Pyne’s threats on Gonski are shameful, but what the NT is doing is worse – much worse.

Trigger Alert:  I am saying things in this article that some people may not want to hear and that many will misconstrue as having a racist intent.  I have the greatest of respect for the many remote NT Indigenous leaders who struggle to be heard: about inadequate resourcing and servicing of their communities; about the lack of consultation; about constant new reforms that are never adequately funded or given time to impact, about ill considered interventionist policies that shame communities and implicitly blame them for everything; and about the racism and neglect by Governments at all levels.

But we must not let the NT government get away with their latest misleading and evil story line that effectively shuts the lid on educational opportunities in remote Indigenous communities.  What they are doing and their false narrative is no better that what we did to the stolen generation.  Both narratives say – there is no hope for the development of strong successful Indigenous children living a traditional life, so lets rip out the funding/supports/services and give up.

The truth is that, while overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is a challenging and even intractable problem, the NT Government has taken advantage of this reality and never seriously tried. They know we expect failure and they hide behind this. The systemic misuse of funds intended for addressing Indigenous disadvantage has occurred across time and with both parties, Labor and the Coalition. The Commonwealth, which has a constitutionally based responsibility to ensure the well-being of Indigenous Australians, occasionally wrings its hands, but has done nothing to call them on this fraud.

But this latest funding cut and its disgraceful rationale is a new low in racist viciousness and we must act.

So here is NT Governments latest evil and misleading argument:

The NT plans to build “a sustainable education system that is better designed to meet the needs of our Territory students and improve their results”, by cutting funds and teaching positions in remote schools because:

  1. NT schools and teachers are the best resourced in the country
  2. But NT children’s school results are the worst in the country
  3. NT education funding and teacher numbers have grown, while enrolments, attendance and school results are down
  4. So the government is cutting teaching and staffing positions in remote schools and  refocusing on early education with 63 extra teachers

Now even if this was true this is not a reason to cut funding.  The increase in spending could be focusing on the wrong things.  It’s a justification for reviewing things.  However the NT government is pre-empting its own review and cutting funds to Remote Indigenous Schools upfront.

But lets looks closer at these so-called facts

Fact 1 – NT schools and teachers are the best resourced in the country

This ‘fact’ is based on the 2013 Report on Government Services (ROGS).  They argue that it shows that the NT government:

  • funded schools at a higher rate than other jurisdictions.
  • has student-teacher ratios that are among the best in the nation.

The ROGS Report shows that the student teacher ratio in the NT is 11.3 whereas in other states it is between 12.8 and 14.3

But here are some inconvenient facts about the NT education funding and the NT staff-student ratio that they do not tell you.

It costs a lot more to staff remote Indigenous schools[1] – the additional cost for relocating teachers, leave provisions back t home base, professional development, remote allowance and so on, make the cost of employing a teacher in a remote/ very remote schools about 50% higher.  But the NT share of Commonwealth/state funding takes this into account so they are already funded for this.

There may be a case for arguing that the Commonwealth state remote metrics do not factor in the full cost of this servicing cost but this case has rarely been put by the NT.  Why? Well I suspect it is because they know that the  Commonwealth knows that they have a weak case because they do not spend even the proportion that they are given on remote servicing.

But lets be clear, this additional funding is for the purpose of delivering, not a higher quality service, but just a basic service.  In regards to quality, the challenges of attracting high quality staff to remote/very remote positions is such that the NT has the highest level of first year out teachers in its remote schools and an extremely high turnover rate.  In other words it costs a lot more but the service quality is inevitably poorer.

The NT claim to have a very low teacher-student ratio but there are two problems with the metric they provide above.

Firstly. The NT have convinced the Reporting Committee responsible for agreeing the schools data in the ROGS Report that Indigenous Education Workers (IEWs)  in Remote schools should count as teachers.  Now these might be highly respected members of the community, but they are ex-CDEP workers with no formal teacher education qualifications.  The IEWs are included in the NT figures as teachers in remote contexts so it is not possible to tell what the figures would look like were these non-teachers excluded.  However the teacher – student ratio would definitely be higher.

Secondly, The NT systematically underfunds remote schools relative to its Darwin schools so this figure does not represent the actual teacher student ratio in remote/very remote schools.  I have written about this elsewhere.  The NT funds on attendance not enrolment and this systematically discriminates against remote schools. Funding on attendance and not enrolment in a situation where attendance is running under 60% means that the remote schools have been ripped off by 100s and 100s of teachers already, before any additional cuts are made.  They also have a school staffing formula that includes “over the core additional teachers” across Darwin schools that are the historical residue of ‘wontok type deals done between pollies.  Remote politicians have not been as successful in this deal playing environment.

Thus Fact One is FALSE especially for remote schools

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Fact 2: Our children’s school results are the worst in the country

The 2013 Northern Territory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) results show lowest student attainment in Australia in every test domain and year level, consistent with previous years.

For further details please see the 2013 NAPLAN Summary Report

Now this is TRUE but this “worst in the country” minimizes the systemic failure that these NAPLAN data represent.

There are, in fact, many many classrooms right across the remote Indigenous communities of the NT where 100% of the students score O – yes Zero – on their NAPLAN test.  That is to say, they write their names on the paper but are unable to complete a single question.

And the even sadder fact is that many of their young parents cannot read or write in English either.  In fact the youngest English language literate residents in some communities are the youngest person who went to school in the Mission era.  When the mission schools generation die out some communities will be almost totally bereft of English language functionally literate adults.

Now I am not saying this to be racist – or to put down the struggles of Indigenous peoples to enact a form of self-determination and revive the law and culture of their ancestors.  I see no reason why this should have resulted in the educational calamity that now faces communities across the NT.

I see this as systemic willful and morally corrupt failure on the part of the NT Government and inadequate and inappropriate intervention by the Commonwealth.

Fact 2 is true

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FACT 3: While education funding and teacher numbers have grown, enrolments, attendance and school results are down

Expenditure

NT education expenditure is up, and has been higher since 2010, but this is because of a significant injection of Commonwealth dollars flowing from the National Partnership Programs. So while this may be true it is not possible to confirm or deny whether NT specific funding for school has increased above and over normal cost of living increases.

But what is being implied in fact 3 is that ‘we have invested huge amounts of resources into increasing student performance and school attendance and in spite of this, they continue to be poor (We have done everything, the failure is not ours but ‘theirs’).

Attendance

Attendance has gone down too. Not by a lot but it continues to be a serious issue for almost all remote schools with the larger schools having the poorer attendance. The NT has instituted attendance strategies from time to time but in most cases the only resources put to the strategy have been central office staffing resources to ‘support schools’.  Unlike Darwin schools remote and very remote schools do not have home liaison officer funded positions and with staffing based on attendance-not-enrolment, there are no spare staff to undertake the community work that might help get kids to schools.

In 2008-9 NT did commit some central office resources to work with schools and their communities to develop Remote Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs).  These took months of careful and high quality consultation and over  this period some 13 or so were signed with great fanfare.  However true to form the NT did not put any funding into resourcing the things it committed the Department to do as its part of the agreement.  Things that the community had requested were agreed to in writing and a high profile formal signing ceremony but then never implemented.

note: The creation of deputy principal positions employing respected elders was one such initiative and it was funded years later through the National Partnership program (Commonwealth funds) 

The final betrayal however came from the then Minister of Education for the NT, Marion Scrymgour, who without warning, declared that schools would teacher only in English for the first 4 out of 5 hours of every day.  Now in the consultations for the RLPAs, the communities where a bilingual program still existed, had confirmed that they did want their children to become competent in English speaking, reading and writing  but that they also wanted the bilingual  program to continue and did not see these two goals as incompatible. This decision was the final nail in the coffin of what could have been an important circuit breaker around engaging the community around student attendance.

So when people say to me, “I don’t know what can be done about school attendance in Indigenous communities we have tried everything”, my response is ‘ this is rubbish, signing an agreement, not funding it and then betraying it, does not count as trying something’.

School results

The 2013 Northern Territory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) results show the lowest student attainment in Australia in every subject area and year level. This has not changed over the past five years.  This is true and the consequences for the future viability of NT remote communities will be truly disastrous.  Have they tried everything?  Not by a long shot. They have not tried:

A faired needs based staffing formula –  something that most other states have done and that Gonski  was all about.  Adam Giles, their Chief Minister even admitted that his reason for rejecting the Labor Gonski offer is because it would require his Government to increase education expenditure outside of Darwin and transfer resources out of Darwin schools.

A properly resourced Bilingual program where communities see this as appropriate – The truth is that resources were ripped away from remote schools running bilingual programs early in 2000 and since then schools have struggled on with almost no support.

Fully funded the agreements reached under the RLPA negotiations not through Commonwealth National Partnership funds but from NT resources to fulfill commitments made by the NT.  This would have freed up the National Partnership money to be used for the purposes for which it was intended.

A fully funded student attendance strategy built around local level community consultation across all the clan groups that make up a community.  In spite of all the rhetoric, this has not been undertaken.

Fact 3 is in part unproven and in part false. Overall it is based on a cynical and racist logic that because something has not been achieved it is OK to give up.  It assumes that it is not possible to have successful outcomes for children in remote Australia, no matter how much we invest. That is what we assumed when we took children from Indigenous families, because we believed this was the only solution.  We might not be taking children away but is leaving them, knowingly to fail to thrive educationally, any better?

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Fact 4 – Government is refocusing attention on early education with 63 extra teachers because the only schooling levels where smaller class[es] have been proven to make a significant difference are in the early years.

The NT Report justifies this by referring to Productivity Commission, the Grattan Institute and by the Qld Commission of Audit.  But if you follow these claims back, all three reports draw on the work of John Hattie who rather infamously said, ‘I wouldn’t invest a single penny into smaller class sizes’

In fact, Hattie’s own research has been shown to be rather imperfect but even his work on class size does suggest a positive if small student effect-size overall and a more significant student effect-size in two contexts.  The first context is, as NT argues, in the early years, but the second is – you guessed it – with highly disadvantaged English language learners.

SO Fact 4 is false and based on selective use of poorly evidenced data

Now I know we need to priorities working to ensure that Gonski reforms can continue.  But this issue, too, is vital.  So I am begging – yes begging – all of you who care about justice for Indigenous Australians not to put this issue at the back of the social justice bus.  Because that is what has been done with issues facing remote Indigenous Australians for over 200 years.

 We must and we can do both.


[1] 2012 NT DET Annual Report quote The cost of delivering educational services in the Northern Territory is significantly greater than in any other state or territory of Australia. The factors contributing to this are varied, but many are a result of the large proportion of NT schools in remote, isolated and very remote communities.

Remoteness increases costs associated with personnel (school and teaching staff), infrastructure (including staff housing), curriculum delivery and travel.”

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The appalling funding cuts to our most disadvantaged schools/students in Australia requires a strong and broadly based condemnation

Anyone who has read anything about schooling in Australia would have some awareness that the education outcomes for Indigenous communities in remote and very remote Northern Territory are not only appalling by Australian standards but among the worst in the world.

What is happening now in the NT in terms of further funding cuts to these schools will have devastating effects but there is likely to be only muted outrage from many of us well meaning educationists and social justice activists for many reasons[1]:

–       There are lots of issues to fight, this one is not my priority because I do not have enough knowledge

–       its just too hard’ to know what is best

–       Because its failing now anyway and all that has been attempted has failed so why throw more money at it

So in this post I want to provide some information about what HAS NEVER BEEN ATTEMPTED through all the turbulence and short term fixes and magic bullets.

What has never been attempted has been the implementation of long term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools.  Just think about that for a minute.  Our national shame – the record of almost total systemic failure to support over 2 generations of peoples living in remote Indigenous communities to a level of basic literacy required for even an unskilled job  – has occurred with copious wringing of hands but IT NEVER HAD A CHANCE.  It was never funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Most other states can tell you that they have a formula for staffing their schools that includes a needs-based component as part of their core funding.  They might put different weightings on different needs – e.g. they might give extra weight to higher levels of low Socio-economic status, remoteness of school, ESL needs, percentage of single parents or use enrolment data about parent occupation and education.

In the NT the opposite has been the rule – yes, the exact opposite.  NT has been financially privileging its Darwin schools directly at the expense of its remote schools and they have never been called to task on this.

I saw this up close and personal when I worked at a senior level in the NT Department of Education.  The NT staffing formula is an unwieldy data base because it has a whole swag of individual above the line allocations to individual (mostly Darwin) schools that are not derived from any transparent formula they are historical.  Sometime before 2008 the NT commenced work on a revised staffing formula.

I joined the Department in June 2008 and at the time the very committed staff who had been hard at work on developing a new needs based staffing formula were under the impression that this was going to senior management and the Minister for tick off at any moment.  I watched the process of their painful disillusionment  – others mocking them for being naïve, make work change requests and so one.

One of the many issues of controversy was the staffing by attendance policy.  Now even in state systems where all schools have an attendance well above the 90% mark, the idea of staffing by attendance would have been considered unfair.  This is because the schools in the highest needs communities would be the ones to be penalised by this.  Needless to say it is not an approach taken by other states.

But in the NT the use of this policy is not just unfair, it is, in my view, a serious case of indirect discrimination, and a misallocation of Commonwealth funds from at least two sources.

It is a very serious case of indirect discrimination, because it systematically leads to a gross underfunding of schools based on race.  Remote schools average attendance rates are low – many schools average between 50% and 62% attendance rate.  So if funded only on attendance – without any minimum floor –  NT would save up to 50% of its staffing costs but 100% of these children would attend over the school term – just many on an intermittent basis

It is a misallocation of Commonwealth resources because the Commonwealth Grants Commissions allocates funds to states and territories using a highly complex set of formulaes and one important element of this is the adjustment for levels of disadvantage.  So the NT Government receives a over the line amount of funds in order to address the extreme and long term disadvantage of its remote Indigenous population but it does not expend this money on for this purpose and there seems to be no process of transparency or accountability around this.

