Is opting out of testing just selfish individualism?

In a recent article about American culture and the opt out society Alan Greenblatt described the growing and successful movement to encourage parents to refuse to allow their child to participate in national standardised testing as selfish individualism.  It might be driven by a parents individual interest, he argues, but it is selfish and against collective interests:

 It’s probably true that the time spent on testing isn’t going to be particularly beneficial to the kids, but it’s very beneficial to the system,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “If you have enough people opt out of these tests, then you have removed some important information that could make our schools better.

I find this amusing because the whole corporate reform movement, for which testing is the centerpiece, is built on the neoliberal belief that the best solution to everything – prisons, health, education etc – is to turn everything into a market and allow competition and individual choice to drive better value.

In fact this was the prime motivation described by Kevin Rudd when he first announced the ‘school transparency agenda’ on the 21 August 2008 at the National Press Club. The speech has mysteriously disappeared but I am quite clear that Kevin Rudd said something along the following lines

“If parents are unhappy with their local school because of the information in MySchool, and decide to transfer their child to another better performing school, then that is exactly what should happen.  This is how schools will improve, through parents voting with their feet.”

Now nobody who works in a struggling school thinks this is the way schools improve. Australia has run an aggressive market choice model of school funding for nearly 2 decades now and all we have to show for it is a highly class segregated schooling system and high levels of inequality.

So let me reassure parents who are concerned about our high stakes NAPLAN testing regime.  Opting out of having your child participate in these tests is much more of a community act than deciding to send your child to an elite school.


The case for Bilingual Education has never been comprehensively challenged

This is the document that I attached to the Submission to the NT Education Review.

I am not posting because this is ‘my best writing’.  It is not.  It was put together in a rush to support a key aspect of my submission to the NT Review of Education.  I am posting it here to ‘finish the process’.

One of the key frustrations I experienced in trying to develop this ‘literature review lite’ was caused by the mysterious disappearance of all the Submissions sent in to the important Parliamentary Inquiry into Bilingual Education.  I had to rely on my less that adequate notes.  All references to Submissions relate to this Inquiry.

The case for bilingual education. Key extracts

Source: Lisa Waller, “Learning in both worlds,” Inside Story, 27 October 2011

The actions of the NT govt in removing any possibility of Indigenous children having their early education and achieving initial literacy in their own language goes against all the research from The World Bank, UNESCO and the testing carried out over many years within the NT itself. 
In addition, it slows the development of an Indigenous teaching service and threatens the survival of the childrens’ languages and their cultural identity. 
It is an action that in years to come will result in a second ‘Sorry’ day. At that time the NT Govt. will not be able to claim they didn’t know because the research that they commissioned makes the requirements for the education of Indigenous minorities quite clear: Educate these children in their mother tongue while they are learning the dominant language. Then when, and only when, children are confident in this additional language should they begin to learn in this language while they continue the development of both languages. – Beth Graham a noted bilingual expert.

Joe Lo Bianco, cites over 1200 international studies “that provide empirical evidence of the effectiveness of bilingual education for students who do not speak the dominant language when they start school”. (Indigenous Languages in Education: What the Research Actually Shows).

Fogarty and Kral are highly experienced researchers who specialize in working with Indigenous youth and communities on issues surrounding Indigenous languages, literacy, lifelong learning, education, enterprise, employment and development in remote contexts.

Their submission focuses on the role of Indigenous languages in emergent development activity in remote Australia, and the out-of-school language and literacy needs of Indigenous adolescents and young adults, with a focus on the digital economy.

However, they summarise the broad findings from their research in relation to bilingual education and the teaching of Indigenous languages in schools as follows:

  • conceptual development in children is enhanced when students are taught in their first language;
  • education of Indigenous students in their first language is a critical component of students well-being, self esteem and personal development at school;
  • Indigenous communities, parents and teachers overwhelmingly support the teaching of Indigenous languages Indigenous schools. In part because this is a crucial factor in the engagement of Indigenous families in education generally and leads to improved school attendance;
  • there is no evidence that learning in an Indigenous first language has a negative effect on English language acquisition;
  • there is no credible evidence that ‘English only’ remote schools perform better than bilingual schools; and
  • evidence of the benefits of Indigenous language programs for Indigenous students overwhelmingly supports their continuation and development.

