I subscribe to Crikey and acknowledge that some of the material it publishes comes from contributors I hold in high esteem – for example Dr Jon Altman. Time and other constraints have made it difficult for me respond promptly to issues concerning my Education portfolio that have been covered in Crikey recently, but I have become increasingly exasperated with the misleading content and strident tone of some of that coverage. I wish to now respond to the article by Samanti de Silva on 14/11/08 and the article by Bob Gosford on 28/11/08 (I actually phoned Bob on Friday and put to him in person a number of the matters I have set out in this article).

The second sentence in Samanti de Silva’s article was “The NT Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, recently announced that Indigenous languages can not be used in NT classrooms, except for one hour a day in the afternoons”. The article went on to assert that “the bilingual schools have marginally better results in English than the English-only remote schools” and attached a letter signed by local residents. The letter conveyed a concern that I was going to ban Pitjantjatjara from the school. It was addressed to me but was in fact sent direct to Crikey.

The statement attributed to me at the beginning of Ms de Silva’s article came as a surprise. I have not said that Indigenous languages cannot be used in NT classrooms and nor have I said that the teaching of Indigenous languages must be restricted to one hour in the afternoons. My position is that for four hours in the morning Monday to Friday students should be learning maths and English. The “step” method taught at some bilingual schools involves the teaching of literacy in an Aboriginal language before progressing to the learning of literacy in English.

The “step” method doesn’t fit well into my proposed policy position because I want the teaching of English literacy to start at the very beginning of a remote student’s education rather than being introduced some years later. However, I fully understand and expect that the English literacy teaching process is going to involve the use of regional Aboriginal languages.

While I continue to wholeheartedly support the teaching of literacy in appropriate regional Aboriginal languages I say it should take place in the afternoon not in the morning. I am keen to resource schools to undertake such teaching for more hours in the afternoon than may currently be allocated for classes (and I note that at many schools a practice has developed of not conducting classes on Fridays at all).

As regards the comparison of results between bilingual schools and the so-called “English-only” remote schools (probably a misleading label, but more on that shortly), my assessment — after a careful review of evidence from various sources is that the results in English at the bilingual schools are not in fact “marginally better” than those from the “English-only” schools.

Since the publication of Ms de Silva’s Crikey article I have spoken to Tarni Andrews, one of the signatories to the letter featured in the article. Mrs Andrews and other Aboriginal teaching staff at the various bilingual schools have been told by those with a particular barrow to push that Aboriginal teaching staff will lose their jobs next year. I have assured Mrs Andrews that to the contrary my goal is to try and achieve an outcome where most if not all teaching positions are filled by qualified Indigenous teaching staff. I will be going to Areyonga in the very near future to tell the other Aboriginal teaching staff there the same thing.

Moving now to Bob Gosford’s article, which includes a bizarre quote from Michael Duffy regarding former Education CEO Margaret Banks and “the old departmental culture of blocking and gate keeping”. The policy I have been developing for transforming Indigenous education has been the subject of discussion with senior departmental staff since the beginning of this year. Key components include the establishment of community-controlled education boards in three trial sites (which will take in certain bilingual schools), a zero-tolerance approach towards truancy, and a stronger emphasis on numeracy and English literacy. I am determined not to be thwarted by any vestiges of “the old departmental culture of blocking and gate keeping”.

In its complete version published in Bob Gosford’s Northern Myth his article also sets out an entire speech made in Territory Parliament by the Leader of the Opposition, Terry Mills. I should thank him for that because it gives me the opportunity to identify for the first time in the pathetically “dumbed down” debate that has taken place in the media so far where the true battle lines lie.

Mr Mills’ speech makes no reference to the “step” program. Instead he states that the common practice is to teach proficiency in English “through the mother tongue”. He goes on to say: “This approach is concentrated in the early years of schooling, probably better referred to as teaching English as a second language”. That is not a description of teaching literacy in an Aboriginal language (as occurs in the “step” program). It is a description of what happens at the Kunbarllanjnja School where my friend Esther Djayhgurrnga has been the Principal for about seven years.

Esther and other Aboriginal staff use the regional language of the area, Kunwinjku, to teach their students English literacy. This process starts from the moment that a child first enters the school, and the aim is to try and achieve effective English fluency and literacy. Kunbarllanjnja is classed as an “English-only” school and misses out on the 20% additional funding given to “bilingual” schools. It appears that Mr Mills and I both support that sort of teaching as a strategy for achieving English literacy.

The difference between my position and that of Mr Mills is that unlike me Mr Mills does not support the use of remote schools to teach literacy in regional Aboriginal languages. He says “it is my firm view that it is neither the responsibility, nor the capacity of the education system to develop proficiency in both English and the first language”. By contrast, I believe that schools have an important role to play in teaching regional Aboriginal languages and thereby ensuring their survival. I am simply saying that that teaching should take place in the afternoons.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey