PC MLA says 'pump the brakes' on immersion replacement

Progressive Conservative MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason expressed concerns about the speed at which the new French-language program will be introduced into New Brunswick's schools. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Progressive Conservative MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason expressed concerns about the speed at which the new French-language program will be introduced into New Brunswick's schools. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

The morning after a raucous and angry public meeting about the Higgs government's plan to replace French immersion, a Progressive Conservative MLA called on the province to "pump the brakes" on the plan.

Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason says she shares the concerns expressed at a public meeting Thursday night in Moncton.

"I am incredibly concerned about the timing and how much more our teachers can handle," Anderson-Mason told education officials during a meeting of the legislature's public accounts committee Friday.

During that meeting, the Education Department's deputy minister for anglophone schools John McLaughlin suggested the province could still  reverse course on the plan for a 50-50 model of English-French learning for all anglophone students.

During that meeting, the Education Department's deputy minister for anglophone schools John McLaughlin sugges

Anger, heckling mark Moncton consultation effort on proposed changes to French immersion

"The consultation ends on Feb. 3 and then there would be a decision made about whether to proceed with this model or something different," he told the legislature's public accounts committee.

"I want to be clear this is a proposal."

Maeve McFadden/CBC
Maeve McFadden/CBC

Anderson-Mason says she fears the change would be disruptive at the same time teachers in the English system are set to roll out a promising new method of teaching reading skills.

"I am so passionate about making sure that we get our literacy right in the province of New Brunswick before we tinker with anything else," she told McLaughlin.

She went further in a scrum with reporters.

"Pump the brakes. We are just getting this new literacy program in place. … So to now interrupt it to say we're going to spend half the day in French and half the day in English, I am concerned that they haven't taken enough time to address that issue."

She pointed out a recent 2021 assessment found only 59.5 per cent of Grade 4 students reading at an appropriate level.

"We're going to load even more on these educators. We've finally found out a way we can successfully teach kids how to read, and now we're going to interrupt the program by cutting their days in half."

Anderson-Mason said she was "not at all surprised" by the concerns and criticisms raised by an angry crowd of more than 300 people at the department's public consultation session in Moncton Thursday night.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

McLaughlin called the consultations so far "robust" and said teachers at the Moncton meeting were "very frank about what their beliefs are, and that's all very important information to us.

"The last few weeks have been quite revealing and instructive for all of us," he added. "We have this goal, we have this framework. We're hearing now what the concerns are. Many of the concerns we knew up front. They're much more clear now."

Two more in-person public sessions are scheduled for next week in Fredericton and Saint John, and two more virtual sessions will happen the week after that.

The new model will replace the French immersion program with a system of French second-language learning for all anglophone students.

Kindergarten and Grade 1 students will start the program this fall, with immersion phased out year by year.

From kindergarten to Grade 5, all students will spend half the school day in "exploratory learning" of French.

That's less French than what's offered in immersion, but considerably more than what is taught now to non-immersion anglophone students.

The goal is for all graduates to have at least a conversational level in French, and to end the phenomenon of "streaming," in which students with learning challenges tend to end up clustered in non-immersion classrooms.

No one happy?

Anderson-Mason told reporters that she has heard from some parents upset their kids will get less French, and from others who don't want their kids learning any French at all.

"I'm not hearing a lot of people in the middle saying 'This is great.' In fact I'm hearing very little of it at all," she said.

Opposition MLAs and other critics have warned there may not be enough teachers in place by fall to roll out the new program.

Forty per cent of teachers who now teach French as a second language lack the proper level of aptitude in the language, the committee was told Friday.

Initially the change was supposed to happen in September 2024 but last fall Premier Blaine Higgs said it would happen this coming fall.

McLaughlin told MLAs the change to the timeline didn't come from the department.

"There was a government decision to change that."

He said the department believes the timeline is reasonable "but we also have to make sure that our schools and our teachers feel it's reasonable and that parents feel it's reasonable."