WHEN WILL THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE NT CAN’T BE RELIED ON TO DELIVER FOR ITS REMOTE INDIGENOUS CITIZENS

2008 was important for Indigenous education because that was when all Australian states and the Commonwealth signed up to the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (NIRA) through the COAG Reform process. I worked for NT Department of Education at the time and this development gave me a sense of cautious optimism.

The NIRA committed all states and territories to halving the gap for their Indigenous citizens on a number of key measures by 2020.  For the school sector,the already agreed targets set out in the National Education Agreement (NEA) – improvements to student performance based in NAPLAN tests, and Year 12 retention and completion – were confirmed.

I now see that while the NIRA has given added focus and priority to a very important equity policy issue, it will not drive change for the most disadvantaged Australian citizens  – those living in remote discrete communities in the Northern Territory.

There are many reasons for this but here I want to focus on just two:

  1. The unsuitability of the targets and measures that have been set; and
  2. The decision to drive change  through an outcomes focus – a strategy that is silent on inputs and process measures.

Problem One: The suitability of the NIRA targets and measures for NT remote communities

Example One: NAPLAN Performance

According to Nicholas Biddle (2002) over 67 per cent of NT Indigenous people speak a language other than standard Australian English in their home. For children who grow up in discrete Indigenous communities in remote NT this figure is nearer to 95-100 per cent.  This doesn’t just mean that these children speak another language; it means that they don’t speak English and no one else does, so they don’t hear it spoken in the home, in the playground, in the community, at social functions, on the radio, in shops and in church.

They live in a non-English speaking world, until they arrive at school.

When the children go to school, the school has to work out how to teach a whole class of children who do not understand English. In communities like Yirrkala where children speak a living Indigenous language or languages, and there is a tradition of two-way education, children learn in their own language, Yolnu Matha, using texts that have been developed through the school for this purpose. English exposure is largely oral at this stage.

A potted history is required here.  The bilingual education program was once well-funded and well supported with trained linguists actively supporting the school in developing new resources, skilled two-way teachers and Indigenous Education Workers in classrooms with high levels of Indigenous language proficiency . Over the years funding dwindled to a trickle.  Firstly it was abolished only to be reinstated without critical funded positions and for many years it languished as an unsupported program.   Then in 2010, it was briefly NT government policy to teach only in English for most of the school day.

This was introduced in haste by the former Indigenous Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, who later apologised for this ‘mistaken’ decision (Rawlinson, 2012). However, Yirrkala along with a number of schools, refused to comply, and now the NT Education Department appears to passively ‘allow it’ but with no support. Even those schools that did comply, in part or completely, still faced the overwhelming challenge of teaching a whole class of children who do not speak or understand any English. Whatever adaptations made involved major adjustments to the standard approach to literacy education in Australian schools.

By third grade, many remote NT classrooms are just starting to expose students to English language texts and are still using community language reading texts. Their English language focus at this point is still English language oracy as they rightly see this is a pre-condition to being able to read English. However in Year 3, all these learners are forced to sit the NAPLAN tests – tests that are totally unsuited to their stage of English learning development, no matter how they approach the ESL challenges. The vast majority of students either, do not turn up on test days, or, get a zero score – meaning that they are unable to get even one answer right. Indeed we are crazy even expecting them to.

Now let’s compare this treatment and experience to a similarly English language challenged group.

Children who are new arrivals from non- English speaking background countries can access up to one year of an intensive English program and can be exempted from sitting for NAPLAN tests for this period.

These children have come from a foreign land but in many ways remote Indigenous children are still living in a foreign land, yet no parallel Commonwealth funded intensive English program was ever provided for them and the exemption definitions do not allow them to be excused from NAPLAN testing.

The solution to this problem is extremely easy, affordable and accessible. There are culturally sensitive, developmentally appropriate diagnostic assessments developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) with remote Indigenous students in mind and sophisticated processes that would enable the results of these tests to be equated to mainstream NAPLAN results in ways that would make sense. This simple but urgent change would put anend to the negative impact of the tests in remote schools. Having a class that all score zero on their test gives the worst kind of useless feedback to parents, students, teachers and systems.

Example 2: Year 12 retention/completion targets

For this target, the reporting framework relies on two measures. For Year 12 completions the target group is 20 – 24 year olds and the data source the School Education and Workforce (SEW) Survey managed by the ABS. The ABS data is collected through a telephone survey, from which remote communities are excluded.   This means that for our most disadvantaged cohort we have no data and therefore no performance targets.

