suggests in today's Australian that compulsory learning of English would be something new. All children in Australian schools compulsorily learn English. Children in bilingual schools in the NT, of which the school in Wadeye community is one, also learn an Indigenous language at school. By the end of their primary years, if the school is well run and good programs and teaching methodologies are in place, the children in bilingual schools perform slightly better in English than the children in similar communities who attend English only schools. And they can also read and write in the Indigenous language, so they have learned twice as much.
Teaching English as a Second or Foreign language (ESL/EFL) is a specialty skill, and far too few teachers in remote communities have appropriate ESL/EFL training. If the school is under-resourced, the teachers are inadequately skilled, the methodologies are inappropriate and the children feel like they are in a foreign environment, the programs will not be good and high levels of proficiency won't be reached. But all too often the decision makers fail to see the obvious, and fail to support the very things that would help.
For example, the DEET NT Language Resource Officer position in Central Australia has recently been vacated, and DEET NT has decided not to fill the position, because it needs to save money. The Language Resource Officer provides linguistic support for bilingual schools in the Centre, for both Indigenous languages and English. Most non-Indigenous staff in the schools, who are the majority of staff members, have little or no understanding of what a bilingual program, or even an ESL/EFL program is until they get to the particular school. Systemic support from experienced linguists is essential. But no, let's cut the positions and then tell the kids they're doing a bad job at learning English!