Bilingual schools of the future

Auburn High School in Melbourne is offering bilingual streams in Mandarin Chinese and French, reflecting a growing change in the way languages are taught in Australian schools, writes Sophie Loras.

A constant frustration for Martin Culkin throughout his 45-year career as a Victorian teacher and principal has been a lack of language pathways between primary schools and high schools. But his latest project, helping to re-establish a failing high school in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs, has been hugely rewarding.

Working with the Hawthorn Secondary College school council, with extensive community consultation and with the assistance of the Victorian government – which has included a $1 million cash injection to support specialist programs –Mr Culkin, helped the school to relaunch in January under the new name of Auburn High School.

Auburn High School opened with the prestige of being Victoria’s first immersion-based bilingual high school, offering Year Seven students the option of bilingual streams in either French or Mandarin Chinese. The bilingual Mandarin programme offers immersion in science and humanities subjects, meaning 50 percent of classes are taught in Mandarin.


Auburn High School is also offering older students access to French or Chinese as LOTE (language Other than English) subjects, a Select Entry Accelerated Programme (SEAL) for students to begin their Victorian Certificate of Education in Year 10 and STEM – a focus on science, technology, engineering and manufacturing.

Auburn High 2014 5 web“This completely new school, which makes use of the site of the former Hawthorn Secondary College, has established a new culture and new ethos, and a teaching staff aligned to the new vision,” said Victorian Education Minister Mr Martin Dixon at the school’s launch.

“The school will have a strong international focus with a commitment to international partnerships and experiences to create global citizens,” Mr Dixon said.

*Pictured right: Year Seven students at the newly opened Mandarin Chinese and French bilingual Auburn high School. (Courtesy AHS)

Mr Culkin is not new to restructuring Victorian schools. In 2013 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his service to education in Victoria, and as an advocate for innovative approaches in teaching and learning.

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His career as a teacher and principal has seen him work with schools across Victoria, both in metropolitan Melbourne and regional communities. His work overseeing a complex merger and restructure of Dandenong High School during his time there as principal between 2000 and 2010, has been most notably recognised. That merger brought together more than 2000 students from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.

“It has frustrated me for a long time that primary and high schools have not worked better in creating pathways,” says Mr Culkin.

“We have got it right here at Auburn High School. In time it will become an exemplar and people will say ‘oh, that’s how it is done.'”

Auburn High School sits within a hub of Melbourne primary schools offering immersion based language programmes. These include Camberwell Primary School and Caulfield Junior College, which offer French bilingual programmes, and Richmond West Primary School and Abbotsford Primary School, which sit at the forefront of Mandarin Chinese immersion-based programmes. It is hoped that the new Auburn High School will encourage other primary schools in the area to jump on the Mandarin Chinese band wagon now that a language pathway exists for these students to continue studying Chinese at high school level.

“It was really about there being a pathway, that it was going somewhere. And now with very strong government support and more interest from other local schools, there is a lot of potential,” says Mr Culkin.


As a result of the restructure, enrolment numbers at Auburn High School have staunched and Year Seven numbers have almost doubled on 2013 figures.

“Victoria has had a bilingual Chinese program in primary for 22 years and these students have had nowhere to go,” says Dr Jane Orton, Director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

“Auburn High School is important because it provides a pathway for those students to continue.”

Dr Orton says that for students hoping to go into tertiary education with a solid enough base in Chinese language to allow them to study documents and literature and develop a deep grip on the language by the time they finish postgraduate study, “will need to make a long, deep, continuous run at it from Prep.”

She sees Auburn High School’s bilingual programme becoming a model for future Victorian and Australian schools – but that it will take time due to the large amount of resources involved in setting up such programs.

“And at least people will stop saying Chinese is too hard for kids to learn and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) Chinese too hard for teachers to resource and teach.” 


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