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:
– 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 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.
 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