‘Set up to fail’: Language policies undermine Indigenous children

A once strong bilingual education system has been undermined, leading to a loss of identity and culture in Indigenous children. Zoe Moffatt reports
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A once strong bilingual education system has been undermined, leading to a loss of identity and culture in Indigenous children. Zoe Moffatt reports

Surrounded by red soil in the baking Northern Territory, Lajamanu is one of a handful of isolated communities suffering from record-breaking low school attendance rates for Indigenous students.

The communities – all hundreds of kilometres from Darwin – share frustrations over a once-strong education system some say is now doomed.  

Education experts and parliamentarians say one way to help fix the problem is to bring back bilingual education. It’s a system that was painfully dismantled after the start of the 21st century.

Independent Mulka MP Yingiya Mark Guyula paints a picture of a misplaced Western education model in the heart of Indigenous communities.

Mr Guyula, an avid supporter of bilingual education, said in Parliament in 2019 that schools that tried to incorporate English and first languages “have not been well supported and are often undermined”.   

Independent Mulka MP Yingiya Mark Guyula. Picture Wikipedia

“This is exactly why our children are struggling to attend [and] that parents are struggling to engage, because you set us up to fail,” Mr Guyula said.  

A 2019 Northern Territory Education Department annual report, released in late October, revealed less then 33 per cent of Indigenous students in the NT attend school four or more days per week. This five-year low attendance rate is publicised underneath a “‘thumbs up” icon that appears to applaud the rate of 84 per cent for non-Indigenous kids. 

Poor government policies

Senior technical adviser and researcher Ron Watt is a passionate bilingual education advocate who helped set up a bilingual education program in rural Cambodia, based on the NT’s own groundbreaking success.

Mr Watt has worked alongside teachers in NT Indigenous communities and says poor government policies have drained the once thriving program. “It’s been death by a thousand cuts, basically,” he says. “Bilingual education is … sort of limping along.”  

One of these issues was Labor’s 2008 policy that required all schools to spend the first four hours of every school day teaching in English. 

Linguist Peter Nyhuis, who has also spent time working in NT schools in Indigenous communities, says the decision was made from “staggering ignorance”.

“It wasn’t done in any kind of consultation with Aboriginal communities … [or] people working in education,” Mr Nyhuis said.  

“It had no connection to any reality other than public opinion.”  

Mr Watt said the current situation is “a constant battle … from closing [the bilingual program] down, cutting it back, not having any linguistic support, to [the] first four hours [policy]”. 

A Facebook page supporting bilingual education in the NT.

Mr Guyula condemned the loss of identity and culture that results from cutting back bilingual programs in his speech to Parliament. “Schools for Aboriginal children must embrace their identity, not undermine it,” he said. 

“Our culture and language is strongly who we are – we are not Europeans, we are not migrants, we live on our own country.”

Language loss 

Stripping the use of the bilingual learning method also affects the continuation of Indigenous languages. The 2016 census recorded just 13 Indigenous languages still being spoken by children.  

Mr Nyhuis said the focus on English led to a “disjointed” use of language and affected how the students expressed themselves, leaving them feeling “kind of stuck, kind of stunted”.

“There is a language that’s theirs, that they only [know] part of, and then there’s this language that’s kind of been imposed on them, that they also have [only] partial knowledge [of].” 

The staircase model of bilingual education  

The bilingual program they support is described as a staircase; education begins entirely in the birth language, and then English – or the second language – is gradually introduced. This model supports both languages and provides a generous layer of familiarity and preparation in the early years of schooling.  

Mr Nyhuis said in this model “you wouldn’t even start learning English literacy until you have quite a strong foundation in literacy in your first language, [but] you’d be developing oral English ability before that.”  

“[Otherwise it can get] messy and complicated and difficult to learn,” he said.   

Indigenous teacher training 

In the “thousand cuts” to bilingual education, the loss of Indigenous teachers in remote communities is one of the biggest wounds. 

“In the past there used to be pathways for Aboriginal people in remote communities to get decent qualifications to then be able to go back to their communities, and teach,” Mr Nyhuis said.  

From a NT Government call in 2018 for more Indigenous teachers and assistants for Indigenous schools.

This pathway was cut and now there are only a few trained Indigenous teachers in communities. 

“It shifted to a model of basically … like FIFO work … teachers from usually the east coast in Australia, and English speakers,” Mr Nyhuis said.  

“Usually they’ve got absolutely no training in teaching English as a second language, they’ve got no training in Aboriginal languages.” 

Cambodia’s bilingual education program 

While the future of bilingual education and education as a whole in the NT may be murky, the same can’t be said of the distant classrooms of rural Cambodia.

Set among low-lying floodplains, rice paddies and sweltering summer monsoons, Cambodia’s rural villages  endured decades of civil war and harsh regimes. However, the education crisis of the late ’90s seems barely a stone’s throw away from trouble of sun-baked Lajamanu.  

In September 2000, Mr Watt travelled to the north-eastern province of Ratanakiri to help start a pilot program in bilingual education By 2003 it included six schools, 278 children, 13 teachers, one province, and two ethnic minority languages in communities that had never had schools before. 

Bilingual education in Cambodia, based on an Australian model, has been highly successful. Picture supplied.

“The literacy levels of the community were very, very low,” Mr Watt said.  

The effects of civil war and the reign of the Khmer Rouge were devastating to education, infrastructure, schools and the members of the community. “The Cambodian education system had been annihilated during the war,” he said. This meant a system had to be built from scratch, with three major components: school governance, teacher training and curriculum development. 

Cambodia’s program used the staircase model as a “practical way of getting the program off the ground,” Mr Watt said. This was paired with school governance to make sure the community was involved in, and had an active voice in, the future of their school.  

“We set up school boards and they had real power … they would make decisions and that’s what went,” Mr Watt said.  

The learning outcomes of the national curriculum was also identified and textbooks in different languages were produced to open new pathways that created the same result. Mr Watt worked in this section but his main duty was training project staff who trained the community teachers.  

“The content of those training workshops, in the mode of delivery and all that came, straight from [the Teacher Education Centre in] Bachelor. Bachelor’s delivery strategies and a lot of the content was contextualised for Cambodia.”  

The success of Cambodia’s bilingual program led to its acceptance by the country’s education ministry, and in 2017 it had grown to 78 schools teaching 5600 children. 

Bilingual education benefits  

Advocates for bilingual education in the NT say increased attendance is just one benefit. Bilingual programs also maintain cultural ties in younger generations, and improve educational outcomes. Mr Watt says there are also social payoffs too, whether it be in communities in the NT or in Cambodia.    

“If you’ve got a bilingual program, you need Elders and community members [to] come in and [be] involved in the school and making decisions,” he said. Dismantling bilingual education “locks the community out of decision making,” whereas, community participation helps “align the [school’s] objectives [with] the community”. 

“It’s actually part of the community and responsive to the community.”  

Moving forward 

The success of Cambodia’s program has a striking disconnection with the NT, and communities like Lajamanu. Despite being modelled on the NT, the lessons Australia taught Cambodia have been forgotten here. “We learned a lot about the best way of getting kids to learn English and improving literacy in English, and we’ve forgotten,” Mr Watt said.  

“There’s this overwhelming view that what happened in the past was bad; it was ineffectual; it was absolutely unsuccessful; we didn’t achieve a result. Well it achieved a lot more than what’s being achieved now.” 

Mr Watt said the best way forward for this once thriving program was to go back to basics. “Start thinking about the building blocks, what are the building blocks you need? … Which is teacher training, linguistic training, policy framework support.”