Australia in the Asian Century: Asian studies in schools

The White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, commits all governments to improving access to Asian studies in schools through the Australian Government’s National Plan for School Improvement. The Prime Minister has announced that Asian studies will be embedded across the Australian Curriculum, students will have access to at least one priority language (Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese), and all schools will ‘engage with’ at least one school in Asia to support teaching of a priority Asian language.


History of Australian Government support for Asian studies in schools

The White Paper’s proposals for Asian studies in schools are not entirely new. The history of Australian Government initiatives for Asian studies in schools reaches back to at least the late 1980s when the Hawke Government endorsed the National Policy on Languages which identified Mandarin, Indonesian and Japanese as languages of geo-political significance requiring ‘promotion’. This was followed by the 1991 White Paper, Australia’s Language: the Australian Language and Literacy Policy, which made similar declarations.

The first of a succession of Australian Government programs nominated Thai and Vietnamese as priority languages and other programs provided support for language learning in schools generally and community language programs in ethnic schools. Since 2005 the School Languages Program has provided this support (the government school funding element was combined with other funding for government schools from 2009).

The National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy (1996–2002) marked a change in direction with the Australian Government providing funding to specifically support both Asian language learning (Japanese, Mandarin, Indonesian and Korean) and Asian studies more broadly. NALSAS was a Council of Australia Governments (COAG) initiative developed in response to the report of a COAG working group (chaired by Kevin Rudd) report, Asian Languages and Australia's Economic Future. The Australian Government provided $206.6 million for the NALSAS Strategy.

A review of the Languages Other Than English (LOTE) program and an evaluation of NALSAS were unanimous that NALSAS had improved the teaching and uptake of Asian studies in schools. There was therefore widespread criticism when its funding ceased.

Specific support for Asian studies in schools resurfaced when the 2008–09 Budget committed $62.15 million over four years for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP), a 2007 Labor election commitment. The languages and cultures of China, Korea, Japan and Indonesia were prioritised to achieve the Australian Government’s aspirational target that by 2020 at least 12 per cent of Year 12 students graduating from school would be fluent in one of the four target languages. NALSSP ceased at the end of June 2012.

Asian studies in schools today

The achievements of these past programs have not been sustained and they have failed to arrest the declining rates of students studying Asian languages and the shortage of Asian language teachers. The Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, admitted, in justifying the decision not to continue NALSSP , that it had not gone ‘anywhere near arresting the trend lines ... the previous policy settings weren't succeeding’.

No comparative LOTE data has been published since 2008 to assess this statement. However, data from the National Report on Schooling in Australia show a decline in Year 12 enrolments in Japanese and Indonesian from 1999 to 2008 while enrolments in Chinese (Mandarin) almost doubled, likely reflecting population growth in the number of native speakers. This is supported by Asia Education Foundation (AEF) research that found a high percentage of students studying Chinese were native speakers.

Some of the problems associated with Asian language studies in schools are associated with LOTE studies generally. Australian Council for Educational Research data show a significant decline in LOTE studies after Years 7 and 8 when many schools have compulsory ‘taster’ subjects. The perception that LOTE studies will negatively impact final Year 12 scores has also been suggested for the dramatic decline in LOTE enrolments at the senior level. AEF student attrition data show a 94 per cent attrition rate for students learning Chinese as a second language, a 99 per cent rate for all students learning Indonesian, and a rate of up to 94 per cent for all Japanese learners.

It is widely recognised that there is an overall shortage of LOTE teachers. The Staff in Australia’s Schools 2010 survey showed a small majority of primary LOTE teachers were teaching Asian languages but this proportion reversed in secondary schools. Most Asian language teachers were located in metropolitan schools and high SES schools, and the non-government school sector had significantly fewer Asian language teachers than government schools.

The AEF’s submission to the White Paper identifies why the efforts of past programs have failed or not been sustained. These programs were ‘small-scale and marginal, rather than a core focus’, they lacked continuity and paid insufficient attention to ‘structural impediments’ such as workforce capacity. Critically, they mostly focussed on issues of supply rather than creating demand for Asian literacy, and were ‘overwhelmingly’ focused on Asian languages with too little attention to Asian studies generally.

The White Paper 

The White Paper’s strategy for Asian studies in schools is similar to proposals in the AEF’s submission and reflects the findings of various reports, including a study of student achievement in Asian languages education. It picks up NALSSP-funded projects, such as the Bridge Australia-Asia School Partnerships, and builds on the National Statement for Engaging Young Australians with Asia in Australian Schools, agreed to by education ministers in 2006, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, and the Australian Curriculum process, including its ‘shape paper’ for languages.

The White Paper’s goals for school education have been welcomed but there are challenges ahead. More teachers will be needed in spite of plans for online learning which some see as no substitute for quality face-to-face teaching. There are also challenges with online learning and teaching.

An alternative view, presented in a Centre for Independent Studies report, is that Asian literacy in Australia is a ‘non-problem’, given the predominance of English speakers throughout the world and Australia’s ‘store of Asian cultural literacy’, as measured by the number of people who speak Asian languages at home. The author argues that ’large-scale Asia literacy programs are not necessary for Australia to prosper in the Asian century’.

State education ministers are supportive of the plan to improve Asian literacy. However, some are critical that they were not consulted before the White Paper’s release and consider the Government is coercing them by linking the Asian studies reforms to the broader school education reforms which are pending.

As with the Government’s response to the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling, the fundamental unanswered question at this stage is how the White Paper’s goals for Asian studies in schools will be funded. The AEF estimates that improving Asian literacy would require at least a ten-year commitment of over $1 billion dollars, equating to about $33 per student annually. As the Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, has asked, given the announced nexus with the National Plan for School Improvement, the question is whether there will be additional funds to the existing $6.5 billion estimate for the Government’s pending school reforms.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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