“J’en perds mon latin,” primary school students in the Belconnen district might exclaim in consternation; they are certainly at risk of losing their French.
Children at Hawker and Weetangera primary schools learn French since kindergarten, and expect to continue when they reach Belconnen High School. But Belconnen High discontinued French (and Indonesian) in 2017, due to a shortage of language teachers.
Instead, the high school’s Year 7 and 8 students learn about local Aboriginal cultural heritage and languages (Connecting to Country). The ACT Government requires these grades to learn one of eight priority languages for at least 150 minutes a week, but schools may offer other languages, including Indigenous languages.
From Year 9, Belconnen High students can learn Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese. But no French.
The ACT Government has said they would like to offer French at Belconnen but have not been able to find teachers.
Kristen Baker, a Hawker Primary mother, does not think this is good enough. She has launched a petition to the ACT Legislative Assembly, sponsored by Elizabeth Kikkert MLA, calling for French to recommence at Belconnen, and for the government to attract or train a specialist teacher.
“You’ve got kids learning from four years old,” Ms Baker said. “To stop them in their formative years from cementing that learning is a crying shame.”
Her daughters (now in fifth and sixth grade) have learnt French for seven years – and they want to continue.
“A two-year gap in learning is doing them a disservice,” Ms Baker said. “That break will really set them back.”
Seven years of language learning is almost double what government policy requires and offers learners a strong foundation, Ms Kikkert said.
Ms Baker’s girls were surprised and disappointed when they discovered French was not offered. Her eldest, in particular, has a deep thirst for French culture, and wants to travel or even live there one day.
“You see it feeding their soul in terms of an appreciation of the world outside Canberra. That’s a beautiful thing to watch in your kids.”
Husband Craig Fox believes learning a language is an investment, and considers it unfair to remove that opportunity. A second language can enrich life and create work opportunities.
“French has brought a different perspective to their education,” Mr Fox said. “I don’t want them to lose that. If there are really good reasons why it’s not continuing, let me know – but if there are not, let’s reconsider it.”
The Bakers believe Connecting to Country should continue, but not at the expense of immersion in language. There are many French tutors in Canberra, Ms Baker said, such as at the Alliance Française; perhaps Belconnen High could offer French outside core hours, after school or in lunchtimes – but that would be another co-curricular activity in a busy life.
Ms Baker is even considering moving outside the Belconnen region for schools if she must.
“If it’s not offered, I think I would have to,” Ms Baker said. “Otherwise, I’m compromising on what I think is important and what my kids feel is important for them. It wouldn’t be ideal; I wouldn’t be happy about it.”
The ACT Education Directorate recruited 13 language teachers for Canberra schools in a national recruitment round last August, and intend to hold another targeted recruitment drive towards the end of the year.
The ACT Government explained French was not offered at Belconnen High School because of difficulties in recruiting French language teachers. Australia was experiencing a nationwide “drought” of language teachers, a spokesperson said, made worse by COVID-19 restrictions on overseas employment.
The ACT Government said they did not have national figures on the shortage of language teachers. The Federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment responded that state and territory government education departments and non-government education authorities that employ teachers and undertake workforce planning were best placed to provide this information.
Ms Baker considers this a catch-22 situation: “If the lack of teaching staff is truly the issue, shouldn’t we be teaching more children?”
She was also concerned other schools might have discontinued languages. She hoped her petition would prompt others to look closely at whether high schools were offering languages, or whether there were gaps in teaching. “I would hate for any other families to find themselves in the same position where they have to work hard to get what arguably should be expected as a basic offering,” Ms Baker said.
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