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  • Writer's pictureGisi Cannizzaro

How New South Wales supports its heritage language schools

November 15, 2020

An interview with Ken Cruickshank from the Sydney Institute for Community Languages Education (SICLE) in Australia

New South Wales (NSW) in Australia has more than 37,000 students learning one of over 60 heritage languages taught by 3000 volunteer teachers. These so-called "community language schools" receive 130 dollars per student per year. In order to receive this subsidy, they must be an official non-profit organization, and the government provides support in getting insurance as incorporated non-profit organizations. The community language schools also have free use of public school buildings. What's more, there are 30 languages with official recognized syllabi in high school that count for entry to university. Who better to ask about how this was achieved in NSW than Ken Cruickshank, the director of the Sydney Institute for Community Languages Education (SICLE). In addition to being SICLE's director, Prof. Cruickshank is professor in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work (SSESW), a co-convenor of the ESL (English as a Second Language) and Refugee Education Working Party, and a long-term member of the NSW Community Languages Schools Board. We asked Prof. Cruickshank about the history of community language education in NSW, how SICLE got started, what types of support and training are available to heritage language teachers and managers, and what can be achieved with (political) pressure from migrant organizations. (Note that in this article, the terms "heritage language" and "community language" are used interchangeably).

How did NSW come to value heritage language education? The first community language schools here were started as far back as the 1850s, when German immigrants came to help set up the wine industry. But I will tell the story from the last forty years: In the 1980s, both the political left and the right in the Australian federal government came together and allocated 30 dollars per student per year at the community language schools. This was arguably an attempt to buy the migrant vote. What surprised the officials was that Australia had a national population of over 20 million people, but there were only about 30 community language schools on record. They wanted to know where the money was going, so they hired a researcher to evaluate the community language schools. This woman went all around Australia for two years and found hundreds and hundreds of schools. For instance, she discovered one Hebrew school that had been running for 85 years! Her report, which was very favorable to the schools, was never actually published by the government. She started lobbying on behalf of the community language schools and started umbrella organizations. Ultimately, responsibility for the community language schools was placed at the state level, so each state had to keep track of which schools there were and how many students were enrolled. I was on the government board that NSW started for oversight. Since then, it seems that whenever the government wants to get votes from the migrant communities, they promise more money to the community language schools. But we have also been lucky in having some far-sighted politicians.

How did you get involved in heritage language education? I started out teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in an inner city high school in the 1980s. I was getting students from Vietnam and other places in my class who were just off the boat and straight into the high school with no English. It was then that I started working with organizations representing immigrant and refugee background students. These communities were concerned that many overseas trained teachers could not get jobs in Australia. When we opened training for this group 20 years ago, there were 400 teachers who showed up. There were so many people who wanted it! We have since gotten 110 teachers qualified to teach at Australian public schools. How did SICLE get started? About three years ago, in 2017, we had a state premier who had studied at one of the Armenian community language schools. She worked together with the Minister for Finance who had studied at one of the Italian community language schools. In response to community lobbying they decided that they were going to give 10 million dollars to the schools. They opened a tender to universities and unexpectedly we found ourselves with 9 million dollars at our university. How did you spend the money? I started SICLE with the goal of (1) getting the schools to share resources and materials. We started the "Open Language" portal just a few months ago. We already have 1,000 resources in 13 languages and this number will keep going up. This is meant to be an international resource, so please encourage your teachers in Europe to take part in the sharing. So far we are getting about 2000 hits per month, with about 30% of hits from the U.S. and another 10% from southeast Asia. We regularly hold workshops about how to use the open resource. We also used the money to (2) build capacity and help the teachers. We had been running programs even before 2017 (we started them in 2004), but we continued them under SICLE. We are now responsible for providing this training for all of NSW. What kind of programs do you provide? We provide three 60-hour accredited professional education programs for teachers from NSW government-funded community language schools. This includes a program for community language school leaders, who face enormous challenges in developing and running schools. The courses are run face-to-face and online, on weekends, weeknights or school holidays to suit the teachers – most of whom have family and work commitments. 1) Community Languages Teaching Program - Foundation This program helps participants become more effective classroom teachers by introducing the basics of how children learn. It covers practical aspects such as lesson planning; teaching listening, speaking, reading and writing; classroom management, an introduction to recent approaches to education, differentiation, and supporting children with special educational needs. 2) Community Languages Teaching Program – Advanced This program helps experienced teachers become curriculum mentors. The program covers: unit planning, assessment, using technology, syllabi assessment, teaching evaluation, and advanced teaching skills. 3) Community Languages School Leadership and Management Program This program helps principals, school leaders, and school management committee members develop more effective schools, covering the issues of (1) people management (finding, employing and mentoring teachers), (2) financial and school management (funding, fees, and paperwork), and (3) educational leadership (developing programs and policies). Experienced community languages school principals mentor groups of new principals by sharing ideas and expertise. We also filmed six videos with advice from experienced principals, each covering a topic that new school administrators find challenging. There must be a lot of interest in these programs! More than 3000 teachers have completed at least one program, and many have completed more than one program.