Submission No. 80 from Michele Rowe who has extensive Australian and international experience in applied linguistics – including in the NT Community of Wadeye where she worked as a teacher linguist for some time.

She makes the following observations, which help to explain why the bilingual program is not as successful as it should/could be:

Following my sabbatical, I returned to Australia to work at Wadeye, to try and support educational developments and address the huge gap in Indigenous student achievement that had widened since I left Australia in the 1970‟s. After four and a half years, one of the biggest problems I had found was not only the high turnover of non-Indigenous teachers that affected continuity and development, but also the lack of understanding of first and second language acquisition. An expectation for students to achieve national benchmarks in English through numerous initiatives in short time, scales of “stop and start” programs, provided little scope for continuity and progression for generational change. Furthermore, the Indigenous language program, in comparison to English was marginalized. Where English had a range of outside experts and school based coordinators, the Indigenous language program in comparison received limited support and had had periods without being supported at all.  

The understanding that supporting language learning in first language bridges learning in a second language, is something that is understood internationally, but from my experience, not by most teachers recruited to teach in remote Indigenous communities.

In prioritizing the learning of English, with the best of intentions, for Indigenous students to access the same opportunities as other Australians; this results unfortunately in compromising Indigenous language programs and not acknowledging the importance of linking student’s first language to learn English as an additional language. 

Unfortunately, too many teachers that work on remote communities, do not have the training or experience of teaching in high ESL schools, and using first language to strengthen the transition to second language learning as well as the links between family and community learning. This not only ignores children’s wealth of language learning and cognitive development before coming to school but also results in a void in linking home-school learning, learning for continuity and strengthening students cultural heritages and identity.

Submission No. 81 from Dr Brian Devlin from Charles Darwin University, an active ACE member who has worked extensively with remote schools in the NT.

His submission is collaboration with colleagues in academia and from schools across the NT.  This gave voice to those who felt that they could not speak out in their own names.

One of his contributors, a principal from a two way school points out the ridiculousness of assessing the success of the bilingual program using year 3 or even year 5 NAPLAN scores:

The foremost indicator that is used to measure the educational gap is the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

These tests are designed to test the literacy and numeracy skills of mainstream Australian students who speak English as their first language [editor’s note – children who are ESL 1 or 2 stage learners in schools in other states are excluded from sitting the NAPLAN tests based on their new arrival status]. There is a great deal of focus that the NT Department of Education has placed on improving the Year 3 NAPLAN results of indigenous students. 

However, for students who begin school not speaking English, achieving theYear 3 NAPLAN benchmarks is not a realistic goal. They must read and understand the content of the test and then respond in writing or by selecting the correct answer from multiple choices. International research in to language learning shows that it takes three to five years to gain basic interpersonal communicative skills in a second language (where face-to-face contextual support and props are required to assist in meaning) and five to seven years to gain cognitive/academic language proficiency, where higher order thinking skills are required, such as for analysing, synthesising, evaluating and classifying (Hakuta et al., 2000). The Year 3 NAPLAN tests require cognitive/academic proficiency. Year 3 students (8 years of age) from non-English speaking communities have simply not had sufficient time to acquire the level of English required to read, understand and respond to questions in the NAPLAN tests, given that they begin learning English when they are five years old. It is not an indication of a shortcoming in their learning. It is frustrating and disheartening for my Year 3 students who attend school daily and work hard in class to be forced to sit a test, without any support, which is well beyond their level of English.  

Aiming at Year 3 NAPLAN benchmarks is a reason why bilingual programs are not supported by the NT Department of Education, as it has made a commitment that 75% of NT students will meet the Year 3 NAPLAN benchmarks by 2012/13. 

Submission No 31 from the Human Rights Commission (Mick Gooda) which reminded Governments of Australia’s commitments under human rights, in particular, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This instrument interprets how Australia’s existing human rights obligations apply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially articles 13.1 which explicitly includes the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures…. And 14.1 which commits States to, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language. 

The controversy has also been profiled in the Guardian UK thanks to the publicity provided by Jack Thompson who after attending the annual Garma Festival in August this year joined the campaign against the NT Government’s position.

