[lg policy] Australia: Ngurrju! Manymak! Pupuni! NT drops First Four Hours in English policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 12 15:46:10 UTC 2012

Ngurrju! Manymak! Pupuni! NT drops First Four Hours in English policy

July 11, 2012 – 4:48 pm, by wamut

Greg Dickson writes…

It’s been three and a half rather long years, but the Northern
Territory Department of Education and Training (NT DET) appears to
have finally dropped their much-criticised policy of Compulsory
Teaching in English for the First Four Hours of Each School Day.
Checking the department’s policies today, it seems to have been
quietly removed.  As one of the many who criticised and lobbied
against this policy, this is gratifying news and I can only hope it’s
a permanent move.

4 Corners highlighted the issue in 2009

To recap, the Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four Hours
policy (aka the “First Four Hours” policy) was controversially
introduced by the NT Labor Government in October 2008 by the Education
Minister, Marion Scrymgour. The policy’s introduction resulted in the
dismantling of the few remaining bilingual education programs, most of
which had been running for 20-30 years or more. The policy change came
out of the blue, going against the department’s own strategic plan and
the Labor Party’s national platform that supported bilingual and
bicultural education. The First Four Hours policy was introduced
without any community consultation. It went against significant
research in education and English teaching that advocated for the
coordinated use of students’ home languages in education. That is,
across the entire curriculum, including English lessons.

The policy was criticised by Indigenous teachers and community
members, human rights groups, English teachers, linguists and
politicians (even within the Labor party) but despite the criticisms,
the NT Department of Education stubbornly maintained support for the
policy. As recently as May, the Northern Territory government publicly
backed the policy when they gave evidence to a Federal government
inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities (which I
discussed here).

The policy’s effect was detrimental. 2009 saw some departmental
employees zealously reacting against the use of Indigenous languages
or mentions of bilingual education in some schools. Meanwhile,
departmental staff with expertise in Indigenous languages were shifted
around and maligned. Most critically, the policy did not result in the
improvements in student outcomes that motivated it, and since its
introduction, attendance rates in many remote schools have actually
been dropping. Over time, the department has been softening its
approach to the policy’s implementation and this year, some schools
have been able to re-develop their two-way education programs and now,
finally (it would appear), the policy is history.

Image: Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

What does this apparent policy shift mean in real terms? At the very
least, it means that Indigenous language-speaking students and DET
employees can feel like their school and department value Indigenous
languages more. No matter how much the Department tried to say they
valued Indigenous languages and cultures over the past three or so
years, the “First Four Hours” policy stood out like a neon sign saying
“Your Indigenous language isn’t good enough”. Now the Department has
some policy-meat to put on their rhetoric-bones. The new Framework for
Learning English as an Additional Language policy is much more
explicit in discussing the value of Indigenous languages and their
potential value for the delivery of good education, e.g.:

There will be times, particularly in the early years, when it may be
better to introduce concepts using the home/local language. This is
good teaching practice and is to be encouraged. This is the
Department’s approach for English as an additional language learning
and one that is used across Australia and internationally.

The move away from the First Four Hours policy is of symbolic
importance to Indigenous language speaking people. But the change is
welcomed not just on symbolic grounds but because the new Framework
for Learning English as an Additional Language policy is much more
grounded in good pedagogy and research, which will hopefully lead to
better student outcomes.

But just how and why did the policy finally get dropped? I’m not privy
to inner workings of the NT Department of Education and Training but
it may not be a coincidence that Territorians are going to the polls
next month. The Labor government is not as popular as it once was, in
urban areas and in the bush. Remote Indigenous Territorians have
traditionally been strong Labor supporters but this has started to
erode for the first time in decades because of Labor’s support for
things like the Intervention (now called Stronger Futures), the
proposed nuclear waste dump on Muckaty Station and the First Four
Hours of English policy. It may be cynical to suggest that the policy
shift is because of an upcoming election, but hey, if that’s the case,
I’ll take it.

The first three words in the title of this post mean good in Warlpiri
(ngurrju), Yolŋu Matha (manymak) and Tiwi (pupuni), three NT languages
with a 35+ year history of bilingual education and Indigenous language
literacy practices.


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