This should be addressed through the initiation of a remote Indigenous survey as a matter of urgency.

The other measure is Year 12 retention. There are a lot of issues with this measure.  But for remote Indigenous children the key problem with this measure is that it means absolutely nothing.

A friend of mine running a government service in remote Australia went to the local Indigenous school and promised a guaranteed job to everyone who completed Year 12.  Later she was taken aside by a teacher who explained to her that completion to Year 12 just means that a student is still attending school to Year 12 – that is they are still enrolled and that is all. While the school could point to a few Year 12 completers in the community most of them could not read enough to be safe in the workplace.

In my view, it is quite mischievous to use as a measure something that appears to measure something of value that actually means nothing at all. We should stop this practice. Its existence means that the lack of meaningful data in this area is hidden from view and never prioritised.

Problem Two: The limitations of focusing only on outcome measures

There is an assumption that outcome measures are a magic bullet and will bring about the required changes on their own. This is not the case where good governance is lacking.  Marcia Langton (2012) the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne argues that the high levels of funds allocated to the NT from the Commonwealth Grants Commission based on the level of disadvantage of its Indigenous citizens have been diverted for other purposes.

This has happened over a sustained period and no matter which party holds power. Other policy observers – journalists, social justice advocates, and researchers such as Nicolas Rothwell (2011), Rolf Gerritson, and Barry Hansen support this view with data.

According to Michael Dillon and Neil Westbury there were serious questions raised about the level of funding and servicing for remote Indigenous schools in 2006 and, in response to queries, the Department claimed it was developing a new teacher staffing framework that would ensure transparent and consistent needs based funding.  In 2008 when I commenced with the Department the staffing review was said to be in its final stages and about to be ticked off.  In 2011 in response to a query from myself, the department also said that a new transparent needs based staffing formula was nearly complete.  Everyone I worked with knew this would never happen – taking money away from Darwin schools to give to schools in the bush would never happen. No party wants to commit political suicide.

Rothwell argues that there are no votes in solving Indigenous disadvantage and no strategies to make transparent what is happening or to hold the Territory accountable. The mantra that there are no votes in Indigenous issues is an oft-repeated NT Public Service phrase. The vast difference between the world of ‘white Darwin’ and the world of Indigenous Darwin and Indigenous remote communities is shocking.

Mainstream Darwin residents enjoy the laid back lifestyle, visits to markets, world-class conference precinct with a wave pool, state of the art senior colleges and middle schools and the extremely elaborate Parliament House and precinct, all for a Territory of less than 220,000.

Town Camp Darwin is different. Nine-Mile Town Camp, for example, is not marked on the map – it is just a blank space. This is a place where buses don’t visit, where the main power line to Darwin runs through the middle but when I was there in 2009 there were no street lights (this may well still be the case) , where many houses are condemned and several have no ablution facilities, where there are no footpaths and the grass is higher than a primary school child. The children who do manage to go to school have to be at the bus stop with no bus shelter outside the community by around 7.20am because the only bus they can catch picks them up first and then all the other children. They are on the bus for 50 minutes to go to a school less than 15 minutes away.

Remote NT is worse. The average number of people per bedroom is around three, rubbish services are spasmodic, there are no gutters and where I have seen children swimming in open drains. There is no parity of amenity.

In 2007 I attended the opening of a new high school that would never have been built in a Darwin suburb. It was built on the only oval, taking away this amenity from the whole school. It had no footpaths or covered ways, no water faucets, a very poor library, a staff room that was too small for the number of staff, and huge mud puddles between buildings.

But before this date this community of over 2900 had no secondary school whatsoever.

My argument in a nutshell is that outcomes-based accountability measures will not put any real pressure on the NT to do the right thing by their Indigenous citizens, and real accountability is what is urgently needed here. They know that they can keep on failing because this issue is already assigned by many to the too-hard-basket.

At one of the COAG working party negotiations that I attended, where states were arguing over funding shares, one state representative remarked that there was no point giving any funds to the NT because they wouldn’t deliver the goods and that the close-the-gap target could be achieved by focusing on the Indigenous population in the eastern states alone.

Let’s not make this chilling black humour a reality.

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