Nikki Kaye’s Strengthening Second Language Learning Bill, which was drawn from the Member’s ballot at the beginning of the week, seeks to fund and legislate for the provision of language learning at all primary and intermediate schools.

If it becomes legislation, the bill would require the Minister of education to set 10 priority languages, from which schools can choose those they wish to provide. Not up for negotiation would be the inclusion of te reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language.

There is plenty of evidence for the cognitive and social benefits to young people learning a second language, and Kaye believes that hers is the sort of member’s bill that will find common cause in Parliament – a rare opportunity to bridge ideological divisions. She says she has scheduled meetings with leading figures among all parties to start building this consensus.

In response, nobody has publically come out against the idea that Kiwi kids should at least have access to language learning, at a younger age than is now commonly the case – at least, the sort of learning that builds fluent speakers of ‘other’ languages isn’t widely provided before Year 9.

“I think my bill strengthens the [te reo Māori] language”, says Kaye, “and investment in the language.  At the moment you’ve got a situation where either young people are learning a little bit of te reo, or they’re not learning it at all.”

“Even though the law requires schools to take reasonable steps to enable children who want to learn te reo Māori, the reality is because the resourcing isn’t there, they’re not.”

Where others across the political spectrum do take issue with Kaye’s proposed bill is whether it’s something we should be prioritising in the current climate of crisis around teacher numbers, training uptake and an ageing workforce, which the Government says it has inherited from the previous administration’s under-investment in education generally.

Whetu Cormick, president of the New Zealand Principal’s Federation in August last year, when the policy was used to launch National’s ill-fated election campaign, was particularly scathing of the policy and of its champion, Bill English.

“Teaching foreign languages, like Korean and Mandarin, would be a great aspiration once we have addressed the issues of actually having teachers in front of the class in the first place, and sorted the mess that is our current special education funding.”

“For the [then] prime minister to suggest that more national standards, foreign languages in primary schools and specialist digital technology teachers are the most important priorities, shows a man completely out of touch with the realities facing schools today.”

Labour have also said that there are bigger education fish to fry at the moment. When approached, Minister Hipkins, in an email reply, said of the bill that “the Government will consider its relative merits, as it does with all bills that go before the House.” In August last year, Jacinda Ardern said “I see value in that. That is something I would like to look at.”

At issue also is the amount of money required to realise the bill. When the policy was announced, Kaye and English put a price tag of $40 million per year on it – Labour says it’s more like $117 million per year.

In response Kaye says that her bill is just the start of a conversation, and that its progress through the legislative process is a chance to sort out the details.

“I would say to people who say we’ve got other more important and pressing issues, we have the opportunity to pass a law that might not kick in for a period, but that will deliver in the long term.

This policy will be something that will reach generations of kids, and so we shouldn’t cut off a policy like this at the knees, where we’ve got this beautiful opportunity for some cross-party engagement, just because people think we can’t talk about it now, when the reality is it could be delivered in a few years time.

“We need to be clear that we’re not just going to do this, we have to resolve the other issues in teaching, and that’s why National has shifted our position on class sizes, we’ve got to get both pay and workplace conditions right. We can’t do one or the other.”

Asked about the details as to how, at a classroom level, her policy would be delivered, Kaye says that she foresees a mixture of methods, led by qualified teachers.

“I would expect the majority of the language provision would be by registered teachers, but I’m absolutely open minded about whether there will be language assistants.

“With some languages there will be debate – for instance kaumatua or other community leaders could be involved, that may not be registered teachers, and we need to have that debate for each of the languages in my view.”

Of course, one of the key battles in the arena of language provision at the moment is whether te reo Māori should be part of the core curriculum. The Green Party is adamant that it should be, and has the NZEI behind it – both even support the inclusion of te reo Māori learning at pre-primary learning. Kaye says that National can’t get behind the idea of students being compelled to learn a language, something that outspoken commentator Mike Hosking put in more strident terms yesterday.

“National is really clear,” says Kaye. “We don’t believe in compulsion of every young person learning te reo only. We actually think that it is important to have choice. But we recognise the special place of te reo in New Zealand, and we want everybody to have universal access in primary and intermediate, alongside New Zealand Sign.”

“I will absolutely be talking to the Green Party. I would acknowledge a couple of things. One is I agree with the Green Party that in order to deliver support around te reo, it’s going to take a bit of time, and that’s the other debate we’ll have at select committee.

“But this is a big opportunity for them to say actually, even if we don’t all agree on compulsory te reo, we can procure the funding via my bill to ensure universal access. I would argue that they should take that opportunity.”

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