New Brunswick

Parents uneasy with French immersion reforms

Many parents used a public forum on the province's early French immersion program on Tuesday night to express their frustration with the way the education system keeps changing.
Elvy Robichaud, a co-chair of a task force that is reviewing the French immersion system, listens to Fredericton residents discuss the education system. (CBC) (CBC)

Many parents used a public forum on the province’s early French immersion program on Tuesday night to express their frustration with the way the education system keeps changing.

The Progressive Conservative government appointed former Education ministers Elvy Robichaud and James Lockyer to review the Grade 3 entry point to the French immersion system last month.

Roughly 50 parents attended the first public hearing, which was held on Tuesday night in Fredericton.

Michele Barry, a parent, said the program's Grade 3 entry point is so new, and so rare in Canada, that it is impossible to tell if it is working.

"There's nothing to suggest what the outcome is going to be for these kids. When they hit Grade 12, so far down the road, we have no idea. No one's ever done it," Barry said.

The previous Liberal government faced a public backlash when it decided to eliminate the early French immersion program.

The plan had to be revisited after a string of protests across the province and a ruling from the Court of Queen’s Bench that ordered another round of public consultation.

The Department of Education eventually moved the entry point to Grade 3 from Grade 1. The change was designed to improve literacy in English before the students begin learning French as a second language.

Premier David Alward’s Progressive Conservatives promised during the election campaign to review the former government’s French immersion decision.

Heather Smith, the president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said her board of directors last week unanimously agreed now is not the the time to hold public meetings.

Smith said teachers need a stable education system if they're going to properly teach children

"If I'm saving money at my house I need a long range plan. I can't just do it and change my mind two years down the road. It's not going to be successful," Smith said.

 Smith said the only way that can happen is for politicians to keep their hands off the system.

 "If we had an education plan that was apolitical. That it didn't matter which political party was in, that was the plan," she said.

No consensus

Robichaud and Lockyer will be holding public consultations until mid-December on the early French immersion program. The task force is expected to hand in a report in the new year.

Education Minister Jody Carr has said any changes could be implemented for the start of school in September 2012.

There was no consensus at the Fredericton meeting on what, if any, reforms should be recommended.

There was a sense from some parents that they wanted their children to be enrolled in the French immersion program earlier.

"It's not early enough. It's not early enough to get them exposed to the language," one parent told the task force.

But many of those at the public meeting also expressed reform fatigue, exasperated that the immersion entry point could move back to Grade 1 before anyone knows whether Grade 3 is working.

"We have a province-wide group of people being paid to go around and do this again, when we don't even have the results out to show what kind of benefits were there," another parent said.

The feelings were hardly unanimous.

A smaller group of parents also showed up at the hearing to outline their support of the existing system.

Some parents said they liked that their children had time to develop their skills with their mother tongue of English, which was the whole point of the former Liberal government's controversial move.

"For her, at least, that really laid the groundwork, and made this Grade 3 entry, so that's why, from what I've seen, it looks like a good thing so far," one parent told the committee.