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[ 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!

Comments

Either the Minister for Indigenous Affairs is so badly informed about schools in Indigenous communities that he should resign his portfolio. Or else he does know that actually children must learn English at school. So why would he lie?

Either way, in what other unlucky country would a Minister for Indigenous Affairs blithely admit to basing policy, not on figures, but on a couple of conversations?

"Mr Brough said he had no figures but made his conclusions after speaking to grandparents in indigenous communities who lamented the fact that they had better English language skills than their grandchildren."

No figures???? He makes policy without looking at the figures? Would anyone seriously make policy for urban schools based on similar evidence - lamenting letters to newspapers about the way young people 'mangle' English?

And also on figures... Mal Brough is quoted as saying:

"it was a "cop-out" for communities to refuse to learn English because it was not an Aboriginal language, particularly when there were several languages in each community.

Name one community where the community has refused to have their children learn English. In nearly 30 years of visiting different Aboriginal communities I have never come across this. But I have met many people who have attended English-only schools, lost their traditional languages, and live on the dole or on pensions.

As Carmel says, start putting real money and real thought into public education for the children. And stop humiliating their families with baseless allegations.

And for further discussion, see Kimberly's post at Long Road and Jangari's post and the comments at Matjjin-nehen.

And for a comment from the education and policy perspective, see Joe Lo Bianco's excellent letter in today's Australian.

I am a highly educated teacher (Master's in Applied Linguistics + Degree of Economics, + 5 years studies in teaching Modern Greek to bilingual students). I am an expert in teaching bi- or trilingual students but because English is not my first language, I may not be "suitable' which is a linguistics non-sense. There is a need for teachers like me out there and it makes me sad and depressed, that there is nobody to turn to; though I would like to get in touch with the Aboriginal communities who are in need to have a good teacher. Ministers, their politics,I do not care about them, but of course I hope that the whole discussion leads somewhere. The fact remains - there is a NEED and all I want to do to help in the only way I can: teaching. I see that the whole discussion somehow outdated, but still, there is my comment, if anybody would read it, welcome to answer me.

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