Australian Indigenous Languages
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Edited by David Nathan
Attack on bilingual education in the Northern Territory
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11 March 1999

Lastest info 11 March 1999
The NT Government shows no sign of reconsidering ...
Human Rights Enquiry

The Northern Territory government is planning to withdraw Bilingual Education. The findings of a NT Department of Education review includes the following Initiative:
"Progressively withdraw the Bilingual Education program, allowing the schools to share in the savings and better resource English language programs."
See also the text of the NT government's announcement

A 3 year time frame has been suggested, with some of the major restructuring likely in the first half of next year.

The plan, according to Anne Martin of the University of NSW, not only strikes at the heart of Indigenous education, but is a re-run of Shane Stone's closure of a number of schools (mostly Aboriginal) across the top end in the late eighties.

A web page at Milingimbi School's website explains some of the changes in Bilingual Education. There is a comments page available as well. Let these staff know your views and hopefully they will gain support for Bilingual Education via this site.

Go to MILINGIMBI CEC , or you can email Rosalind Djuwandayngu the Principal at Milingimbi CEC on

The professional linguistic and educational communities have expressed their dismay with the decision. The Australian Linguistic Society, through its president Professor Peter Austin, has written to ministers of the NT government to ask them to reconsider the decision. Dr David Wilkins, together with 35 other researchers affiliated with the Max Planck Institute in Holland (including two world renowned experts on language acquistion - Professor Dan Slobin and Professor Melissa Bowerman) has also written directly to the Minister concerned (see text of letter). The Faculty Board of the Faculty of Education and Languages at the University of Western Sydney has passed a motion condemning the changes.

Alasdair MacCaluim, the campaigns officer of Comann Ceilteach Oilthigh Dhun Eideann (Edinburgh University's Gaelic society), has sent a message of support, urging the NT government to reverse their decision.

Jeff Siegel has written of the reaction to the announcement in Hawaii, and provided information about the benefits of bilingual education.

Jeff Siegel and Bruce Sommer have provided a list of references that discuss the history and benefits of bilingual education.

Ann Stewart, in one of the many messages of alarm and protest that are currently circulating, says:

This is devastating news to the many Aboriginal schools, communities as well as teachers and staff involved in bilingual education. Consultation undertaken was narrow and brief and geared towards justifying the ends ... This is the most blatant attack upon indigenous education and the rights of Indigenous people to make choices about the nature of education of their children. Additionally, the impact upon language maintenance for the many language groups affected will be immense.
Bob Boughton also described reactions to the announcement:
...a number of people immediately pointed out that the announcement gave communities a false and potentially divisive choice, and that communities should never be asked to surrender the right to teach and learn in their own languages, before they could access ESL support. ESL and bi-lingual education are not mutually exclusive, it was said, but could and should work together to produce quality educational outcomes for Aboriginal communities. It was also pointed out that this action directly threatened the rights of indigenous language speakers to educate their children and young people in those languages if they wished, with government support, a right specified in the current draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It is worth noting that in 1994, the Australian Senate published a Report A Matter of Survival, the findings of an inquiry undertaken "because of widespread concern over language loss amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people." Participants in the inquiry included Dr Michael Wooldridge, MP, the current Health Minister, Mr Les Scott, MP, (Chair) Mr Garrie Gibson, MP and the current member for the NT, Warren Snowdon. For further information see a fuller discussion or go to the actual report.

A petition in circulation states that the progressive withdrawal of the bilingual programs in the Northern Territory schools will mean that:
  • Aboriginal people are being told that their written and spoken languages have no official place in NT schools for their children
  • Access to English literacy will be more difficult if literacy is not achieved first in the language that the children speak (national and international research supports this)
  • The nationally and internationally recognised work done by the NT Bilingual Programs in collecting and maintaining language resources will be discontinued (this is a part of the heritage of all Australians)
  • Aboriginal teachers will have greatly reduced career paths.
PLEASE get and print out the petition

Info 25 Jan 1999

  • Wal Cheneski, of the Education Union, has stated that the NT Government will now review its position on the matter, and will commence consulation with schools in February (from ABC News/4QG bulletin Fri 15 Jan, info supplied by Ysola Best)
  • The NT government has now stated they will maintain their employment in their communities... The Department is to engage Bob Collins, ex- Labor Senator for the NT, as a consultant to conduct a public consultation and review of Aborginal education, to produce a 5 year plan setting the directions for Aborginal education. It expects that the bilingual education issue will be raised in this review... The Human Rights Commission is also conducting an Inquiry into rural and remote education, and its hearings in the NT will take place in May. (-- Bob Boughton, 22 Jan)

Lastest info 11 March 1999

Despite strong and diverse protest, the NT government has made no move toward reinstating support of bilingual education. Late in February, the NT Education Minister remains adamant that there will be no backdown on the policy.

Peter Toyne, the member for Stuart, who on 25 Feb. presented a petition with over 3000 signatures in support of NT bilingual education, claimed that the government members had received two further petitions of support but had failed to table them in the parliament. In other apparent mishandling of the matter, it now appears that the original recommendation to the government was that schools should be offered the choice between keeping bilingual education or shifting to ESL; however, the subsequent policy simply made the transition to ESL a fait accompli (NT News, 10 Dec. 1998). Parliamentary records of both the NT and national parliaments indicate that there has been an unprecedented level of "on-costs" taken out of Federal language funding by the NT government - nearly 50% (NT, 8th Assembly First session 23/02/99).

There is now an international interest in the issue. A letter of support from a Scottish Gaelic group appears in this Language Alarm. On a wider scale, TIME magazine of 22 February carried a full-page article subtitled "The Northern Territory axes bilingual education for Aborigines, sparking charges of cultural neglect." The article points out, as noted in these columns, that the NT's move reflects "a strong push against bilingual education" in the US; notably, however, the US trend seems to be driven by current thinking about immigration and assimilation, matters that seem inappropriate in the Territory context.

Suggesting that a wider range of Aboriginal concerns is under attack, the TIME article quotes Ysola Best, secretary of FATSIL: "It's land rights, it's identity, it's having pride in your cultural heritage." Unfortunately the TIME article concludes that the test of the decision's correctness will be "whether a gain in economic independence will outweigh a possible loss of cultural wealth", thereby assuming that efforts to maintain Indigenous languages create Aboriginal economic dependence.

The issue may have broader human rights implications, and is drawing the attention of bodies such as Community Aid Abroad and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. CAA has stated that the Federal government is obliged under international law to defend the maintenance of Aboriginal languages in education (NT News, 22 Dec. 1998).  

There is now a HREOC inquiry into rural and remote education in the NT under way. The Human Rights Commissioner is visiting Darwin in May and is expecting to hear from bilingual schools. A section of the inquiry is devoted to Indigenous education. Lajamanu CEC have indicated to the Commission that they may file a specific complaint by the end of March.

Information about the HREOC Enquiry
tel 1300 369 530
fax 02 9284 9849
post Rural and remote education inquiry,
  Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission,
  GPO Box 5218 Sydney, NSW 1042
Also see website:

Any ideas welcome. Submissions accepted until 30 September 1999.

Information on these pages has been provided by Bob Boughton, Marilyn Macgregor, Jeff Siegel, Bruce Sommer, Peter Austin, Ann Stewart, Jane Durie, Ysola Best, Michael Smythe, and others

8 December 1998, updated 11 March 1999

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