The loss of the only Vietnamese bilingual program

Footscray Primary School (FPS) and the Victorian Department of Education (DET) should reconsider the termination of the last Vietnamese bilingual program in Australia as it would be a great disservice to the students of Footscray Primary School and community languages in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Through gathering extensive evidence obtained from the DET, experts from the US, conversations with linguists, past teachers, and parents of FPS too scared to speak out, has led us to the conclusion that:

  1. FPS has not implemented Vietnamese bilingual best practices
  2. FPS has not retained Vietnamese teachers
  3. FPS has not engaged with the Vietnamese community
  4. A lack of transparency by the school’s department overshadows the axing of the program
  5. The School Council is unrepresentative of the school’s diverse population
  6. FPS has not demonstrated cultural sensitivity
  7. FPS has not reached out to schools & universities in the United States who are successfully running Vietnamese bilingual programs
  8. The change.org petition has broad community support at the local, state and national level
  9. Maintaining a connection to one’s heritage is important as quoted by the Education Minister James Merlino
  10. Compared to the population of Vietnamese speakers, there are disproportionately less Victorian schools and no universities offering Vietnamese
  11. Footscray Primary School is not a logical location for a second Italian Bilingual Program

#1: FPS has not implemented Vietnamese bilingual best practices

Unlike FPS, other successful bilingual schools adopt best practice.* Without this, no amount of time, resourcing or funding will deliver success.

The school and those in positions of management have neglected the best interests of students and the community. Being the only Vietnamese bilingual program in the country, this neglect also erodes the support of non-mainstream language and culture, the opportunity to foster students with existing backgrounds and maintaintence of those cultural ties.

#2: FPS has not retained Vietnamese teachers

Between the duration of 2016–2020, the school lost 8 Vietnamese teachers. With only 4 Vietnamese teachers left, it becomes impossible to fulfill the demands of the students.

We have seen evidence of a toxic culture and staff intimidation at the school.

Past teachers, who wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, have cited examples of humiliation, disrespect and deception. Teachers were made to feel unwanted and disposable.

The pervasive low morale resulted in a high teacher turnover. This undermined the professional staff environment that we desire for students.

* No same teacher was rehired in this period.

#3: FPS has not engaged with and fails to see the Vietnamese community as an asset

Although struggling with the delivery of the bilingual program since 2016, the school failed to consult with the Vietnamese community to assist with its challenges. No consultation took place with the Vietnamese Community Australia — Vic (VCA) or the Victorian Vietnamese Teachers Association (VVTA).

The school also did not engage in dialogue with the global Vietnamese diaspora (e.g. the US) to assist with resources and recruitment. Victorian bilingual schools form partnerships with the global communities to support recruitment and resourcing. For example, Brunswick South Primary (Italian consulate) and Camberwell Primary (Alliance Francaise, Canadian-French networks) make these efforts.

#4: A lack of transparency by the school’s department overshadows the axing of the program

The school’s department has relied upon a number of documents to conclude the need to terminate the program. However these documents have not been made available to the parent community. Outlined below, these documents could shed light to the validity of the decision.

1. Significant issues at the school since 2016 led to an Independent School Operations Review in 2019 (commissioned by the department). However the department failed to reveal the recommendations of this review to the school (or to the community). As such the causes of the school’s challenges under the previous administration cannot be adequately understood by the school.

2. The department commissioned a separate report (March 2020) recommending the school terminate the program. Although this report was made available to the new administration prior to the decision, the school has not made this available to parents.

The decision to terminate the program was made in April this year in a closed meeting, when the new administration was barely one school-term into its role. It was also the start of COVID-19 lockdown, when parents and community members were struggling to adapt to the pandemic and unable to adequately understand the decision or easily obtain information.

The school has cited the low number of Vietnamese teachers as the central reason for the decision. It has previously reasoned ‘operational privilege’ as reason not to discuss some matters. However, our research has demonstrated to us the success of a bilingual school requires significantly more than relying solely on one statistic. The above ‘best practice’ checklist provides other contributing factors of viability.

One document we sighted details the DET’s failure to assess the efficacy of the program over an eight-year period.

As the schools questioned performance in recent years have led to an independent review, it is important to assess the robustness of significant decisions.

We ask:

  • Why have documents relied upon in decision making not been made public?
  • How can parents assess the validity of the decision without understanding the content of these documents?
  • Why did the Department provide extra funding to the school yet fail to oversee its management and delivery?
  • Are there other undisclosed factors that led to the decision?
  • Who is ultimately accountable for the decision?

Does this lack of transparency by the school’s department justify the loss of a cherished legacy of the community?

#5: The School Council is unrepresentative of the school’s diverse population

The FPS community speaks approximately 21 languages at home. These include Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Nepali, Urdu, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Tibetan, Oromo, Somali, Amharic and Filipino.

