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Call to restore bilingual education to APY schools

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The head of a panel involved in the development of a new Aboriginal Education Strategy for state schools says reintroducing bilingual education in the APY Lands would help improve poor Indigenous literacy and numeracy levels.

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University of South Australia Dean of Aboriginal Engagement Professor Peter Buckskin said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the APY Lands would respond better to the school curriculums if it was taught in students’ first language.

Buckskin is convening a panel of education leaders as part of the development of the Education Department’s new $11.9 million Aboriginal Education Strategy, announced last year.

The new strategy will span until 2028 and will align with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education strategy launched in 2015.

The state strategy aims to improve learning outcomes, attendance and retention rates of Aboriginal students as well as provide better training to ensure teachers and education workers are culturally responsive.

Buckskin said South Australia had “a long way to go” in recognising Aboriginal languages in the education system.

He said Aboriginal languages needed to be seen as a priority in the curriculum and be treated with the same respect as English, particularly at Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) schools, where most students speak Pitjantjatjara or Yankunytjatjara as their first language.

“We know literacy and numeracy are the foundation skills of learning which need to be established in the early years but the literacy and numeracy NAPLAN results in Years 3, 5 and 7 (for Indigenous students) are a lot poorer than the mainstream,” Buckskin said.

“We appreciate that English is the language of power but for a multi-language speaker, if they’re not competent in their first language, it’s very hard to transfer into another language in terms of learning concepts.

“I think it’s really important that our children know who they are, that when they graduate from 12 years of schooling that they’re also strong multicultural children and that they understand their identity and their place.”

APY schools taught a bilingual curriculum until the late 1980s, when bilingual programs were defunded and an English-only education was enforced.

The decision to move to an English-only curriculum was supported at the time by the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Education Committee, due to fears children were losing fluency in Pitjantjatjara and English. There were also concerns teachers who lacked fluency in Pitjantjatjara controlled the teaching of the local vernacular.

But Buckskin described the move as a “selfish decision” that needed to be reversed.

“I’m suggesting that we give schools the capacity to work with communities to design a program that will provide support for teachers that can teach the language but can also understand the history of the local community and their connectedness to their lands and waters,” he said.

“We’ve just got to try something new because if we continue, just roll it out to be another addition with the same approach, we’ll end up probably with the same deficit outcomes.

“We won’t be closing the gap – we’ll just be maintaining the gap.”

Anangu Education Services school improvement coordinator Katrina Tjitayi, who has long campaigned for a return of bilingual education in Anangu schools, agreed that children would have better learning outcomes if they were taught in their first language.

“Language is most important for our children to connect with our stories, our knowledge, our culture,” she said.

“We have a lot of books – they are 20-year-old books, readers in our language – they have been sitting there for a long time.

“We think they should be there and used.”

Tjitayi said it was important for children to be able to write in their first language as there were many Pitjantjatjara words that do not have English equivalents.

She said children would be able to understand concepts in subjects such as literacy and numeracy a lot quicker if they could learn in their first language.

Aboriginal co-manager and language worker at the University of Adelaide’s mobile language team, Karina Lester, said reintroducing bilingual education was something the department needed to address. 

“This model of having English first in schools and having kids switching between language, speaking Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara at home and then having to go to school and being taught in English, is foreign,” she said.

“We should be nurturing children in a bilingual environment so they can learn the language of the land and connect better with the oral traditions of Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara.”

Lester said introducing a bilingual education would allow the communities to get more involved in children’s education.

“The community could come in and document and record oral stories to develop texts for Anangu children to read and listen to,” she said.

“There are other models already out there. You could start with the first few years’ teaching in Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara and then introducing English by about Year 5 so by the time children reached Year 7 they were competent in Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara but they also had some competency in English.

“It is a wonderful idea but we need the support and assistance of people to work with us, not for us, for our children to be competent in two worlds.”

To properly implement bilingual education in schools, Lester said there needed to be an improvement in the availability of Certificate 3 and 4 qualifications in Aboriginal language and teaching so that people could better understand the grammar and structures of languages such as Pitjantjatjara.

“I would like to up-skill our own mob. In the community, there’s a real gap in having our own who are skilled who have the certificates to come into classrooms and be recognised as teachers.”

Buckskin said feedback from Aboriginal communities also highlighted a need to build higher academic expectations for Aboriginal students, develop better communication with parents and create new roles for specialist Aboriginal educators.

“There’s literally been hundreds of thousands of dollars (of) more money given to Aboriginal literacy and numeracy outcomes and yet we still see the results showing that our children are way behind when it comes to meeting the benchmark,” he said.

“I’ve heard people say there is a lack of engagement and accountability from school leaders with their communities and a lack of high expectations of their children by school leaders and teachers.

“It needs to be known that there’s the expectation that the child has the capacity to learn and that parents have the high expectation of the children just like any other parent.”

Buckskin also suggested increasing professional development training for teachers so that they could better respond to the needs of Aboriginal children.

The Education Department’s Aboriginal education director, April Lawrie, said community consultation was underway across the state to inform the development of the new Aboriginal Education Strategy, which would be finalised this year.

This year’s Closing the Gap report analysed NAPLAN results showing South Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Years 3, 7 and 9 are yet to meet the national target in literacy, and children in Years 3 and 7 are yet to meet the national target in numeracy.

The report also shows NAPLAN results for Indigenous students are substantially worse in remote areas, with a larger gap compared to non-Indigenous students.

Last year Highgate School became the first state government school in South Australia to offer a French/English bilingual program.

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