The province of New Brunswick has backtracked on its controversial plan to replace French immersion with a new French-language learning program at anglophone schools in the fall of 2023.
“We listened intently to the voices of nearly 13,000 New Brunswickers who participated in our consultation sessions over the past month,” Education Minister Bill Hogan said in a news release Friday.
“We have taken all we have heard and incorporated it into our decision.”
The release said the province will be opening French immersion registration for Grade 1 students.
The proposed overhaul would have seen French immersion phased out, with all anglophone students receiving half their instruction in French and the other in English.
The goal was to ensure that all graduates have a conversational level of French at a minimum, with those looking to specialize in the language given the tools to do so as they get older.
The current immersion program in New Brunswick — Canada’s sole bilingual province — offers up to 90 per cent of class time in French.
The proposed changes have been met with strong opposition, especially during consultations in some towns and cities in the province.
Hundreds of people showed up to public consultations expressing anger and frustration, many of whom raised concerns students wouldn’t receive the same level of education they would in the French immersion program.
Many also felt there weren’t enough qualified French-language teachers to implement the change province-wide, and others worried about the impact the program would have on literacy rates.
The plan even prompted a rebuke from Quebec’s minister responsible for the Canadian Francophonie, Jean-François Roberge, who said it was “very worrying when a Franco-Canadian community outside Quebec is in difficulty.”
Following the overwhelmingly negative response, Premier Blaine Higgs suggested a change could be coming, telling reporters at the beginning of February that the new French language program was “never a sure thing.”
On Jan. 24, Hogan said “nothing has been written in stone,” adding, “if it were written in stone it would be silly to have consultations.”
In Friday’s release, Hogan said the province will release a summary of results from the public consultations in the spring.
“At the same time, we know more schools will need to offer more in-depth French language instruction, have better French outcomes, and improvements are needed in English Prime classrooms,” said Hogan.
He said the current system is “leaving a large portion of children behind” and said the province is committed to addressing those issues.
The release said a stakeholder group will be established involving the New Brunswick Teacher’s Association, as well as parents and experts within the education system, “to inform the development of next steps.
“We want all high school graduates to be equipped with the skills they need to thrive in life so that no child is left behind,” said Hogan.
“This is not the end, but the beginning of what will be positive and lasting change.”
Damage to education ‘the last thing we want to do’
Speaking with reporters Friday afternoon, Hogan said that he still believed the proposal was a good one, but it became clear during consultations that moving forward wouldn’t be in the best interest of all children. That led to a recommendation to cabinet that the proposal be scrapped.
“I think a lot of the learnings came from when we talked to the English prime teachers,” he said. “They talked about a number of their concerns about their children that are struggling now in their mother tongue and that this is probably not a good idea for them if we move forward with it.
“The last thing we want to do is do any damage to a child’s education.”
The province will now work with various stakeholders to look for improvements across the entire anglophone system. Hogan said the ultimate goal is still to ensure all students graduate with a conversational level of French, while also ensuring that all students have the resources to learn.
It’s unlikely the government will pursue such a wide-ranging reform package in the future, Hogan says, instead focusing on making continual improvements to the English Prime and French Immersion programs.
“We’re going to engage with our various stakeholders, you know, parents, teachers, students, the (New Brunswick Teachers’ Association) and others,” he said.
“It won’t be, ‘Let’s implement everything all at once.’ When we’re ready to implement certain things and certain improvements along the way we’re going to do it.”
— with files from Nathalie Sturgeon and The Canadian Press