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The School House

What does an influx of refugee-background students mean for schools?

How prepared are we to support young Syrian refugees entering our school system? Reuters/Marko Djurica

Australia will welcome 12,000 Syrian refugees over the coming months. Most will be families, so many young people will be entering our education system.

How prepared are we to support these new students in our schools? Not at all well prepared, if current performance is anything to go by.

Research reveals students from refugee backgrounds are most likely to be in the lowest quartile of achievement as measured by national standardised testing (NAPLaN).

This is unsurprising, given their circumstances. They are learning and being assessed through a new language. They have had interrupted schooling which leads to inevitable gaps in their curriculum knowledge. They are emotionally fragile due to the traumatic circumstances of their past few years and their ongoing worries about the family and friends left behind.

High hopes and high expectations

However, while the hurdles are many, they are not insurmountable. These students and their families have high educational aspirations. They see education as key to their hopes of a better, safer life. They are highly motivated to learn, and to do well.

But their sheer will and determination will not be sufficient - there must be an equivalent commitment of both resources and will from government and education providers.

Resurrect the Gonski funding model

If there was ever any chance of a resurrection of the original Gonski funding model, the arrival of thousands of refugees in our schools must surely be a compelling prompt.

Gonski proposed a resource loading for students who require English language learning support. However, while the provision for this loading remains in theory, in practice there has been no Federal definition of English language proficiency. This means there is no mechanism for deciding who qualifies for the English language proficiency loading. Nor is there any requirement for the states and territories to actually spend this federally allocated money on English additional language and dialect (EALD) learners.

Once passed on to the jurisdictions, they in turn pass the money on to schools to spend as they see fit - a hallmark of the shift to increased school autonomy around the country.

In this game of no accountability Chinese whispers, the funding is increasingly missing the intended recipients - students who are learning English.

A recent survey by the Australian Council of TESOL Associations found that around 50% of English language teachers believed that principals are not spending funding for EALD students on programs for those students. As one respondent said,

When questioned about where funding has gone, principals will often respond by saying the funding is supporting general literacy programs or reducing overall class sizes.

Key to the original Gonski model was the requirement that funds be directly allocated to the students who attract the funding. Such a model ensures simple and transparent accountability - is the student progressing or not. If not, why not.

Under current funding arrangements, nobody is accountable for the progress of EALD students in schools. Indeed there is no accountability for whether EALD funding is even being used for English language teaching and learning.

It is very hard to move out of the bottom quartile of achievement when your own education system is working against you.

Language teaching and literacy teaching are not the same thing

It isn’t that systems and principals are malevolent or sneaky as they misdirect EALD funding - they simply don’t know the difference between English language learning and literacy.

Mainstream literacy teaching is not sufficient. Literacy programs work on the premise that students can already speak and understand English, and will bring innate knowledge of the English language to learning how to read and write.

Children who have English as their first language don’t write ‘Goes to soccer my brother’, or ‘My brother go soccer’ , or ‘My brother going soccer’, because they can hear the sentence doesn’t makes sense or sound right. But these are the errors that EALD students make, because they are applying the rules of the languages they know to their English writing and speaking.

It is the job of the teacher to make English language knowledge visible to their EALD learners. However, this is beyond the expertise of mainstream generalist teachers, for whom English grammar is intuitive and invisible. While they can correct those errors, they cannot explain those errors. EALD students need teachers with specialist training in the teaching of English as an additional language.

Not a quick fix, but a sure fix

It takes a long time to learn a new language. Children learn playground language very quickly, but it takes many years to learn the academic language of schooling. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has published a description of the English language learning process, describing four distinct phases: beginning, emerging, developing and consolidating.

When we tie our English language funding dollars directly to the students who have attracted the funding, as per Gonski’s original funding model, we can hold educators accountable for making sure these students progress efficiently through these phases of language learning.

Ensuring EALD students are the direct recipients of the funding they generate is not only ethical, it makes economic sense. When these students receive targeted and informed instruction they make rapid progress in their schooling. Ultimately, we fund them out of requiring funding.

These are resilient and motivated learners; they are cognitively advantaged bilinguals. They will become Australia’s most creative and productive citizens if we get their education right.

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