The New Brunswick government is abandoning its plan to replace French immersion this fall.
Education Minister Bill Hogan announced Friday that recent consultations had revealed that the proposed change wasn’t right for all students.
“This wasn’t the best choice for all our children,” he said.
“We want to do what’s best for our children and that’s why we’ve arrived at this decision.”
The Blaine Higgs government had planned to phase in a new program for all students this fall, featuring half-days in English and half-days in French from kindergarten to Grade 5.
That would have been more French than non-immersion students get in the English prime program but less than those in immersion.
The plan provoked many questions, including whether there would be enough teachers who speak French for the program, and how some students with learning challenges would gain language skills spending only half their days in English.
“To be honest, I really thought that the framework we announced was a great idea,” Hogan said. “I still think that in certain cases it could work really well. However, what we found out is that it’s not in the best interests of all our children.”
Hogan said he was confident the system would find enough teachers “but now we don’t have to worry about it.”
He said the province will launch a new process to look at how to improve the English prime program and French immersion outcomes.
“Immersion doesn’t work any better today than it did yesterday. It doesn’t meet the targets,” he said.
The province will look at how it measures not just oral language skills but also reading, writing and comprehension with a goal of improving the program “so that our students are getting a quality French immersion education.”
The minister said that would involve a stakeholder group that will include parents, experts and the New Brunswick Teachers Association.
Registration is opening for parents who want to enrol Grade 1 students in French immersion this fall, he said.
The department will also look at how to address the challenges creating by “streaming” caused by immersion — the clustering of students with learning difficulties in the English prime system, leading to difficult classroom environments.
Hogan said a recent online consultation with 400 English prime teachers made it clear that the 50-50 program would not be workable for all students.
That meeting came on the heels of public consultation sessions, including three packed gatherings in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton attended by hundreds of people where no one spoke in favour of the reform.
Parent Micah Peterson, who attended the Saint John meeting and has two children he hopes to enrol in immersion along with his five older children, said his family was “pretty excited” by the news.
“It’s kind of mixed emotions because we are cognizant that there are challenges in the education system … but we also don’t believe that getting rid of French immersion is the answer. We’re relieved, I guess.”
Peterson’s brother is married with children in a French-speaking household in Quebec and immersion allowed all the cousins to speak the language to each other.
He said his five older children already in immersion were conscious that their two younger children wouldn’t get the same level of French and had been “feeling it for them” until Friday’s announcement.
Liberal Leader Susan Holt said she was also relieved that the Progressive Conservative government had listened.
“It’s great to see the power of these teachers and these parents and these experts and the population of New Brunswick has made a difference,” she said.
Chris Collins, the executive director of Canadian Parents for French in New Brunswick, also credited parents with the government’s decision.
“It’s really encouraging because what I’m seeing here is a big vote for bilingualism in New Brunswick,” he said.
“New Brunswickers have come together over this issue.”
The change of course on immersion is the second major policy reversal by the Higgs government in as many days.
On Thursday, Premier Blaine Higgs announced he will repeal the provincial carbon tax he set up in 2020 so that the federal pricing system — which includes rebates — applied in New Brunswick as of July.
Last month PC MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason urged the government to “pump the brakes” on the phaseout of immersion, which would have coincided with the rollout of a new literacy program in anglophone schools this fall.
Anderson-Mason said Friday that she’d been relaying the concerns of teachers in her riding, and the announcement was a great way to end Teacher Appreciation Week.
She said educators have seemed reluctant to comment publicly on provincial policy in the past, but the immersion debate changed that.
“I think that we turned a corner and I’m excited to see a new path forward. I hope it opens up a whole new level of communication between government and educators, because we saw educators turn out.”
Hogan would not respond to reporters’ questions about whether the Progressive Conservative caucus had demanded the government backtrack.
“What happens in caucus is confidential and will remain that way. Thanks for the question, though.”
Former education minister Dominic Cardy, who left the Higgs cabinet last fall over the premier’s determination to implement the change this year, said the reversal was “depressingly predictable.”
“The premier made the emotional decision to override everyone in the education system, to destroy relationships with everyone in his caucus, with the teachers, with the unions, with the opposition,” Cardy said.
“Now he’s reaping the consequences. … I give full credit to Minister Hogan for having pushed back and stood up to the premier to make sure that this foolish waste of time didn’t go ahead.”
Still, he said, the education system had to go through four months of “completely needless” chaos during which many teachers retired early over the change.
Cardy said he hopes the department can pivot to reform school governance so that future premiers can’t interfere with educational decisions.
Cardy said the reversal and the $2-million payout to former Horizon Health CEO Dr. John Dornan, who Higgs fired last year, were two examples “of how emotion has no place in our politics.”
“The premier’s clearly past his sell-by date,” he said, urging Higgs to step down to let someone else lead the PC Party into the next election.