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.

Don't get mad. Get Crikey.

Get full access including Side View and Crikey Talks.

Subscribe now and save 40% on a year of Crikey and get one of our limited edition Crikey sticker packs.

Hurry! Ends midnight Friday.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
40% off + free merch