It is also a misallocation of an additional allocation of funds specifically directed to the NT under the NTER intervention in 2007 and continued today.

In 2007 there were 2 important decision made which had a significant positive impact on the NT education budget.  Firstly the Commonwealth Government and the NT Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in September 2007 that included a commitment, on NT’s part, to move from “staffing based on attendance” to “staffing based on an Agreed Student Number” (note: this would, be based on estimates of the numbers of age relevant children in the designated area, so it would expected to be, at least at the level of enrolment, but possibly higher). In exchange the Commonwealth provides ongoing and direct funding for 200 staffing positions for remote schools and additional capital funding for more classrooms and staff housing in remote communities.  NT took the funds but this work has never been done. This has enabled the NT Government to continue to underfund Australia’s most needy schools for years.

The second outcome of the NTERC intervention related to the ending of CDEP in many communities.  This led to many Indigenous Education Worker positions coming off CDEP and their funds for this role as an NT funded job transferred to the NT.  It looks like these latest cuts will pocket these funds given for this specific purpose.

So what does it mean to staff a school based on attendance?

I have written on this previously but here is a brief summary

Let us suppose a schools with 300 children and an average attendance rate of 60%.  Of this children around 25% of students might attend over 80% of the time, but all students would attend some of the time.

Firstly, how many children would be on the roll for the average class if the official teacher-student ratio is 1-20?

Well a primary school with 300 children enrolled , but an attendance rate of 60%, would be allocated staff for 180 students[2] not 300. Yet the number of students who need to be assigned to teachers and classes is 300 not 180 – they just attend irregularly. This would require making class sizes of about 33 not 20.

So on any one day, a teacher might have only 20 children in their class but about 33 children on the roll.  Based on the expectation that only about 25% would attend over 80% of the time, this class of 33 might have about 8 children who attend on a very regular basis and the remaining 25 children would also attend, albeit on a highly irregular basis.

Can you just imagine the chaos of such a classroom and how hard it would be to focus on the small number of students who are there regularly?  Add to this mix, inexperienced short term principals, a high number of novice teachers, a generally non-English speaking student body and cultural challenges, and you get an even more accurate picture.

One of the reasons they can get away with this is the COAG approach of only requiring output based accountability.  It is also worth noting that, had the recommendations of the Gonski Report been implemented, there would have been an independent monitoring body to monitor needs based funding.

Is anyone interested in bringing NT to the Human Rights Commission on the Grounds of Indirect Discrimination?  It is long overdue.   And remember they have gotten away with this for years and years and years.


[1] Indeed Fred Chaney argues in the preface to Michael Dillon and Neil Westbury’s important but relatively unknown book “ Beyond Humbug”, that Indigenous affairs policy makers and administrators expect failure, are not tainted by it, and that this sorry state of affairs leads to even poorer policy review and analysis

“ For politicians, bureaucrats and concerned citizens alike it [Indigenous Affairs] is a stressful but safe place in which to work.  Failure blots not your record but that of the blackfellows, who can, in the end, always be blamed” Preface

More Autonomy for NT on schools funding will be the death knell for ‘closing the gap’

I know this is a waste of my breath, but I am begging Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott to visit remote schools in the NT and schools in Darwin with a checklist in hand.  The checklist should include:

  • state of the buildings,
  • state of the grounds,
  • state of the playground,
  • sports facilities
  • water bubblers, pathways, covered ways. shaded areas and ablution areas
  • eating areas
  • existence of specialist areas such as science laboratories, ICT rooms, libraries, teacher staff rooms,
  • experience of principal
  • average teaching experience of staff
  • no of specialist support staff
  • turnover and average experience of teachers
  • average number of children on the roll for each class

Then compare the relative needs of the schools in question – numbers of children who do not yet speak or understand English, NAPLAN scores, student attendance figures special needs and so on.

Then and only then try and tell us that the best way to spend Gonski funding is to give a blank cheque to the NT Government.

The simple fact that every teacher in a Darwin school knows is that the Darwin schools are much more generously funded than the highly disadvantaged remote schools.  They also know that the NT Government, no matter what its political persuasion, will never be able to change this because they would immediately lose office.

To cover for this the Department of education has been pretending to work on a new needs based staffing formula and has been pretending this  since at least 2008.  It is a farce. I have written about this previously here.

And The Chief Minister has admitted that the reason they did not sign on to the ALP Gonski offer is because it would have forced them to shift funds out of Darwin and into remote because the Gonski framework required implementing the needs based approach.

Now it looks like Minister Pyne will give NT the funds with no restrictions.  And at the same time NT are cutting positions right across remote NT.  Indigenous peoples are being ripped off in the name of Gonski and this just makes me want to weep.