To read this article go to

Indigenous languages in education: what the research actually shows Charles E. Grimes, Ph.D.

“Children learn better if they understand the language spoken in school. This is a straightforward observation borne out by study after study (Thomas and Collier, 1997; Dutcher, 1995; Patrinos and Velez, 1996; Walter, 2003). Even the important goal of learning a second language is facilitated by starting with a language the children already know. Cummins (2000) and others provide convincing evidence of the principle of interdependence—that second language learning is helped, not hindered by first language study. This leads to a simple axiom: the first language is the language of learning. It is by far the easiest way for children to interact with the world. And when the language of learning and the language of instruction do not match, learning difficulties are bound to follow.” (World Bank 2006:3)

“The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development.” (Cummins. 2000)

“The most powerful factor in predicting educational success for minority learners was the amount of formal schooling they received in their L1.” (Thomas and Collier, 1997, reporting on an 11-year study of 42,000 minority language speakers in the USA.

The gap in the Northern Territory

With something like 30% of the population of around 200,000 of the Northern Territory being indigenous, and those indigenous citizens speaking several dozen heritage languages, it is clear that the Northern Territory is multilingual, perhaps to a greater degree than any other state or territory in Australia. (See for a listing of languages in Australia.) This presents special challenges for education, health, the job market and the criminal justice system, just to name a few key sectors.

But with something like 80% of the prison population being disproportionately indigenous, and the disproportionate lack of indigenous people employed in the mainstream community (also as a result of being educationally disadvantaged), it is clear that past and current policies and practices of the Northern Territory government (both current and past) in relation to the role of language in education, and cross-cultural communication in other sectors such as health and the criminal justice system, are for the most part ineffective. And as the addage says, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting the results you’ve always gotten.” So it is time for the NT government to show the courage of taking a fresh look and a more informed approach to education in indigenous communities, and pursue a better understanding of the role of language in undergirding current problems in education, health, the job market, and the criminal justice system.

Around the world (including Australia), the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and English as a Second Language (ESL) have made huge advances in the past several decades, as have studies of issues facing speakers of minority languages in mainstream education (see attached bibliography). But there is a big gap between these fields, and the attitudes and practices of general educators, policy-makers, and the national curriculum in education for the subject of English as it is taught in schools, which has for the most part been fairly static for decades and assumes that students are native speakers of Standard English. The latter field is either ignorant of, or chooses to ignore the developments in the former fields, even though the demographic of English-speaking countries such as Australia is increasingly multilingual, and the proportion is increasing of children in schools who do not come from homes where Standard English is the primary language. There is a move in some countries to force the educators through legislation to become aware of and accommodate many of these advances in related fields which are directly relevant to the language-related challenges faced in education and society.

This gap between what the research actually shows and the policies and practices in Northern Territory schools relating to language issues is quite glaring. The specifics of this are well documented in Simpson, Caffery and McConvell (2009), and in Devlin (2009). It does not speak well of the NT government, nor of its commitment to making a real difference in indigenous communities. It is time for a significant change in direction—but one that is better informed on the issues.

The World Bank (2005:1) observes:

“Fifty percent of the world’s out-of-school children live in communities where the language of schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home. This underscores the biggest challenge to achieving Education for All (EFA): a legacy of non-productive practices that lead to low levels of learning and high levels of dropout and repetition.”

The Northern Territory government ultimately wants their indigenous citizens to be part of:

  • ·  stable communities, who are
  • ·  both literate and competent in the national language—English;
  • ·  have a strong sense of identity and pride in their unique ethnic heritage (there can be no

community stability without this);

  • ·  stay in school at least through most of secondary school, and preferably beyond;
  • ·  are productive and contributing members of society in whatever rural or urban

community in which they live.

