Monday, June 30, 2014

Island Education and Norf'k language

Norfolk Island school girls and teachers in 1896

Over the last few weeks a number of school groups have been in and out of the museum and we have also met with Prof. Peter Muhlhausler on a recent trip, following up on Norf’k language projects. Peter is Professor of Linguistics at Adelaide University and was largely responsible for supporting the initial training of Norf’k language teachers at NICS.

At the prize giving at the school this week, Principal Michelle Nicholson quoted from a report to the NSW Minister for Public Instruction by the first school inspector to visit the island in 1897. He said “The inhabitants of the island, without exception…exhibit considerable interest in the education of their children and cause them to attend school most regularly and punctually”. Michelle remarked on the fact that the education of our children continues to be highly valued on Norfolk.

This began on Pitcairn Island, most probably with John Adam’s conversion and teaching of the children to read using the Bounty Bible and Book of Common Prayer. Brian Mercer records in “An Island Education, A history of the Norfolk Island Central School” that from 1835 all children were compelled to go to school, many attending from the age of six until they were married. He says “In N.S.W. by contrast, it was not until 1880 that the Public Instruction Act made it law for parents to send their children aged 6-14 to school. But even then, children were only required to attend about three days per week. Not until 1916 were pupils in N.S.W. compelled to attend every day”.

On arrival at Norfolk Island on 8 June 1856 one of the first decisions the community made was about founding a school. The first classroom was set up in the New Military Barracks and classes began just six week later on the 14th of July. Attendance of all children was compulsory. Norfolk Island should stand proud of the fact that with the introduction of legislation in 1857, we were the first in the British Empire to legislate compulsory school attendance.

Clear evidence of the continued value of participation in school life and education on island today, is through the annual awarding of the Queen Victoria Scholarship. Begun in 1887 as a memorial for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the committee deciding on how the island would commemorate this important event said: On 20th June Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, will have reigned for fifty years. The event will be commemorated throughout the British Empire. Norfolk Island must not be behind…it (is) highly desirable that a permanent memorial of the happy event should be established on the island. After due consideration and a careful weighing of such suggestions as were brought forward, it was finally decided that this memorial should take the form of an Endowment of (for the present three) Queen Victoria Scholarships in the Norfolk Island Public School. These scholarships are to be obtained by competitive examination”.

In the first year the scholarships were £2 each for the senior winners and £1 for the junior winners. These days the scholarship is still competed for and represents an honour rather than monetary reward. The original Scholarship Board naming all winners between 1887 and 1971 is on display in the Pier Store, the current one being at the school itself.

As we were reminded during Peter Muhlhausler’s visit, the teaching of Norf’k language at the school today is cause for celebration, especially given early efforts to eradicate its use by NSW authorities. This began after 1896 when the executive government of Norfolk was changed from a locally appointed head of government, to a NSW appointed Chief Magistrate.  One of the first acts of the first Chief Magistrate, Colonel Spalding, was to arrange for the 1897 inspection of the school. As well as the positive comment about parental interest in education made in the Report as quoted by Michelle, a key recommendation was that a trained teacher be sent from Sydney to take up the position of Headmaster. However, it was not until 1906 that the first ‘outside’ appointed principal arrived on the island (beginning the system of short-term three to five year appointments which continues to today).

With non-Norfolk Islanders now in charge of the school, it was not long before a concerted effort was made to eradicate the use of the Norfolk language by children when at school. This was initiated in 1915 with a new school rule banning anything but the ‘King’s English’ being spoken during school hours. Infringements would be dealt with by a caning or writing out lines to the effect of “I must not talk gibberish at school”.

This policy followed from a 1914 Memorandum relating to Norfolk Island written by Atlee Hunt, Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Department of External Affairs. In a section headed “The Local Jargon” Hunt wrote:
“It is not picturesque nor effective, and justifies its description as “a barbarous attempt to garrotte the English language”. Its use contributes to maintain a spirit of exclusiveness amongst these folk, and for this reason, as well as because it has no merits to justify its continual existence, it is hoped that its employment may be discouraged in every way”.

The first headmaster to introduce the rule predicted “I feel confident that it is only a matter of a few generations when the island “jargon” will disappear altogether”.  After WWII the policy was not policed as rigorously and in 1987 the policy was reversed, with Norf’k language being included in the school curriculum.

The Norfolk Island Language (Norf’k) Act 2004 allows the teaching of Norf’k at school and affirmed “the right of people to speak and write it freely and without interference or prejudice from Government or other persons”. Norf’k language has been taught as a Secondary School, NSW Board of Studies endorsed elective from 2001. It is now taught to all students from Kindergarten to Year 9.

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