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In Australia, there's been a lot of downplaying recently of the fact that young kids understand what's happening in the classroom better if they hear it in their first language - from the NAPLAN tests which don't factor this in, to the MySchool comparisons which ignore it, to the English literacy push expressed recently by Margot Prior.

Writing about MySchool I whinged that we needed more numbers. Well, Brian Devlin has done a lot with existing numbers.

Using the MySchool site, he's revisited the claims of the NT Department of Education in November 2008 that bilingual schools were doing a lot worse than non-bilingual schools on the NAPLAN tests. At the time, problems of comparability were raised (why were some high performing bilingual schools omitted? Why was a secondary school included? Why were schools included where the children spoke a creole rather than a traditional language?). But we had trouble getting numbers on the allegedly comparable schools. MySchool gives it. Brian's put his findings in the files section of the Friends of Bilingual Learning site. You can download Brian's paperlets "Year 3 performance data for 2008 'bilingual' and 'non-bilingual' schools compared.pdf" and "2008 attendance comparison.pdf".

Here are the highlights. Based on averages in 2008,

  • Bilingual school children win out on Year 3 numeracy, and, for what it's worth grammar/punctuation [the questions in this part of the NAPLAN test have so far had little regard for staging, difficulty, or even the kinds of mistakes that second language learners are likely to make]
  • Bilingual school children also do as well, or better, on reading and spelling, as children in the non-bilingual schools.
  • They do worse on writing.
  • Their attendance is the same or better depending what comparison set is used.

And of course on top of all this, in bilingual schools, the home languages of children at bilingual schools are being strengthened and valued; they have Indigenous teachers who act as role models. [cracked record, me].

As Brian points out, the numbers aren't good for the remote schools generally in the NT, bilingual and non-bilingual. And a lot more needs to be done with the numbers - comparisons over time, across years and so on. The 2009 numbers are bound to be weird, because the schools were floundering trying to implement the Department's "Talk English" policy , and many communities with previously bilingual schools were demoralised by the disregard of their wishes. So a quick check suggests that the Year 3 figures in Lajamanu and Yirrkala worsened substantially in 2009 from 2008. Most importantly, the NT Department of Education has a lot of work to do with communities and schools to improve the results in future years.

Devlin's figures show that the Department's stated rationale for getting rid of bilingual education in 2008 was flawed. And since partnerships with communities are essential for getting good results from schools, why not support those communities that want their children to understand what's happening in the classroom?

We have until 28 February to make submissions to the National Indigenous Education Action Plan.

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