Worldwide experience and decades of research (including in Australia and the Northern Territory—see attached bibliography) show an overwhelmingly unified picture that:

  • ·  People who speak more than one language competently are not only enriched by it, but true bilinguals can also see the legitimacy of and appreciate multiple perspectives in ways that monolinguals can’t. They have greater opportunities of participation and advancement in multiple communities.
  • ·  People who can function competently in both the national (majority) language and the local (minority) language tend to „succeed‟ in both worlds (bilingual). They are the ones who become respected community leaders within the community, can represent the interests of the community to outsiders, and can also participate fully in mainstream society.
  • In contrast, members of indigenous communities who are not fully competent in either the national language nor in the local language (semi-lingual), tend to be frustrated. They do not have a complete or mature cultural or linguistic framework for problem-solving, and they also aren’t accepted by their own societies as having a legitimate voice in community affairs. Semi-linguals are often involved in anti-social behaviour.
  • Where the government and educational system promotes only the national language and does not make space for or actively discourages the legitimate roles and use of local languages, this has been shown to contribute significantly to lack of self worth, marginalisation, and for some, active resentment. These also contribute to anti-social behaviour.
  • Literacy is far more effective when the basic skills are done in the „mother tongue‟—the language most actively used in the home. The research supporting this is overwhelming
  • Education that bridges from the local languages, eventually transitioning fully into the national language is far more effective and far less destructive than education that only functions in the national language from the start. This is especially true for communities in which a local language continues to have important roles for communication and identity, and the national language (i.e. English) is not the main language used in the homes. Again, the research supporting this is overwhelming.

Perceptions contributing to the problem

Bilingual education (or multilingual education), like other programs, can be done well or be done poorly. Policy-makers often dismiss the whole idea of bilingual education where it has been poorly thought through or poorly implemented, even though the poor practice may be in only a small number of communities. This seems to be true in the Northern Territory as well.

There is a misconception among some policy-makers that „bilingual education‟ means the local language is taught, and the national language isn’t. However, the „bi-‟ in bilingual means „two‟. The goals of well implemented bilingual education programs are to help the students achieve full competence in both languages—not just one or the other. And this is healthy for the whole of society. Poorly implemented bilingual education programs may get this wrong.

Summary of research findings

The World Bank (2005) summarizes the findings of extensive and recent research relating to educating children initially in their own language and transitioning them to the national language. These are all outcomes that we assume would be valued in the Northern Territory.

  • ·  Children LEARN BETTER. This is supported by study after study.
  • ·  Children in rural and/or marginalised populations STAY IN SCHOOL LONGER.
  • ·  Children in rural and/or marginalised populations REACH HIGHER LEVELS OF EDUCATION


  • ·  Children in rural and/or marginalised populations INCREASE SOCIAL MOBILITY.
  • ·  End-of-primary PASS RATES ARE HIGHER in statistically significant ways where effective

The research also shows that indigenous students are MORE LIKELY TO LEARN ENGLISH BETTER if they have a well-designed and well-implemented bilingual education program in their indigenous language.

Furthermore, to try to claim that indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are the exception to the patterns found in similar communities throughout the world, elsewhere in Australia, and even in the Northern Territory itself, is not only ill-informed, but it is irresponsible.

Informal polling of teachers over a period of ten years around the NT shows that many can teach for years in communities like Tennant Creek and Katherine without ever realising that their indigenous students are not native speakers of Standard English. So the teachers never dream of approaching their students as second-language speakers of English, or benefiting from the many language-in- education studies that would help them be more effective teachers. The same informal polling also shows that many school teachers in the NT are unaware of the existence of Kriol and Aboriginal English, both of which are well recognised by sociolinguists—these varieties based on English are not Standard English, but have their own grammar and vocabulary. And therefore, these teachers also do not benefit from lessons learned about creoles in education that even have professional journals dedicated to the topic.

Many school teachers also do not recall having been given even basic orientation to the multilingual and multicultural nature of the Northern Territory. Surely there is room for improvement here.

Without the political will to implement good MLE programs, the best policies (which we don’t yet have in the Northern Territory), the best curriculum, the best materials, and the best teachers, with full community support cannot pull off what is known to be the „best practice‟ for education in indigenous communities. The research is unified and overwhelming. So it is puzzling why it continues to be ignored by government policy-makers and general educators in the Northern Territory.

Submission to the NT Indigenous Education Review

I am disappointed to find that even though 2 working weeks have elapsed since the Submissions to the NT Education Review were due, the NT Government has not made them public. But sadly I am not at all surprised.

The NT Government, the Government that we trust and fund to overcome extreme (i.e. 3rd world levels of) disadvantage in remote Indigenous communities, continues to live up to my expectations in this regard.