What we found is that the teachers at these schools do not know what to do. No one gives them information. They get stuck often in terrible jobs. They give up hope of having their qualifications recognized.

What research has SICLE carried out? The first study we did was to send an online survey to the teachers. Of the 3000 teachers in NSW, we received over 900 responses. What we found was that the typical respondent is female (80%) who has been in Australia for about 10 years. Typically, their children are just starting school, so they choose to work in the languages schools as a foot in the door to further study. Some of the teachers at the community language schools are really highly qualified, and about 60% have university qualifications from overseas. Others have no education at all. It varies according to language and the people. What we found is that the teachers at these schools do not know what to do. No one gives them information. They get stuck often in terrible jobs. They give up hope of having their qualifications recognized. Are you able to help them? One of the first things we did with our subsidy was to hire four bilingual careers advisors, able to provide career advice in the first language of many of the people who need it. Giving the people in these communities information about what they need to do and how to go about it is really important. Some people say, "Hey, I just want to decorate cakes," but others say that they want to work in childcare. We found that 80% wanted to be teachers, often due to their experience in community language schools. We provide pathways for them. Is what you do in NSW representative of all of Australia? The only other state with similar language demographics and policies is Victoria, where Melbourne is located. Victoria has carried out a great deal of research in the area of community language education. The Greek and Italian communities there fought in the 1960s and 1970s for provisions. The remaining Australian states do not share the same vision as NSW and Victoria.

People who run community schools do not have time to lobby. Each language community on its own is usually powerless.

What is your advice to people who run heritage language programs in other countries? What you usually see is a difference between the big schools and the small schools. For instance, the Chinese, Arabic, or Korean schools are often big and well-organized, while smaller schools with only one or two teachers will struggle to survive. Either way, people who run community schools do not have time to lobby. Each language community on its own is usually powerless. In most countries, there is no connection between schools of different languages. What you also find is that within languages, there can be a lot of rivalry going on. It was not until five years ago that there was even some connection between the community language schools across the states of Australia. With an umbrella organization like yours, you can achieve more than any school on its own. The key is for schools to work together and get "brave" parents to go and talk with politicians. Get them to visit your school, talk with the students. Once you have got to know a politician, you have a supporter for life! You also need to get the second generation into your schools and help them to become the next teachers and leaders. So the answer is to make connections. Yes! I have been doing a meta-analysis of research worldwide on heritage language schools, approximately 300 articles, and I see that there are pockets of research in some countries that make no reference to things being looked at in other countries. No one talks to each other. We are trying to change this with our free, open-source Open Language. People are joining our online workshops about Open Language from across Australia, and also from Hong Kong and China. For many languages there is a gap in quality heritage language teaching materials and we aim to change that.

The Sydney Institute for Community Languages Education (SICLE) has established Open Language portal to bring together available resources to support teaching both in out-of-hours community languages schools and primary and secondary schools. Heritage language teachers from anywhere in the world are welcome to use and contribute to the resources.


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