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N.B. radically rethinks French second-language education

Higgs government announces details of new second-language curriculum taking effect next fall

The New Brunswick government has unveiled details of the program that will replace French immersion for new studentsnext fall, a reform that will see all kindergarten and elementary students in anglophone schools spend half their days “in exploratory learning in French.”

That’s significantly less than the 80 to 90 per cent French instruction that elementary school immersion students get now, but it’s a lot more French than what is currently taught to non-immersion students.

The changes represent the most radical rethinking of French second-language education in New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, since immersion began a half-century ago.

The percentage of instruction students will get in French will drop from 50 to 40 per cent when they reach grades 6-8 in middle school.

In high school there will be “opportunities for enrichment and advanced studies” in French on top of the minimum amount, Bill Hogan, the education and early childhood development minister, said in a statement.

“It’s not a question that students won’t be able to achieve a high level of French in the future,” he said at a new conference.

“They will be, if they follow that path. What we want at a minimum is for all students to achieve a conversational level of French.” 

French possible for non-core subjects

The plan in elementary schools is for mathematics to be taught in English, along with English reading and writing.

Other subjects such as science and social studies — non-core subjects that the department calls “exploratory” — could be taught in French alongside French vocabulary, reading and writing.

Chris Collins, the executive director of Canadian Parents for French in New Brunswick, said 50 per cent of class time devoted to French is not enough, given research showing students absorb a new language best at a young age.

“They’re throwing out the gold standard,” Collins said. “They quit. It’s like they said, ‘the heck with this.'”

Liberal Leader Susan Holt agreed.

“It doesn’t meet the needs of people who are saying ‘I want my kids to have every opportunity to build a career in New Brunswick, to access public jobs in New Brunswick,'” she said.

“It really continues to miss the point, with a minimum goal in an education system where we should be striving for a bold, audacious goal.”

An independent commission established by Premier Blaine Higgs said in February that immersion was “a very effective program” with 90 per cent of students who stick with it through Grade 12 achieving a conversational level of French.

The problem, the commission said, was that more than 60 per cent of students in the anglophone school system were not enrolled in immersion. 

The goal of the new program is to give all anglophone students the chance to graduate with at least a conversational level of French.

Another objective is to end what is called “streaming” — what Hogan described as an “overwhelming” proportion of students with learning challenges in non-immersion classes.

But Hogan’s statement said the new program will allow “for differences in delivery” and will depend on “the demographics of communities.”

No students will be exempt from the French program.

The change takes effect in September 2023. Students now in grades 2-12 of French immersion will continue in that program through to high school graduation, Hogan said in the statement.

In October Hogan’s predecessor, Dominic Cardy, resigned from the Higgs cabinet, accusing the premier of rushing a major reform that had been planned for 2024.

Hogan pushed back at accusations that the government was moving too quickly.

Minister looks for public’s reaction

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve looked to experts, we’ve examined reports, reviews and research that was carried out over the last few decades. We’ve had numerous conversations with partners and stakeholders over the past few years.”

All of that, plus engagement sessions in schools around the province, was integrated into the plan, he said.

The province will hold four in-person public consultation sessions on the changes in January in Bathurst, Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton and two other sessions virtually.

There’s also an online survey that the minister said will help the government “finalize” the plan.

“We truly hope to hear from you in this final round of consultations,” Hogan said. “Your voice is important to us.”

Collins said he doesn’t expect those consultations to change anything. He said some parents are talking about a legal challenge to the changes but he’ll leave it to them to announce that when they’re ready.

Immersion students now get at least 90 per cent of their school days in in French in Grade 1 and Grade 2, and 80 per cent in grades 3-5.

The province says it will need to launch a recruitment drive to meet the challenge of finding enough teachers who can teach French. Hogan said the system will need to find 60 teachers for the program for kindergarten and Grade 1 next fall.

The government also says no unilingual teachers who now teach in English only will lose their jobs as a result of the changes.

If not all schools are able to find the teachers to start the program in kindergarten next fall, some could wait until 2024 to launch it in Grade 1.

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