So as a public service I am posting my Submission in full on this website. Many will ague that I am being too kind in some respects. And this may well be my significant point of departure from many social justice activists who I otherwise respect.  You see, I agree with one major point made forcibly by Bruce Wilson. I agree that the current situation is intolerable and that arguments that imply that cultural respect and continuity automatically trump the need to STOP the systemic failure to provide remote Indigenous children with decent life options must be challenged. As I say in this report I believe that

 We can’t sacrifice the possibility of a successful future for these children, for a non-realisable future of a community.  These communities have deep and complex problems as well as cultural strengths and possibilities. This Review must be about what is in the best interests of these children.  But that doesn’t give one license to ignore the vision, values strengths and passions of parents and communities for their children.  This hard work must be done.

Please if you disagree with me I encourage you to first read my submission in full before jumping to conclusions and then comment.  I promise to p approve all comments unless they are just content free accusations or threatening.  In commenting  would you be willing to  not assume I am motivated by the worst of motives.  I am more than open to be convinced that may views and understandings need to accommodate a perspective I have not currently taken on board.

This debate is important – too important to be reduced to the tossing of accusations from our hunkered down thought fortresses.

Sections One and Two are minor variations of the previous two posts on this topic, but Section Three is a new one.  it focusses on the compulsory secondary boarding school proposal.

I am submitting this in response to Bruce Wilson’s Draft Independent Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory.


I have decided to write this submission with Bruce Wilson as my primary audience because, as I understand through listening to radio interviews with him, these submissions will go directly to Bruce Wilson for consideration in drafting his final report

This is the first time I have seen a report on the NT Department of Education (NTDoE) website that notes the systemic failure of ‘bush schools’ in the NT and the devastating consequences of this failure. Addressing this failure is time critical now because in many communities the vast majority of Indigenous adults with a functional level of English language oracy and literacy are those that were educated in the mission days.  As these people die out over the next decade the impact on leadership in many communities will be devastating.  Creating a critical mass of Indigenous adult community residents who are versed in their own language, culture and law and also able to engage as equals with: Governments at all levels, service providers such as schools and medical services, potential employers and social enterprises will be crucial.

So we need to do this for the future of remote communities.

But as you bravely remind us Bruce, we need to do this for the children, even if, one of the consequences of doing so could be that many future children don’t actually return to the community as young adults.  This is a critical issue and one many passionate about Indigenous justice have shied away from and with good reason.  When it comes down to it, I agree with you on this principle Bruce.   We can’t sacrifice the possibility of a successful future for these children, for a non-realisable future of a community.  These communities have deep and complex problems as well as cultural strengths and possibilities. This Review must be about what is in the best interests of these children.  But that doesn’t give one license to ignore the vision, values strengths and passions of parents and communities for their children.  This hard work must be done.

This report has placed the urgency of this situation squarely on the public agenda and this is important. I am impressed because you have been willing to question the business-as-usual assumption that the answer must be to keep doing what we do, but to do it better.

But in this submission I ask you to give serious consideration to the following three issues.

Section One: Funding Accountability, Adequacy and transparency

It is my view, based on experience both with and inside NT Government that you should have addressed the issue of the adequacy of the funding arrangements for NT remote schools.

I have raised the issue of remote school underfunding in the NT in a number of articles[1]. The evidence of significant under-funding of remote schools should have been available to you for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the Gonski modeling work showed that this is clearly the case.

For example, in an article in the Australian on July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that, according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many Darwin, and some Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded and its remote schools underfunded.

The article notes that Giles thinks “Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less “ and that he “accused Canberra of trying to hoodwink the Territory into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools”.

According to this article, under the Gonski model, Darwin High School and Palmerston Senior College are overfunded relative to the schools resourcing standards by around $2 million, Moil Primary School is overfunded by more than $1.3m, Taminmin College is overfunded by $2.5m, and Bradshaw Primary School is overfunded by more than $900,000. These are all schools in Darwin or Alice Springs with comparably low numbers of Indigenous students.

