Tony Abbott at Bamaga Junior School Bamaga on the Northern Peninsula. Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy

If there is anything Tony Abbott wants out of his consolation prize as Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs — aside from publicity — it is to reinforce English-only instruction for remote Aboriginal kids. It began with his declaration on Sky News that Aboriginal kids must “learn to think in the national language”: a message he has reproduced, just as ham-fistedly, everywhere in his fly-in fly-out tour of remote schools.

But a key reason his comments are so absurd is that the vast majority of remote school in Northern Australia do teach an English-only curriculum, after a near two decades of policies designed to undermine bilingual programs in the Northern Territory. Abbott’s policy prescription of more English, always English has been the diet of remote schools since the late 1990s, and it has achieved very little of the improvement in English literacy that it supposedly is designed to.

Today, only seven schools teach a bilingual program combining an Aboriginal language and English as languages of instruction.

Debunking the “more English” myth

This is despite the fact that most Aboriginal people in the NT speak an Aboriginal language or languages at home. In remote areas, there is still little exposure to Standard Australian English, so the majority of Aboriginal children in the remote NT are coming to school as speakers of their local language.

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Abbott’s base logic is that more English equals better English (married with his fetish for “structure, discipline, repetition”) is a deeply discredited one. Research shows that learning to read in your mother tongue and transferring those skills to another language later is the best method for producing biliterate bilinguals.

Yet stigmatising Aboriginal languages — and by extension, their speakers — remains the order of the day.

Next year will mark twenty years since an attempt by NT government to take away all funding and give it to English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, which, after outcry, produced a compromise “two-way education” model. This October marked ten years since the introduction of the First Four Hours policy, mandating teaching in English for the first four hours of the school day (it was quietly dropped in 2012).

Officially, today’s policy is that schools that have the qualified teachers to run a bilingual program are able to do so, supposedly without hindrance from the NT government. But this supposed permissiveness obscures a generalised hostility and near total lack of support.

Lacking genuine structural support

Simply “having” the qualified teachers has become more and more difficult for a myriad of reasons: the qualifications required have gotten more difficult to attain for Aboriginal teachers who may not have gone to high school, there is almost no on-site training, and the organisation mainly responsible, Batchelor Institute, appears to be in rolling crisis.

In fact, two schools, in Yuendumu and Lajamanu, both Warlpiri-speaking schools, fund the resources for their bilingual programs through the Warlpiri Education and Training Trust (WETT), funded by mining royalties and associated with the Central Land Council. In other words, the community is devoting millions of dollars of their own money just to ensure the program’s survival. They also provide language resources to the schools at Nyirripi and Willowra.

Alongside that, schools now have what’s called “global budgeting”. This means that the local principal is responsible for all funding decisions, and as one NT policy-maker describes to me “this is the real sharp pointy edge of how much people really appreciate and value the contribution that Aboriginal people make in the school”.

Without assured principal support, bilingual programs are in constant danger. Non-Aboriginal principals reportedly regularly arrive in bilingual schools without knowing they are bilingual, and they and other non-Aboriginal staff are under no obligation to learn the local language. With perpetual outsider turnover in remote communities, there is also a revolving door in teaching approach (as one former teacher at a bilingual school put it to me, “I’ve had more principals than I’ve had roast dinners”).

While the Labor government has funded a position within the department to head the bilingual programs, according to an NT government source, funding for Noel Pearson’s Direct Instruction programs was $32 million in 2017, while funding for bilingual programs was just $3.2 million.   

Arguably, Abbott’s approach to education is just the latest manifestation of the neo-assimilationist turn in Aboriginal policy, whereby remote communities must somehow be made “viable” in the market economy, or face sanction and neglect from government.

“All of the education funding today has narrowed down to these really clear outcomes that are all job-related — but they don’t actually create jobs in remote communities”, one NT policy maker argues.

Amidst a growing public discussion about language revival, and decisions to teach Aboriginal languages in LOTE programs in Victoria and New South Wales, there is a markedly different approach to the future of Australia’s living Aboriginal languages and the people who speak them.

Wendy Baarda has been a teacher in Yuendumu since 1973. She told me, “There’s an old saying—they think if you squeeze an Aboriginal person hard enough, a white person comes out. Well, today the squeeze is the hardest I’ve seen it in my lifetime”.

All Abbott wants to do is squeeze even harder.

Amy Thomas is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney where is she is also a 2018 Shopfront Community Research Fellow. Her research concerns education, language, social movements, and Australian history.