Indigenous education report misses the big picture

It was wonderful to see a high quality well informed response to Helen and Mark Hughes latest missive about education failure in the NT.

 The Article Indigenous education report misses the big picture by Bill Fogarty from ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies is a worthy contribution to the debate on this important wicked issue.

 It is important that the highly publicized work of Hughes and Hughes be countered.   Now I know that they are very committed to Indigneous education outcomes and I don’t for a minute want to imply anything less in terms of their motivation but having read their reports over the years  I have been struck by the fact that they consistently get it half right. 

 The poor outcomes and the poor education infrastructure and services tends to be the bit that they get right but the report wonders into simplistic demagoguery when they get to saying who is to blame.  And over the years this has varied.  Once upon a time it was post modernism and bilingual education but they can hardly argue this now.  Then it was land rights but even that has been changed in very significant ways.  Now it is teacher quality, school failure and pretend jobs.

 Fogarty reminds us that there is a whole field of international research  on the social determinants of education failure  and that we should look to this to guide the questions we bring to this problem 

He reminds us that:

“the daily routine of school in remote communities takes place against depressingly high rates of unemployment, early mortality, poor health, violence, crime, substance abuse and youth self harm and suicide.

Any consideration of education in remote regions of places like the Northern Territory must recognise the relationship between levels of attainment and poverty, health, housing, access to government services, infrastructure and socio-economic status.

These factors are not excuses for poor outcomes. They combine to constitute the reality within which teachers, students and parents battle every day to raise literacy and numeracy standards.”

But he also suggests that we can do better and shines a light on some clear areas of policy failure.  His pick of examples include

  • the very high untreated and unidentified hearing loss issues among remote Indigenous children
  • the under-spend – current and historical – in remote Indigenous schools
  • the impact of inappropriate NAPLN testing in Remote Indigenous schools
  • the failure of NT to apply the funds it receives from the Commonwealth Grants Commission for overcoming disadvantage for this purpose

 I agree with this list.  I would add

  • the serious long term underinvestment in housing which has resulted in average people per 3 bedroom housing rations of over 15 in many communities – how do kids do homework in such a setting?  The current investments only start to make inroads on the years of neglect.  even after new houses are built there will continue to be chronic over-crowding
  • the lack of enough well trained ESL teachers in remote schools – something that is being addressed
  • the lack of preparedness of teachers for the reality of remote schooling – and the subsequent high turnover rates which have a devastating impact on students (this is also being addressed) 
  • the lack of well designed adult literacy programs; and
  • the betrayal of the trust of communities across  the NT when after negotiating Remote school-Community  Partnership Agreements with many communities the government turned away from bilingual education – the centerpiece of many of these agreements.

One of the reasons for the historical and current under-spend in schooling is that the NT continues to fund schools on the basis of enrollment figures modified by attendance.   This is in my view a form of indirect discrimination because only remote Indigenous communities have attendance rates low enough to drastically reduce the number of teachers allocated. 

But a 65% attendance rate does not mean that only 65% of enrolled students attend.  All students attend but very few come every day of the week  (around 20-30%).  The rest attend intermittently.  So funding by attendance means that a teacher would end up with quite a large group of students on their class roll even if on average there were only 20 or so per day.  But they still have to plan for and teach all the students in the group.  Teaching students that attend irregularly is hard enough but teaching more than you would have to in a Darwin school is just plain unacceptable.

The implementation of NAPLAN tests for year 3 students in remote Indigenous communities is a tragic farce.  In most of these communities the only time students hear standard Australian English spoken is in the formal classroom.  By year 3 they are no most capable of being tested in English language written literacy that all the newly arrived non-English background migrants that are exempted in other states.  It is about tike there was a united push to abolish this useless practice and concentrate instead on developing and assessing children’s growing English language oracy.

Fogarty argues that the solutions to this challenge will necessarily be long term but that they should include redressing the historic under-investment and “finally, demand real commitment from all levels of government for all Indigenous students”.

I agree that this must be part of the solution but I am afraid I see no evidence of any focus on this matter.  In fact the historic changes to commonwealth state funding arrangements conducted under the auspices of COAG committed parties to ignoring financial input based reporting in order to focus on the main game of outcomes.  But I am afraid that in the case of the NT this was a seriously flawed backward step.

 Any medium to senior level public servant in the NT will tell you off the record that ‘there are no votes in Indigenous issues’ in the NT.  Until this is acknowledged and addressed I am afraid we will still be having these pointless blame game arguments in 20 years or even more.  And that is shameful.

Source: Indigenous education report misses the big picture.


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