The I Give a Gonski website look up table lists the percentage increases Indigenous NT remote schools would have received under the Gonski funding principles. The following examples show clearly the degree of underfunding:
 Shepherdson College – in Galiwin’ku, an Indigenous community, 73%
• Yuendumu School – an Indigenous community, 60%
• Umbakumbar School – an Indigenous community, 86%
• Alekarenge School – an Indigenous community, 68%
• Docker River – an Indigenous community, 110%
• Borroloola – a mining town with a majority Indigenous population, 92%.

The systemic misuse of funds intended for addressing Indigenous disadvantage has occurred across time and under both parties, Labor and the Coalition.

Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is a challenging and possibly intractable problem. However it seems to me that the NT Government has taken advantage of this reality and never seriously tried. The shift to an outcomes focused approach through the 2008 COAG reforms was a blessing to the NT because it took away any pressure to account for funding inputs while still allowing them to ‘fail magnificently’ because we all expect failure in this sphere anyway.

Secondly, the NT funds schools based on attendance not enrolment.

This systematically discriminates against remote schools because it leads to a gross underfunding of remote schools where schools average attendance rates are between 50% and 62%. So while NT saves up to 50% of its staffing costs in remote, 100% of these children actually attend over the school term – just on an intermittent basis. They still need to be allocated to class rolls and taught when they turn up.

A remote teacher colleague in the NT informed me recently that in their school they now have class rolls of over 55.  Now it is worth thinking in some detail about what this means for a remote teacher – who is often new to remote teaching and in many cases new to teaching.  A class of 50 is likely to have around a quarter of the students attending every day.  So imagine a class with a new teachers where there are 14 students who attend everyday but 55 on the roll.  The high attending students deserve this teacher’s full attention. These kids and their families make a fantastic effort, and overcome many obstacles to get to school because they believe it is worthwhile. But will it be, in these conditions?

How can these kids get a fair go when, on any given day any number of the other 41 kids are irregularly attending, kids who are still not able to understand English, who cannot yet read, who are not ‘schooled’ in the ways of schooling.

You suggest we concentrate on the regular attendees because these are the ones who meet the preconditions to succeed and I support this.  However this is not possible in such extreme chaos.

This churn of children through classrooms makes it very hard to provide a systematic approach to developing the skills and understanding of the minority of children who attend on a regular basis.

Funding on enrolment would go a long way to righting the historical funding wrongs perpetrated on Indigenous Communities. It would also allow a school to separate out the high attendees like they are starting to do at OLSH School in Wadeye.

You may or may not be aware that the Commonwealth Government signed an MOU with the NT Government in September 2007 where the NT Government agreed to start funding schools based on  ‘agreed student numbers’.  Agreed student numbers was a term used to describe an estimate of the numbers of children living in each community of school age – so it would have been even higher that the enrolment student figure.  Some of the funding programs that are now lapsing were agreed through this MOU.  In other words the Commonwealth provided the funding on the explicit condition that NT change their funding to remote schools.  The NT has never attempted to comply with this.

Thirdly, The NT does not fund the ESL needs of its remote Indigenous population in ways that are comparable to how all other Australian states/territory fund the intensive English language needs of new arrivals from non-English speaking countries.

You note the significance of the English language challenge for remote education and stress that in some communities 100% of children arrive at school with no ability to understand English at all. This significant issue needs a systematic approach and requires dedicated funding.

This fact stands irrespective of the policy position taken over bilingual education (see more about bilingual education below). Bilingual education has not been properly resourced since funds were ripped away over a decade ago. This information would not be hard to find, if you are willing to search for it.

Across Australia, it is recognized that non-English speaking newly arrived children require a time (about 12 months) in an intensive English language oral immersion program. There is no dedicated funding for anything similar in NT remote schools – irrespective of the approach taken.

Fourthly most states have a publicly available set of principles for staffing their schools that includes a needs-based component as part of core funding.

When I was working with the Commonwealth in the NT in 2007, I was informed that NT DET was in the process of reviewing their staffing formula and as part of this were looking at needs based funding.  In mid 2008 I took up a senior policy role with NT DET and happened to be in the Division where this work was taking place. This dedicated review team was highly skilled and committed. I watched as, over the next 18 months, they continued to send their proposal to the senior executive for consideration.  I also heard the gossip around me about why changes to a fairer funding regime would never happen because this would require taking huge resources out of Darwin schools –something that would never happen.

