Four Corners - Going Back to Lajamanu

Reporter Debbie Whitmont travels to the Top End to discover what will happen following a government move to scrap a controversial 35-year-old experiment in bilingual education.

When it comes to selling Australia as a tourist destination it goes without saying that Aboriginal language is part of the Australian identity. But in the classrooms of the Northern Territory Indigenous language is not in favour. Last year national tests found four out of five children in remote schools didn't meet basic standards of English literacy. The Northern Territory Government decided that bilingual schooling was a major cause of this poor performance.

In October 2008 the then minister Marion Scrymgour made a decision that from January 2009 all schools must teach the first four hours of classes in English. For remote area bilingual schools and the communities they serviced it was a major blow.
The government though did not back down. In fact the Chief Minister told Four Corners he completely supports what's been done: "We are not banning the speaking of Indigenous languages, the teaching of Indigenous culture in our schools. What we are saying explicitly is that we should have the same expectations for these kids to get to benchmark in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 along with all other kids."

But the decision to stop the bilingual program ignores much available research that shows even those schools primarily using English performed badly in tests. To find out the rationale behind bilingual education and to look at how it has performed, reporter Debbie Whitmont went to two Aboriginal communities in the top end, Lajamanu and Yirrkala. In 1986 Four Corners went to Lajamanu to look at what was then considered an innovative and apparently successful program of bilingual education.

Returning there, the program looks at what happened to the bold experiment of bilingual education. It also asks how the new policy, making English the dominant teaching language, would impact on the students. Perhaps not surprisingly the people there felt their view had been ignored and their culture devalued.

Meanwhile the visit to Yirrkala produced a very different picture. Yirrkala is a community in north east Arnhem Land with a long cultural tradition and a strong view about preserving its language. The community has produced some of the country's best known Aboriginal leaders, including well known musician Mandawuy Yunupingu who oversaw bilingual education as a former principal at the school. There the community simply told Four Corners they wouldn't be taking any notice of the minister's directive.

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