This morning the ABC Radio in the NT reported that NT Opposition leader Terry Mills would be:

“…willing to work with two NT Independent politicians to force the government to reconsider it’s bilingual education policy.

Mills told the ABC:

“They’ve made a real hash of the bilingual question and haven’t contributed to an intelligent discussion, in fact confused many people. I’m more than happy to play a pro-active role in this because I want to see kids learning English and I don’t want to see this kind of confusion in this important debate.”

Last week Miliwanga Sandy talked to The Northern Myth about the multilingual reality of life for the adults and children at her small community of Wugularr in south-east Arnhem land:

“Well, these kids here – they would have Miaili, Rembarrnga, Ritarrngu, Ngalakgan, Dalabon, Jawoyn, some people speak Mara and Alawa – and all children – all people – we would speak language on our mothers side and on our father’s side as well – and grandmothers and grandfathers side as well.”

“The kids might have three or four Aboriginal languages already – but when they go to school the teacher is only speaking in English. Well, we know that education is important and you need to understand English to understand the subjects they teach like Maths and Science – and whatever they have there. That is only in English at the school – but at home – that children and their family only speak in their Aboriginal language. Now, what we want is both-way teaching in the school – not only for two hours a week but everyday there should be both-way teaching. That would be much better — they could pick up English very well and they could do their work and study a really good way.”

Late last week Miliwanga travelled to Canberra to participate in a symposium and workshop at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) along with a number of linguists and educators with extensive experience in the delivery of bilingual education.

The weekend also saw the launch of an important research paper commissioned by AIATSIS that examines the succession of policy failures leading up to, and including the decision in October 2008 by then NT Education Minister, Marion Scrymgour, that has seen the gutting of the sorry remnants of the once proud NT bilingual education system.

That Report, “Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory”, represents the most thorough assessment of the value of bilingual education in improving educational outcomes for children living in the many small and impoverished townships in the NT.

The Report reveals a failure to appreciate the value of Australia’s unique linguistic diversity and the lost opportunities resulting from an entrenched “deep monolingualism”:

“The deep monolingualism of Australian governments has created some myths and confusions which create serious problems for Indigenous people who speak other languages. These include the failure to recognise the social and cognitive benefits of bilingualism, the belief that nothing special needs to be done to teach Indigenous children English other than to talk at them in English, the confusion between learning to write a language and learning another language, and finally the belief that home languages and cultures are an add-on, something that happens on weekends, rather than something which schools should engage in.”

The Report also provides a valuable overview of the long history of the serial failures of NT governments to properly engage with bilingual education policy in the NT; the background to the decision by Marion Scrymgour in October 2008 that has effectively gutted bilingual education in the NT; the relationship between educational policy-making in the NT government and the Howard/Brough/Macklin Intervention and the “trigger” for Scrymgour’s decision – the manipulation by politicians and the media of the NAPLAN test results of English literacy and numeracy in September 2008.

It is the decision by Marion Scrymgour on 14 October 2008 that attracts the report’s authors most damning criticism. On that day Scrymgour announced the NT government’s new policy that:

“…the first four hours of education in all NT schools will be conducted in English”.

The Report’s authors attempt to comprehend the basis and motives for the new policy, noting variously that:

“The plan was formulated in haste over a few days…It’s lack of detail and vagueness were of grave concern.”

“One might conjecture that naivety is one possible explanation: the Minister and her Department advisors…held the erroneous belief that all that was needed to teach children English is to speak to them in English.”

“Expediency in dealing with the media is another explanation – an immediate reaction in the press was that the specific policy initiative was designed to provoke controversy which would divert attention from the sacking of the CEO [of the NT Education Department on 10 October 2008]. The Minister denied this accusation…”

“However, what is not in doubt is that no consultation took place with affected schools…”

“Nor was any attempt made to find whether the bilingual educations programs were working.”

As the ABC reported this morning:

“The now Independent Marion Scrymgour, who formulated the policy as Labor’s Education Minister last year has also now expressed concern about the plan. The Country Liberals Terry Mills could combine with Ms Scrymgour and if the other Independent, Gerry Woods, agreed they could combine to use their parliamentary numbers to make the government revisit the policy.”

Maybe there is some hope for the NT’s bilingual education programs yet.