12 months later I attended a meeting between NTDET and a high profile and well-respected consultant, like yourself, who was tasked by the Commonwealth to report on Indigenous education funding in the NT.  When he asked for their staff funding principles and formulas he was told they were not available because they were in the final phases of developing a new staffing formula which would give weight to remote and Indigenous disadvantage. He accepted this at face value and I held my tongue.

In 2010 in cooperation with journalists from Education Review, I worked on a series of questions for NTDoE.  One of these related to their staffing formula and we were told that this information was available because they were in the final phases of their review of staffing, which would address remote disadvantage. I urge you to investigate this as part of your independent review.  Are they still pretending they will d something?

It is worth noting that all other states have some sort of needs based funding, even prior to Gonski.

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. The NT, with the highest levels of inequality between its top and bottom schools, does not. I used to wonder why they bothered wasting highly skilled staff resources on undertaking a staffing review, but the above experience suggests an answer.

What has never been attempted in the NT is the implementation of a long-term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools. Your review was, and still is, an opportunity to put this urgent priority squarely on the table.  Please consider taking this path.

I can almost assure you that if you don’t, any solutions you recommend, especially solutions that necessitate above core funding to ensure they are appropriate will be done without the funding essential to its success.  For example, even if your review succeeds in garnering new Commonwealth or private monies to provide the familiarization, transition and cultural support programs necessary for overcoming problems we know to be associated with Indigenous residential programs, NT will under resource this unless you find a way to address this issue.

You have correctly identified the almost total systemic failure to support over two generations of people living in remote Indigenous communities to a level of basic literacy required for even an unskilled job. You have accurately noted that this is a highly challenging undertaking that n other Government in Australia shares to the same level. But your faith in Governments as responsible entities has meant that you have failed to unearth the fact that, while this failure has occurred with copious wringing of hands, there was never any chance of success. It was never funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Why /How did this happen?

I have spend some time trying to figure out how this gap in your report might have occurred because I respect you work enormously and have never considered you to be a ‘briefcase for hire”.  Your incisive critique of the constant reforms and change in the NT attests to this.

The following reasons come to mind

Firstly, funding allocations would not have been articulated in his visits to schools.

You note that funding issues came up very frequently in his consultations. Most people in remote schools would have mentioned this issue, but for many it would have been experienced as a problem of churn, the short-term nature of funded programs, and the constant shift in priorities. They are not across the bigger picture funding issues.

Secondly, the main focus of the NT Government officials would have been the adequacy and surety of Australian Government funding because of the NT’s heavy reliance on specific funding programs and the fact that many are ceasing in 2014.

On reading the financial section of the review it became clear to me that one of the key drivers for the NT government in initiating this review is the cessation of many Australian Government funded Indigenous specific programs and the impact this will have on the NT education budget.

It seems that this Review is part of the work the NT Government is undertaking to ‘make its case’ for renewed funding by the Australian Government and, of course, for the funding not to be scrutinised and tracked, but to be integrated and based on the COAG outcome based funding principles.

Thirdly, you assume that the COAG intergovernmental funding principals should be applied both to any new Australian – NT Government funding agreement and to your approach in undertaking this review.

The mantra of outcomes focused funding and reporting is almost universally accepted across the Australian Public Service. It rests on the belief that Governments are responsible, well intentioned and have their own accountability/transparency process with their communities

You have bought into this assumption that a focus on outcomes and a hands-off approach to input controls will lead to Governments and departments having the flexibility they need to deliver the outcomes they commit to. 
It may be a reasonable basis for funding with mature states that have developed such processes but good governance cannot be assumed in the NT.

In spite of the fact that this was, in all other respects a very detailed and comprehensive review you did not scrutinise funding inputs, funding allocation principles and mechanisms. Instead you adopted the lofty view that all that is required is agreement on the strategic goals and agreement that funding be applied to achieving these strategic goals. This quote makes this clear:

“Identifying the detailed costs of Indigenous education as if it were a separate enterprise is not a requirement for making progress. The review has approached issues of costs from the opposite perspective: what operations, processes, procedures, structures, programs and support are required to deliver a high quality education to Indigenous children in the Northern Territory? The costs associated with delivering an education of that kind will be analysed in a preliminary form in the implementation plan that will accompany the final version of our report. Nor does the review take a position on the current quantum of funding of Indigenous education in general. Instead, the report recommends actions required and the implementation plan will begin to map required spending to put them into practice.”

