17 Jan ’10 – A Story About L.O.T.E.


You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse.

Caliban to Prospero [The Tempest]

Over the years there have been hundreds of well-meaning lobbies seeking a slice of the school-time-table in some form or other. They seldom appreciate the crowdedness of the ordinary school day and believe that there is room for their particular need. Single-issue focussed, they demonstrate an enormous trust in the capacity of primary school  teachers to handle extra work.

Back in the 1980s, the Queensland Primary Curriculum Committee, representing all possible regular interest groups in the state, identified fifty-three such lobbies. Responsible Dog Ownership Committee was one that I recall was happy not to interfere with school time and was pleased to have a film made about the group’s  concerns. Maintaining Tidy Schools was a lobby further up the lobby ladder and some schools gave more time to this cause than did others. Such an organisation, and there was a number in similar circumstances, had the resources and time to present their case. These two samples only illustrate the kinds of pressures that a state primary school organisation has to face in its essential business…curriculum.

Few had the resources and the determination that a group operating from the Mt. Gravatt College of Advanced Education had. It wanted foreign languages taught in primary Schools. I, for one, was sympathetic to the cause and encouraged what  became known as Languages Other Than English, so called because it did not use the word ‘foreign’. I had, as a school inspector, been party to supporting some schools in the west who liked the idea. I recall the children at the one-teacher school at Maxwelton performing their morning greetings in French. Such use of a foreign language became a challenge to the youngsters. It was fun and did not take too much time.  I also recall a young lady who taught French in the secondary department at Blackall State School, giving up her ‘spares’ to teach the Year 7 class. I admired her tenacity as she was sorely tried by the group.

Visiting Hertsfordshire in 1970 added to my enthusiasm. The teaching of French in Primary schools was ‘all the go’ in England at the time and it gave schools an excuse to run excursions across the channel. It looked like it could be a raging success, with such immersion in close proximity. With my Herts host, we visited a school group who were spending a few days in an old castle and no child was allowed to speak English from the moment he or she entered the bus until the time each returned to school. Was I impressed ?!

Later, I was surprised to learn that the teaching of another language in England’s schools collapsed substantially in the following five years. My host friend, one of the most outstanding practical primary school educators that I have ever met, reckoned that it did not fit the general teaching-learning milieu of a primary school, the preparation [if one was not French fluent] was excessive, and allocation of resources was over-demanding.  I know what he meant, but I was still surprised and anxious to spread the gospel in Queensland.

There was a ferocious world-wide demand for ‘back to basics’ during this period. It was a nasty and unpleasant period; so anything beyond the 3Rs was a dangerous political proposal. Never mind. I kept the faith and tried to handle the dilemma, even though my administrative cobbers kept a more-even keel.

We joined with Mt Gravatt CAE in seminars and encouragement to schools who wished to participate. We could not afford to allocate extra resources and were wary about the allocation of the time spent on direct teaching. We sensed that something would suffer, but we persisted.  I recall a meeting of the State Primary Curriculum Committee when class-teacher and official member, June Walker, reported on her efforts with LOTE. I asked straight-as-a-gun-barrel June how much time she spent on teaching the language. She said that she spent about an hour a week. I asked her, “Where do you pinch the time from?” Said June, “Social Studies”. The Social Studies syllabus was the principal victim of any re-allocation of school time. This, at a time when the Dottrens view of social studies as the centrepiece of ‘the curriculum the world needed’ should have had top priority; and any  intrusive innovation should not have been supported.  Mea culpa.  Learning to live with each other at home and in the immediate neighbourhood should have taken preference over learning to speak adequately in some foreign land. This could come later – much later.

At about this time a Queensland University academic persuaded me to trust the research that indicated that it was a waste of time to start teaching foreign languages to children beyond Year 3. It should start as early as possible and he had persuaded a Kindergarten or Pre-school at Indooroopilly to undertake a LOTE. Even though confounded by and suspicious of the kind of research that academics can produce, it still made sense and I pushed further.

The opportunity for us to study these issues elsewhere  arose and Victor von Triefeld, one of our multi-lingual Principals was asked to see what was happening in other states. As far as I recall, Victor recommended further study of what Sydney-siders called CLOTE – Community Languages Other Than English. Sydney had a host of enclaves to promote such subjects; Queensland few. We followed his advice, but started to slow the pace. His efforts helped me to recall my three-teacher school outside Innisfail from whence a Greek Priest visited the school at 4 p.m. one afternoon per week and used the play-shed to teach Greek as well as religion to about a dozen pupils. It lasted until about 6 p.m. and the children seemed to have fun. It was no burden whatsoever on the school.

The Department already had CLOTE in some aboriginal communities on Cape York where some linguists were converting and recording the local language [Wik Munkin] for reading books. At the time, we were pleased with the program, I had visited a seminar in Portland, Oregon for teaching the local languages of North American Indians in the North West. It was all interesting, but the pressure from folk who ran the LOTE and CLOTE  courses and had a vested interest in the preservation of them at all costs, was getting heavy.

Gradually, over time and following considerable thought my views changed.

I am now pleased that, at the time, we stuck to our resolve just to help schools who volunteered and that there was no coercion of any kind….well…maybe a little. After all, in those days, if the Director and his cobbers and the School Inspector seemed to be interested, a Principal would think seriously about following suit.  Right ?

What would I do these days in the face of the enormous centralised federal pressure to force-achieve well in the national tests and conscious of the enormous work-load that teachers have to endure in teaching a mega-crowded curriculum?

As a Principal I would not allow LOTE to be taught in school time by the regular teachers nor allocate any normal school time to its teaching.

If  a community group desired any language to be taught other than English, I would help the proposers to arrange after-school classes and allocate space to them.  Its teaching program would not be the responsibility of the school.

The reasons for this are obvious. Schools must now spend as much school time as possible on the image of the school as represented by success in the national testing program.

There is no space for chic subjects or those that distort the time-table.