New Brunswick introduces changes to French immersion program

New Brunswick Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Bill Hogan announced the government has proposed a French immersion framework for the next academic year with the goal of allowing more students to graduate high school with at least a conversational level of French.Hina Alam/The Canadian Press

New Brunswick students entering kindergarten and Grade 1 will spend half their day learning French, and the other half in English class starting this fall as the country’s only officially bilingual province looks to dismantle its current French immersion program.

Education Minister Bill Hogan said that the changes would allow more students to graduate high school with at least a conversational level of French. Mr. Hogan’s predecessor resigned in October and accused the province of moving too quickly to overhaul a program that was working.

“It’s not a streaming program for a small portion of our students. It’s for all of our students,” Mr. Hogan said at a news conference on Thursday as he described how the overhaul of French-language education would differ from the French immersion program.

Across much of the country, French immersion has been popular among families wanting to give their children fluency in a second language. It has also caused headaches for many school boards as they struggle with reconfiguring classrooms and finding qualified French-language teachers. The program has also been criticized for creating a two-tiered system with children with learning difficulties or behavioral challenges overrepresented in English programs.

The overhaul of French-language instruction in New Brunswick is being watched closely elsewhere.

Under the current model, students in anglophone school districts have the option of entering the immersion program in Grade 1, where roughly 90 per cent of instruction is in French. Students in the English program take core French, in which the language is taught as a subject.

Mr. Hogan said the changes would mean students entering kindergarten and Grade 1 would be taught math, reading and writing in English, and then engaging in exploratory French learning for other subject areas, including social studies. The changes will be phased in over two years.

Students in higher grades and those currently in French immersion will continue on that track, he said.

The minister said the province will need to recruit an additional 60 French-language teachers, although it’s unclear how that will happen with several provinces facing a teacher shortage and trying to woo the same limited pool of candidates.

This is not the first time New Brunswick has tinkered with French-language education. Previous governments have moved the French immersion entry points.

The latest proposed changes follow a report earlier this year by an independent commission created by the government that found immersion to be a “very effective program.” More than 90 per cent of students who completed the program achieved at least a conversational level of French, the report stated.

However, the report also found that about 60 per cent of students in the anglophone school districts were not enrolled in the program. Provincial assessments showed that only 3 per cent of English-program students achieved a conversational proficiency level of French by the end of Grade 10, which is the last year that core French is mandatory.

The report recommended creating a French-as-a-second language learning program for all students.

In October, Dominic Cardy resigned as education minister and accused Premier Blaine Higgs of rushing changes to French-as-a-second-language instruction. In a letter to the Premier, Mr. Cardy said changes required care, “not a wrecking ball,” and accused the Premier of ignoring data that showed that French immersion was working.

On Thursday, Mr. Hogan said the changes had not been rushed, and that the government had consulted with various experts and reviewed reports.

Chris Collins, executive director of the New Brunswick chapter of the Canadian Parents for French, worries that the half-day program means students will not be able to converse in the second language, which requires intensive instruction, especially in the early years.

“What we have now is a bunch of kids that are going to be splashing around in the shallow end,” he said. “They are lowering the bar.”

He said schools offer a number of specialized programs, including the International Baccalaureate program, and that the Premier, who has been accused in the past of being an anti-French politician, “wants to pick on French.”

“We’re going to be called an officially bilingual province, but the anglophone students are not going to have a chance to absorb that,” Mr. Collins said.