French immersion returns to Grade 1 early entry
Teachers skeptical about change being made without any testing to show current system isn't working
The early entry point for French immersion in the anglophone school system will return to Grade 1 in September 2017, the Gallant government announced on Friday.
Restoring the entry point for early French immersion to Grade 1 was a high-profile promise in the Liberals' election campaign in 2014.
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"If you want to learn a second language, and languages in general, the best time to do so is when you're young," said Gallant.
"[Children] are sponges at that age and they're able to pick up the language that much easier."
System changed in 2008
The former Liberal government of Shawn Graham changed the entry point from Grade 1 to Grade 3 in 2008.
Then-education minister Kelly Lamrock said early immersion starting in Grade 1 was creating a two-tiered system in New Brunswick's anglophone schools.
"When I go to my son's school, I see his French immersion class with 17 or 18 kids, of whom none were on special education plans," said Lamrock in 2008 at a CBC town hall meeting about the changes. "And then I visit the core French class. In a class of 22 kids, 10 might be on special education plans, and if a kid struggles a little bit, he falls right through the cracks."
Lamrock said students in the regular anglophone stream at the time with basic French instruction scored the worst grades in Canada on national tests.
Lamrock's initial plan was to eliminate early immersion and replace it with an intensive French-language course that begins in Grade 5, followed by an entry-point for late immersion in middle school. The Graham government later relented under public pressure and allowed an early immersion entry point in Grade 3.
Gallant said the government will make improvements to the previous Grade 1 immersion program and include initiatives to address classroom composition.
There has not been any testing yet of the first group of Grade 3 immersion entries from 2008. They are now in Grade 9 and will not be assessed until they are graduating from high school.
The president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association said the government shouldn't be making the change back to a Grade 1 entry point until testing is done to compare how well the Grade 3 cohort does in French compared to the former Grade 1 cohorts.
"I would have thought looking at their education plan and their focus on data collection, and data, data, data, that they should be focusing on the data on this new program, the Grade 3 entry point: Has it been successful?" said Guy Arseneault.
"The focus, rather than on entry, should be on outcome."
"I think they should announce what those measures are," said Arseneault. "We've heard that before from other governments … Let's see what those measures are."
Arseneault said the change will create instability in the education system and use resources that would be going elsewhere.
Gallant said concern about instability was not enough reason to stop the change from going ahead.
"Yes, we want to have stability as one of the principles that will guide us in the decisions that we make, but we can't necessarily say that's going to be the only principle," he said.
"If it were, that would mean we'd just simply have the status quo. And we have to improve our education outcome."
There has also been criticism that French immersion — a program in anglophone schools to give students a solid foundation in French — is not as available in rural areas of the province as it is in urban areas.
Gallant said the province will improve access to early immersion in rural schools by getting an early expression of interest from parents and work with districts to make immersion available in as many schools as possible.
If there is some interest in immersion at a school, but not enough to warrant an immersion class, Gallant said the province will do research "to find innovative solutions to [allow for] access to enhanced French learning in rural schools."
Gallant said he is not promising immersion in places where there isn't sufficient interest in it, but will provide "enhanced French language training."
Gallant said the province will work with the New Brunswick Teachers' Association to find employment opportunities for teachers displaced by the reintroduction of Grade 1 immersion.
Canadian Parents for French president Jane Keith applauded the decision.
"It's the most inclusive program if the support is provided for kids who may struggle academically," she said. "We really think it's the best way to learn."
Parent Adam Read of Grand Bay-Westfield isn't so sure. He has a daughter who is in Grade 6 and is doing well after starting immersion in Grade 3.
"I can only speak for myself but it's working well for me on my end right now," he said. "Don't make a change just for making a change.
"Don't make a change if it's not broken."
New Democratic Party leader Dominic Cardy said the government should evaluate the needs of students and teachers before restoring Grade 1 immersion.
"Today's announcement, within weeks of the government releasing an education plan saying that they were going to trust teachers, shows that Premier Gallant has ignored the advice of every elected English school district and every English teachers' union in the province," stated Cardy in a news release.
Cardy said before early immersion was moved to Grade 3, 98 per cent of special needs students and 80 per cent of the poorest students in the province did not participate in French immersion.
"Since the removal of the Grade 1 entry point, English provincial literacy rates have increased and students from rural schools and the most vulnerable families in New Brunswick have received the opportunity to enrol in French immersion.
"After delivering one of the biggest cuts to education in the province's history, Premier Gallant needs to ensure that immersion isn't just a program for elites or we will make the language divide worse, not better."
- On mobile? Follow live stream of news conference here
With files from Jacques Poitras