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Doug Willms of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy says any more changes to French immersion in anglophone schools needs to be based on research and not politics. (CBC)

Any changes to French immersion in New Brunswick should be based on careful research and not political rhetoric, says the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick.

Doug Willms says the changes made to French immersion in the province in 2008-09 are working and he believes it would be a mistake to return to offering French immersion as a choice as early as kindergarten or Grade 1.

Willms would go even further and opt for "universal French instruction" where all anglophone students are taught in a single system with no immersion option.

"I don't want to see a system where we separate children into French immersion and 'other,'" said Willms.

The Liberal government of Shawn Graham implemented controversial changes to French second language instruction in 2008-09. The early entry point for French immersion was moved to Grade 3 instead of Grade 1. Also, an intensive French program was implemented for all students in Grade 5.

The immersion debate resurfaced last week when Liberal Leader Brian Gallant pledged a return to the kindergarten or Grade 1 entry point.

Willms says since the system changed, the percentage of students who achieve an acceptable reading level by the end of Grade 2 has increased to 80 per cent, up from the previous level of 72 per cent.

"That's just remarkable," said Willms.

"I work with school systems around the world and if anyone could reduce vulnerability by eight per cent, they'd say bring it on. So that's quite a remarkable change."

Willms also notes the percentage of students who achieve a basic level of French proficiency by the end of Grade 5 has jumped to 42 per cent, compared to less than 10 per cent under the previous system.

The immersion program sees only about nine per cent of students graduate with intermediate or advanced level French proficiency, said Willms.

"Clearly, it didn't work to start with," he said.

"Last year, we had 230 children who reached advanced level for the whole province.

"It's not practical. It's not cost effective. It just doesn't work."

Willms envisions an anglophone school system for New Brunswick where all children receive French instruction from an early age through Grade 8. In high school, students could then decide whether to continue with French through the end of Grade 12.

He says realistic goals for such a system would include:

  • 85 per cent of student be successful readers in their first language by the end of Grade 2.
  • 75 per cent of students achieve a basic level of French proficiency by the end of Grade 5.
  • 75 per cent of students achieve an intermediate level of French proficiency by the end of Grade 8.
  • 40 per cent of students achive an advanced level of French proficiency by the end of Grade 12.

"We need a clear vision of here's our goal for a province and we can get there," said Willms.

Having a universal program would avoid the "streaming" that results in immersion, where typically more advantaged students are placed in the immersion program, leaving the other anglophone classes overburdened with more vulnerable students, he said. 

"You just simply have a single system for all anglophone students that everyone gets instruction," said Willms.

"Figure out how to do that for all students as they are going through. You don't need to separate them into immersion and non-immersion."

Willms says before any more changes are made to the school system, "we need to look at the data seriously."

"The data for kids achieving basic French is already there. The improvement in reading results over the last four years, that's already there," he said.

"Rather than pitting politicians one against the other, or researchers one against the other, we need to look at the results."