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Do bilingual schools become middle class ghettos?

Cristina Cifuentes

International studies make uncomfortable reading for the Spanish, Melanie Butler writes.

Are bilingual school programmes an expensive perk for the affluent middle classes that discriminate against disadvantaged students? This is one of the questions asked in The Bilingual Programme Examined, a new report from Accion Educativa, a Spanish association of education professionals.

The study claims to be a critical analysis of the principles underpinning the Spanish bilingual school model in general and the Madrid programme in particular. Since so little demographic data is available for the Spanish system, it uses international studies, although international comparisons should always be used with care.

However, the data from four countries – Malta, Luxemburg, France and Canada – shows that in some cases bilingual programmes certainly have become elitist institutions that discriminate against the disadvantaged.

A study in Luxembourg showed that immigrant children may be disadvantaged. In the country’s primary schools, the spoken language in class is generally Luxembourgish, a West Germanic language, but children are taught to read and write in Standard German.

Children who don’t speak a Germanic language at home underperform, but the negative effect on academic results was particularly marked among the large Portuguese immigrant community who make up 16 per cent of the population.

A study in Malta suggests girls may learn the target language more effectively than boys in a state school system where the L2 is the medium for many academic subjects. In a study of the Maltese language results in an EU language test, girls were 10 per cent more likely to reach B2 in spoken English at the age of fifteen and 30 per cent more likely to do so in written English.

Optional bilingual programmes, where families can choose to enrol their children, can become middle-class ghettos. This was found in both France and in the province of New Brunswick in Canada. Socially advantaged children predominated both in the French Middle School programmes and in Canadian early immersion, where children were enrolled in French immersion from the first year of primary. The Canadian studies also found just 7 per cent of children in the early immersion stream had special educational needs compared to 23 per cent in the English medium stream.

The educational outcomes varied. In France, children in the bilingual sections did better across all academic subjects, while Canadian children who went into late immersion in Year 5 did better than those who started in Year 1. Both systems were found to be unsustainably expensive to run.

The reactions of both governments were the same: remove the programmes. Families reacted in fury. In France, the intervention of Germany’s Angela Merkel persuaded the French government to allow the programme to continue, although only in German and only in the French regions along the border. In New Brunswick, the courts forced the government to compromise and allow children to enrol in Year 3 rather than in Year 5 as proposed.

Bilingual schooling is a hot political issue – nowhere more so than in Spain, where English-Spanish models have been adopted in many monolingual Spanish regions. In regions such as Catalonia, regional languages are used alongside Spanish instead.

So does the Spanish bilingual system show the same bias against disadvantaged children found in other countries? We have too little demographic data from Madrid to say, though figures suggest more girls than boys opt for bilingual. There is no demographic data at all from the other regions doing Clil.

An EL Gazette analysis of the English language test results in Madrid showed the majority of children in primary schools did well in English, although a small minority of children learned none. Who are these children? Immigrants? Those with special educational needs? The socially disadvantaged? Boys?

In secondary, the outcomes were starkly divided between those who were not ‘invited’ to join the special bilingual sections and those who were. Kids in the bilingual sections outperformed other children, not just in English but across all academic subjects. A shocking number of children outside the sections made little progress in English, and in 7 per cent of cases made no progress at all. Why not? The report from Accion Educativa does not prove that the Madrid bilingual programme discriminates against disadvantaged students, but it does raise questions that need to be answered.