Words are easy, words are cheap
Much cheaper than our priceless land
But promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand

Yothu Yindi, Treaty

As Crikey reported late last year here and here, bilingual education in the Northern Territory has been in a state of shock since then Education Minister Marion Scrymgour announced that, for the first four hours of teaching of every school day in every NT school, classes would be taught in English.

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Scrymgour, to her credit, stood her ground in difficult circumstances and responded at length to Crikey.

In recent times she has, despite stepping down from the Education and other Ministries due to ill-health (and from the NT Government itself for a time), maintained her engagement with this issue.

In June this year, while an independent, Scrymgour released this Media Statement setting out her views.

And late last night Scrymgour told Crikey that, notwithstanding that she does not currently have a Ministry in Paul Henderson’s fragile NT Labor government, she was:

…looking at setting up a panel of experts – linguists, Aboriginal teachers and educators and policy makers to look at how Government can implement effective and resourced Language Maintenance and preservation programs as core business at all schools in our remote communities.

Scrymgour’s decision that the first four hours of each school day would be taught in English would have no impact on the majority of the NT’s “mainstream” schools where no local Aboriginal languages were being taught.

The only impacts would be upon the eight remote schools that are the remnants of what was a once proud bilingual education system that operated across the broad areas of cultural and linguistic diversity that is the Aboriginal reality in the NT.

Last night’s Four Corners did, in Crikey’s view and in the opinion of just about everyone we’ve talked to that watched it, a pretty good job on the current state of bilingual education in the NT, focussing largely on the school in one township, Lajamanu, that Four Corners had visited in the mid-eighties.

At Lajamanu reporter Debbie Whitmont and her crew spoke to current and past kardia (white) staff and to local yapa (Warlpiri) parents and past and present students.

Two circumstances beyond the control of the Four Corners crew appear to have limited their report.

Firstly, a recent death meant that many people were away on funeral sorry business, and secondly, either by coincidence or conspiracy — take your pick — the Four Corners crew landed in Lajamanu at the same time that recently appointed CEO of the NT Education Department, Gary Barnes and his minders chose to visit for the first time.

The overall impression that viewers were left with of the state of bilingual education at Lajamanu was one of quiet resignation and defeat.

As G. R Napaljarri told Whitmont: “The assistant teachers are just like interpreters in the classroom. I don’t think they are happy about that.”

Four Corners also went to Yirrkala in the tropical north-east of the NT and devoted a few short minutes to events there.

If viewers were left with an impression of quiet resignation by Whitmont’s account of Lajamanu, then it couldn’t be more different at Yirrkala, where the politics of language, tradition and culture are played in an all together different manner than in the desert.

By the same circumstances of possible coincidence or conspiracy, NT Education CEO Gary Barnes visited the Yirrkala school on the same day as Four Corners.

Barnes and his minders were at the school when Whitmont and her crew came up from the local Council Office where they had been meeting with Djuwalpi Marika, the Chair of the Yambirrpa School Council and a highly respected traditional owner of Yirrkala.

Barnes wouldn’t allow Whitmont to film at Yirrkala School, overriding Djuwalpi Marika’s invitation to do so. Barnes then had lengthy meetings with the Yirrkala School Action Group and several Yambirrpa School Council members.

Crikey understands that Barnes read the riot act to both groups, telling them that they had to abandon their continued support and use of the bilingual program and that the continued support by the Yambirra School Council for bilingual education at their school was “unacceptable” to the Department.

Crikey also understands that many of those who had attended the meetings were upset and angry with Barnes and the NT Education staffers accompanying him, with the two issues of real concern being the absolute disregard Barnes showed for Yolngu leadership and ownership of their school program and his apparent total ignorance of and disinterest in bilingual education and Indigenous Education in general.

As Djuwalpi Marika told Four Corners:

I’m a bit cranky with them. They come with a forked tongue to my community. We want people to understand us and [be] able to accept each other as human beings.

I went to  Barnes’ office for comment and this was their response:

Gary Barnes is currently interstate at meetings and unavailable to comment. I regret that, given the short timeframe, I am also unable to provide a response from a spokesperson.

However, if you look at the Departments Strategic plan you will see that there is a strong focus on improving outcomes for Indigenous students, particularly in remote schools.