New Brunswick

Ombudsman recommends 1-year delay to French immersion changes

The government will not be acting on New Brunswick ombudsman Bernard Richard's recommendation that the elimination of early French immersion be put off by a year.

Documents show discussion, concerns about program

New Brunswick's ombudsman is recommending the government's plan to eliminate early French immersion education be delayed for at least a year.

In a report released Wednesday, ombudsman Bernard Richard said postponing the controversial decision would allow more time for public input.

He said complainants raised "many troubling questions" during his two-month investigation into the government's decision to change the second-language programs offered in its English schools.

Richard launched the review in April after Education Minister Kelly Lamrock announced the early French immersion program, which has been offered to students entering Grade 1, would be eliminated.

Under the new program, students would not get French language education in the province's English schools before a mandatory intensive five-month program in Grade 5. In Grade 6, the students would have the option to enter an immersion program or take French classes as a mandatory subject until high school graduation.

Richard's report indicates his office received more than 300 complaints about the decision and 39 positive comments.

The report puts forward two recommendations for government:

  • That Lamrock direct the school districts to allow parents to register their children for French immersion beginning in Grade 1 for September.
  • That the government delay the elimination of the French immersion program until at least September 2009 and follow up with a public consultation process.

The government will not be acting on Richard's recommendations, Lamrock told the legislature on Wednesday.

Summer consultation is not enough: Richard

But Lamrock is already seeking more public input after a judge ruled that there should be a judicial review into the cancellation of the immersion program and called the decision "unfair and unreasonable."

Decisions should be made fairly after allowing interested citizens to comment, said the ruling.

Lamrock said he will allow for more consultations over the summer and announce on Aug. 5 whether the new program would proceed.

Richard's report, however, indicates that timeline is too tight.

"A six-week consultation period on this highly sensitive issue of educational reform, beginning on the eve of the summer vacation period is not adequate to provide the minister or the citizens of New Brunswick with informed analysis of the best ideas and feedback available on this issue," the report states.

The 14-page document states there was a lack of consultation, a lack of notice to the public about the changes, too much haste in the implementation and a disregard of concerns raised by educational experts.

Richard writes he also received several complaints that the decision to eliminate early immersion had already been made before an independent review of the programming.

Officials discussed elimination before release of report

Richard's report refers to documents that suggest a decision had already been made before Feb. 27, when the government released the report that recommended early French immersion be cut.

In an e-mail dated Feb. 5, Deputy Minister of Education John Kershaw wrote to assistant deputy minister David Roberts: "You and I cannot lose sight of the fact that we need to deliver to Kelly [Lamrock] ASAP a plan to operationalize the elimination of early immersion this coming school year.… I certainly don't want to lose the opportunity to act this school year because Kelly [Lamrock] says we don't have a plan articulated well enough."

The government-commissioned review of second-language education in New Brunswick's English schools was supposed to be conducted at arm's-length from government by commissioners James Croll and Patricia Lee.

Richard indicated that in the more than 2,500 pages of documentation he received from the government during his review of the decision there is evidence that calls into question the independence of the commission.

Richard refers to an e-mail sent from Croll to Kershaw, where Croll asks for advice on what financial numbers to include in the report. The note indicates that if certain numbers were not included the implementation of a late-immersion program would be cast in a better light.

The ombudsman also notes that financial considerations appear to have played a significant role in the department's decision to change its second-language programming, but there is no evidence that any detailed costing had been done.

With files from the Canadian Press