A move by Auckland principals to turn away new pupils who cannot speak English has refuelled the row over language funding for immigrant children and prompted accusations of racism.
The Auckland Principals' Association has encouraged principals to refuse to enrol five to seven-year-olds who cannot speak English in a bid to get more Government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teaching.
The association argues that the Government should provide funding to meet needs generated by immigration policies but its controversial stance has been denounced by education minister Lockwood Smith. He says it is an offensive publicity stunt with undertones of racism towards New Zealand citizens of Asian origin. He said the principals' proposal would be illegal if implemented.
However, he has said additional staffing could be available for some schools, though details have yet to be clarified. He said ESOL funding will be a priority in this year's budget. Other proposals still being considered by immigration and education officials included a language levy on some immigrant families and more rigorous assessment of immigrants' language skills.
The principals have rejected the suggestion that their proposal is racist. The association president, Alastair Kay, said: "It has always been an issue of inadequate funding, not about race. Having said that, we deeply regret any distress the resolution may have given to ethnic comm-unities."
He said the majority of students affected would be Asian, but a wide range of ethnic groups were involved.
The association estimates that 1,500 five to seven-year-olds in Auckland cannot speak or write basic English. The problem is spread throughout the city but about 40 schools have especially high concentrations of these pupils.
Currently, five to seven-year-olds without English do not qualify for extra language funding. Older primary children attract $NZ17 (Pounds 6.85) per pupil every six months, intermediate-aged children $NZ45, and secondary children $NZ71. Mr Kay said that, in comparison, immigrant children in New South Wales, Australia, attracted the equivalent of Pounds 1,800 in their first year at school.
The principals' move has rekindled the funding row started by a proposal by Auckland's Epsom normal school that could see some Asian children excluded. The school has an overcrowding problem and wants to use discretion over whether to enrol pupils who have lived in the area less than a year, with English language fluency to be one of the selection criteria.