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Uniting heritage language programs across a nation

An interview with Stefan Romaniw, OAM, Executive Director of Community Languages Australia (CLA)

April 23, 2021



When it comes to heritage language education (hereafter referred to as “community languages education”), each state and territory of Australia has its own federation or association of community languages schools.



Community Languages Australia (CLA) has managed to serve as an umbrella organization that represents these federations and associations, at the national level. CLA has driven the narrative for establishing national standards for community language education, advocates for the sector, supports new communities getting started, and aims to future-proof the sector.


We talked to the man behind the CLA, Mr. Stefan Romaniw, OAM). His involvement with community language education began in his youth. Mr. Romaniw, the son of Ukrainian father and German mother, started out as a student the Ukrainian Community School in North Melbourne and went on to serve as principal of that Ukrainian school for 17 years!


Mr. Romaniw is now the Executive Director of CLA and also serves as Co-chair of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations and is 1st Vice President of the Ukrainian World Congress. (See his complete service bio.) He has received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his “service to education and language learning through the coordination and provision of services for people from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds.”


If it is inspiration that we are looking for, we reached out to the right organization. In the following interview with Mr. Romaniw, we see what is possible when community language programs align.


Note: Community Languages Australia (CLA) was previously called the Australian Federation on Ethnic Schools Association, but the official name was changed to “AFESA - Community Languages Australia” in 2019.



What is a “community languages school”?

We define community languages schools (or “ethnic schools”) as after-hours language schools that provide mother tongue language teaching and cultural maintenance programs. They are complementary providers of languages education to mainstream schools in Australia.


Of the different forms of languages education available in Australia – for instance the mainstream schools (including public, independent, and Catholic) in some state schools of languages, community languages schools are one of the biggest providers of languages education in Australia.


What is the relationship between community languages schools and the mainstream schools?

The community languages sector complements the mainstream sector, providing some of the languages taught in these schools but also picks up many of the languages that mainstream schools do not offer. For example, we have 56 different languages being taught here in Victoria, but only 19 are taught within the mainstream school program.


When my children went to primary school, there was only a small number of children with Ukrainian background, so of course the mainstream school was not going to run a Ukrainian program for only 20 out of 600 kids.


How long have community languages schools been around?

Community language schools have been around in Australia for a long time, since the 1800s! The first was a German school in South Australia. This year the Ukrainian community will be celebrating 70 years. Many other language communities will also be celebrating in that range. These are the “49’ers,” or those who came to Australia in 1949 who started communities, churches, schools.


Are there many community languages school students?

We currently have about 110,000 students around the country, with a range of about 100 different languages if you include the range of dialects. Here in Victoria, we have 40,000 students studying community languages!


Do community languages schools receive per capita funding?

In most cases, yes, there is per capita funding. In Victoria, for example, the government gives 245 dollars per year per student. We have a table of what each state gets and gives, and it gives an indication of the support available.


Do all community languages schools receive government funding?

No, not all of them. Only the community languages schools that meet requirements receive funding. Each state and territory has its own ethnic schools/community languages school association or federation, and the community languages school must be a legal non-profit organization and meet that state/territory’s requirements to be eligible for funding.


In some cases, even if a program receives funding, parents supplement the running of schools by paying fees and conducting fundraising events to meet the additional costs of conducting classes.


How do the requirements for funding differ between the different states and territories?

Most community languages schools have to go through an accreditation process to become eligible for funding. These processes vary but in many cases there a stringent requirement. Schools need to show that they are competent in delivering programs, that they are compliant with child safety, that instructors and teachers follow professional development – in some states the process may be less stringent.


Keep in mind that even if a community language school does not receive government funding, they are still allowed to become a member of the state or territory’s association/federation and follow training being offered. That is, the state level organizations include community languages schools that do and do not get government funding.


How did it happen that the Australian government helps fund (qualifying) community languages schools?

In the 70s and 80s, there was a push for languages, and the concept of multiculturalism started to grow. It took on a national perspective. Toward the end of the 80s, Professor Joe Lo Bianco was asked to write a national languages policy in 1984, and the government adopted the policy – a bilingual/trilingual approach to languages education.


At the time people from around the country were brought together through FECCA [Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia]. Slowly, that group started to lobby for support, money, recognition, etc. Their work in the 70s, 80s, and 90s resulted in the government starting to fund community languages schools. From there on, things changed!


CLA has brought together the different associations/federations of the different states and territories. How did it get started?

At first, it was very fluid. In the 80s, only some of the states and territories had federations or associations in operation. In Victoria, we started ours in 1987. South Australia was highly organized and had an organization prior to that. National conversations or meeting were sporadic. The sector began to grow, and the organizations grew stronger.


How did you get involved?

