Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Principals miss the mark on languages

Matthew Absalom October 8, 2007

AHEAD of the October 1 release of the Australian Primary Principals Association "Charter on Primary Schooling" I was hoping for a visionary document. You know, one that warms your heart and sets your brain abuzz all at the same time. What I got was a disappointing rehash of the usual complaints.

If you haven't read it, here's a quick summary: too much is expected of primary schools so we need to identify core elements of the curriculum and focus on those. I bet you can't guess what the core elements are? English (literacy), maths (numeracy), science and social education. Nothing new there.

Critics of education in Australia have been calling for a return to the so-called traditional disciplines which has seen the canning of SOSE at secondary level in favour of history and geography.

Yet, the APPA has opted for a catch-all core area entitled social education. This is symbolic of staid thinking. The principals scramble to say that "all eight learning areas are worthwhile" but it is clear that this is just talk. They even suggest that the arts, languages, learning technologies, and other activities can all be delivered through "the core areas".

I have three main problems with this charter. First, while whingeing and whining about the cluttered curriculum and the "growing trend to load the primary school with every issue that others are unable to solve", the principals turn around and say that primary schooling is the "only means by which every child can gain access to essential learning" and that quality primary schooling is the cornerstone of a "good society".

I agree unreservedly with the need for good primary schooling but I think it's a bit rich of the APPA to claim to have a key place in society but only on their own terms.
The notion of "essential learning" is also problematic and leads to my second difficulty. Can we accept on face value research carried out "under the auspices" of the APPA? It would appear that this research has happily supported an agenda of stripping down the curriculum. Does this research define "essential learning" as having a narrow focus on four core areas?

My definition of "essential learning" would be somewhat different. To begin with it would reflect the fact that we live in a multilingual world, not one dominated by English monolinguals.

If we want to look at some research material, a good starting point would be the vast range of work that shows beyond doubt that literacy is not only learnt through English. In fact, learning languages is proven to impact positively on literacy in English.

This charter opens the door for schools to scrap logistically difficult curriculum areas like languages. There are already issues for languages in terms of teacher supply and quality, timetabling, resourcing and language choice.

The APPA wants schools to have the choice to make decisions on the basis of "an assessment of the needs of students, and the capacity of the school, including the availability of staff members with the expertise to teach the subject, time available, resourcing, support from the local community, the tradition and profile of the school".

This clearly would spell the end for languages in primary schools. The APPA says that "for all schools, the charter offers a mandate". If this mandate is to junk challenging learning areas then it is to be repudiated by parents, teachers and students alike.

According to current OECD figures, Australia spends the OECD average on primary schooling per student and our primary teachers are among the best paid in OECD countries. Our investment in primary education could increase: the US spends 1.5 times what we do per student on primary education. However, we spent 4.2 per cent of GDP on primary education in 2004 which was among the top levels of spending (UK 4.4 per cent, Iceland 5.4 per cent Sweden 4.5 per cent, US 4.1 per cent, Denmark 4.3 per cent).

This means that we can already expect high quality primary schooling. We need to be smarter about the organisation of the primary curriculum. One strategy would be to see languages for what they are - vehicles of communication and a means to understand the world, rather than an add-on which distracts from the core business of primary schools.

We need to harness languages, along with English, to achieve essential learning. The core areas that the APPA defines are accessible through all languages. Dealing with any language involves literacy.

Mathematical concepts are as easily taught in Khmer as in English. A unique and arguably more authentic way to understand Australia's geography would be through indigenous languages. Not all scientific discoveries were made by English speakers so what better than to approach these in other languages.

This might be obvious and I'm not trying to tell people to suck eggs, just to consider not putting all the eggs in one monolingual basket.

A charter for primary schooling that equips students to take their place in our multilingual world would be a refreshing change. A charter that recognises our country's language potential, as academic Michael Clyne describes it, is overdue.
The principals describe the charter as "a call to action for all of those who have roles in ensuring that a high-quality primary schooling is delivered to all our children". Let's take up this chance to discuss what real high-quality primary schooling should be about.

Matthew Absalom teaches in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/10/07/1191695736247.html

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