By country of birth the FPS parent community looks like this:

However the school’s website shows the current composition of the School Council:

#6: FPS has not demonstrated cultural sensitivity

The schools reasoning for the decision does not speak to important aspects of bilingual education including:

  • The benefits and research into culturally responsive teaching in multicultural contexts in terms of academic success and cultural cohesion*
  • The benefits of the Vietnamese language in the local and national contexts in terms of community cohesion and economic futures
  • The benefits of immersion language learning
  • The impact and consequences for the local Vietnamese community in aspects of self identity, self-confidence, family heritage, and cultural understanding

Despite the parent-initiated petition attracting over 15,000 signatures, the school has refused to listen to parental concerns and offers of assistance.

Could the new administration’s lack of prior experience in bilingual education AND the current composition of the school council have contributed to these oversights?

#7: FPS has not reached out to schools & universities in the United States who are successfully running Vietnamese bilingual programs

In our research, we reached out to Vietnamese bilingual schools in California, USA, as well as the The National Resource Center for Asian Languages at California State University, Fullerton (“NRCAL”) which supports them.

Our conversations with NRCAL revealed that this was the first time anybody from Australia had reached out to them regarding Vietnamese bilingual schools. The same went for the elementary school we contacted that was the first to set up Vietnamese bilingual in California. Nor is the school obscure — it is the first google search result for ‘Vietnamese bilingual school’

This casts incredible doubt on FPS’s and the DET’s claim to have tried to make Vietnamese bilingual a success as well as casting doubt on the ‘consultants’ they engaged.

Dr. Natalie Tran, the director of NRCAL, has very generously offered — at no cost — to partner with any Vietnamese bilingual school in Victoria which will provide teacher training, professional development, and educational materials, and a community of other Vietnamese bilingual schools to share best practice.

#8: The change.org petition has broad community support at the local, state and national level

Source: Change.org (as of 15/09/2020)

#9: Maintaining a connection to one’s heritage is important, as quoted by the Education Minister James Merlino

In helping to green light the Italian bilingual program at Brunswick South Primary Minister Merlino said in ilglobo.com, “I have always had a proud connection to my Italian heritage and it’s wonderful to be engaged with the Italian community.”*

In addition, the School Council President Gabrielle Marchetti said, “We all spoke Italian to our children at home and we really wanted to send them to a bilingual school so that their Italian would continue to develop.”

We wholeheartedly agree with both sentiments, and so did the Italian Consul in awarding the Minister Merlino the Order of the Star of Italy on behalf of the Italian Republic.

Will James Merlino give that same opportunity for parents who speak Vietnamese to their children at home and represent their voice like he has with his own heritage?

#10: Compared to the population of Vietnamese speakers, there are disproportionately less Victorian schools offering Vietnamese

The number of schools in Victoria offering Vietnamese language education, let alone bilingual, is extremely low relative to the population.

Language spoken at home vs language programs

Source: 2016 Victorian Census, DET 2018

In terms of the investments that the Victorian government is contributing to language education, the number of students completing VCE Unit 4 in Vietnamese is very high relative to total secondary enrolments. This is despite the low number of schools offering Vietnamese.

Student secondary language enrolments in Victoria

Source: DET 2018

Nevertheless, there is currently no pathway for students for further studies in Vietnamese at the tertiary level in Victoria. This is startling when compared to six tertiary options for Italian.*

The cycle of disadvantage for the Vietnamese language in the Australian Educational System means students cannot become Vietnamese teachers if there are no means to receive an education in it.

Of the ten US schools that offer Vietnamese bilingual education, nine have a lower city population of Vietnamese heritage compared to Melbourne. Seattle alone has three Vietnamese bilingual schools. If Seattle can make it work, why can’t Victoria? Does our community not deserve at least 1 bilingual school in the entirety of Victoria? The Vietnamese-heritage community in the Maribyrnong LGA is three times that of Italian.*

Source: US Census American Community Survey 2015; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing 2016

#11: Footscray Primary School is not a logical location for a second Italian Bilingual Program

In an interview with Segmento, Brunswick South Primary teachers noted that “Our biggest challenge is resourcing. Replacing Italian teachers when they are on leave with proficient Italian speakers has been difficult, not impossible, but it does test us.”*

Given the shortage of bilingual Italian teachers, if a second bilingual Italian school is to be created then it is incumbent upon the DET to maximize the benefit to the community of them.

Looking at the Victorian LGAs with the greatest number of Italian ancestry, the second Italian bilingual school ought to be in LGA of Whittlesea or Moreland.* The City of Maribyrnong where Footscray is in, doesn’t even rank in the top 20. The proposed Italian immersion program would be better placed at Whittlesea or Moreland, not Footscray.

If a second Italian bilingual school is to be established, why should it come at the expense of the only Vietnamese bilingual program, located at the heart of the Vietnamese community in Victoria?

Call to action

You can email the Minister directly here.

Add your voice to the petition here.

For more info email: parentoffps@gmail.com

We’re a group of parents who want to save the Vietnamese bilingual program at Footscray Primary School