I was chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission until 2001. In 2002 I was approached to consider becoming the Executive Director of CLA (then “AFESA”). At that time, I was Chair of AFESA for several years


I was tasked with building a brand of what CLA was, to look to the government for funding, to coordinate the national program from a community organization point of view. I went to the federal government to seek funding in 2006/2007, and we got our first major bit of funding, around 150,000 to 160,000 dollars per year. So ever since then, we continue to get support for national coordination and have an excellent relation with the federal government – regardless of which party is in power. There is a strong bipartisan approach to CLA and community languages schools. CLA is very well supported by the Commonwealth Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) the primary funding body for CLA activities nationally.


My role was to build a brand for CLA, to highlight to people that national coordination and support was critical. The role involved supporting state and territory associations. Some were well organised others were struggling and needed support.


Since I started, the brief has expanded. So apart from having national meetings and talking about problems, our role is to coordinate, support, and lobby. Our role as a national body is to be the umbrella.


CLA receives financing regardless of the political party in power?

As mentioned, there is a bipartisan approach to languages education and community language schools. Both parties federally and at a state and territory level support language education and multicultural affairs.


I believe that funding has to be secondary. If you want a program to work, it has to be entrenched in

policy first and then everything else follows from it. It has to have a whole-of-government approach. You do not want to alienate the mainstream, that you are so different. You have to work with the mainstream. You have to sell that message: language plays a role in trade, in the economy, in fostering harmony and social inclusion. Our schools also promote the Principles of Diversity and Inclusion.


It helps to look at the sector not only from a community languages standpoint. We should look at it from a language’s education standpoint. Whist community language schools are seen as a complementary provider of languages education, it should be seen as major provider.


How is the CLA organized?

There is no individual membership of community languages schools in our organization. We are an umbrella organization, so we are comprised of the associations/federations in each state/territory. Our council is made of up to two people from each state/territory.


We are run in a way that you get “bang for your buck.” I say that it is “lean and mean,” the way we operate! We have good people, and we buy in the services we need.


Is it challenging to support community languages schools that are in different states?

There are different variables in each state and territory. Some of the bigger states have a strong language education policy. In others much more work is required. Each has their own way.


Do you offer professional development training to the community languages schools?

Yes, CLA is a Registered Training Organization (RTO). CLA and the states and territory associations conduct training and professional development also. We have surveyed the schools to find out what the needs are, given that many are not trained teachers, and do not have a teaching background. We tailor make programs for the states/territories who want different things.  


In most states and territories now, they have been able to negotiate funding for professional development and training, and most states run professional development of their own. In Victoria, they have 30-hour and 60-hour courses teacher training courses. In South Australia they also have courses. NSW runs an extensive program. The ACT and Queensland also have programs on a smaller scale. Western Australia has now received funding to conduct professional development. CLA also supports programs in Queensland, Northern Territory, Tasmania, Western Australia.


What are your other activities and projects?

  • In terms of accreditation, we have created national standards and a quality assurance framework. The process of creating it was bottom up, developed based on what community languages schools around the country need. The standards are not mandated but are recommended. The standards are 13 years old now, so they are being reviewed.

  • We have an “Academic Forum” that brings together the leading people from Australian universities and our sector.

  • We have the Executive Officers Forum that comes together a couple of times per year.

  • We participated in a royal commission on child safety. We have a compliance officer to make sure that community languages schools are compliant with child safety regulations.

  • Early Childhood has become a focus. Most funding is for the start of primary school to Year 12. Now in some jurisdictions early childhood programs are supporters. That brings with it new dimensions and extra parameters.

  • In Victoria we have an extensive resource centre Languages educations teachers and instructors. The Languages Education and Multicultural Education Centre (LMERC) funded by the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET).

  • We carried out a survey during the COVID pandemic: 85% of the schools who responded (about a 20% response rate) continued with online lessons even though they were in lockdown.

  • CA funded Monash University to undertake a national survey of parental attitudes. We need to know what parents think.

  • Now we are surveying middle and secondary students and alumni to ask what we are doing right, how we can encourage students to want to take extra lessons outside of school time.

You have achieved so much in Australia! Have you received attention internationally, from other countries asking for advice?

I spoke at a conference in New Zealand 10 years ago, but otherwise, time is a big factor that restricts international activities for CLA. It would be helpful to do something internationally, for instance UNESCO should be able to bring people together.


Personally, I am the Vice President of the Ukrainian World Congress. It gives me the opportunity speak to people across the world each day. Many years ago, I connected with an institute in Ukraine that has taken on the responsibility of connecting Ukrainian schools around the world. There are Ukrainian communities in 65 countries in the world, including Japan!


What you saw during COVID is that people connected internationally to seek out online resources. One of the biggest issues with language education is having the necessary multimedia and digital resources. Now, if you teach Ukrainian, you can go to Ukrainians anywhere in the world to share resources! This is a good model that other language groups have adopted.


Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Of course! We pride ourselves on the fact that we are organized, our work is appreciated, and the work we do is important.