You also state that this is the approach that the Australian Government should take in their funding of Indigenous education programs in the NT. For example, you argues that for a new agreement with the Australian Government on Indigenous education based on the goals of a newly developed strategic plan for bush students and schools and allocated as flexibly as is consistent with effective accountability. You accept the logic of an outcomes only focused approach even while noting the Australian Government concerns about cost shifting and fungbility.

This sounds logical and reasonable. But it is exactly what the NT Government would have wanted you to say. NT has a long history of committing to new strategies and priorities in Indigenous education with little or no funding. For example, in 2009, the ambitious strategy called Transforming Indigenous Education had no associated funding. Similarly, the excellent work undertaken to put in place Remote Learning Partnership Agreements was completely undermined when, following the Government’s prominent formal signing ceremony in a community, it became clear to the community and the school that the agreement could not be implemented because no funding was allocated.

“Don’t look at our funding allocation inputs, just focus on the merit and ambition of our goals and leave us to fund accordingly” is the perfect outcome for a Government where there are no votes in investing in the Indigenous population. This allows NT Governments of all persuasions to keep on doing what it has always done – take Australian Government funds: general Commonwealth Grants Commission ‘disadvantage’ allocations, and specific Indigenous allocations funded through other agencies and continue to use that money to overfund non-Indigenous majority services, facilities and infrastructure. To put it bluntly, Darwin voters win at the expense of Australia’s most disadvantages and under-serviced communities in remote Australia.

Knowing what I know and what others can confirm, if it is thoroughly investigated, I urge you to reconsider your approach in this section.  NT does need additional Commonwealth Government support in order to have any hope of delivering a quality Indigenous education program for its remote communities.

In the COAG changes to the SPP funding, NT lost out because the funds it was given for Aboriginal programs were transferred to the single funding bucket and loaded into the general SPP payments.  The problem with this is that these funds were allocated historically on the basis of the Indigenous school age population but when they were put in the mainstream bucket they came under the mainstream allocation method that was based on the school age population.

I would also argue that the loadings applied for disadvantage and remote servicing are in urgent need of review.

But being successful in attracting new funds to the NT for Remote Indigenous programs of whatever shape, is not the same as being successful in having those funds applied to the program proposed.  Even with explicit agreements (see MOU example above) this routinely does not happen.

The NT will use this report to approach the Commonwealth for new funding to replace the funding programs that are lapsing in 2014.  They will be trying to tell the Government that this is a radical new shift that will deliver outcomes.  I

If new money is given to the NT to overcome the Indigenous education gap it is essential that the funding come with strong input as well as output accountability measures. Without forcing some measure of funding accountability and transparency on the NT, new Commonwealth funds will be wasted.

Bruce, I urge you to take this issue most seriously.  We don’t want to wait another 14 years – nearly a generation more of systemic and racist policy failure for the next review to pick this up?

Section two: developing English language proficiency and literacy

The second very troubling aspect of your report relates to the early learning experiences of Indigenous children.

You note that in many remote/very remote communities almost all children arrive a school with almost no English. You then immediately narrows your focus to the question – how to get these children up to speed in English reading and writing? And your answer appears to be “Do what we do for Australian children but do it earlier”.  In my view this is half right, early learning experiences are definitely part of the answer.  But even if you are not going to be a passionate defender of bilingual education you have missed some important considerations in this section.

Almost 100 per cent of children who grow up in some of the larger discrete Indigenous communities in remote NT speak another language, or more frequently languages. This doesn’t just mean that these children speak another language; it means that they don’t speak English and 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. At school one of the goals should be to support all children to be competent users of the English language.  But they don’t just need to learn to read and write, they need, first to learn to speak and understand. They will come across English words that have no parallel meaning in their language, home language words and concepts that are not able to be readily translated into English words, phonemes in their language that are not used in the English language and many English phonemes do not exist in their languages.

When the children go to pre-school, the teachers have to work out how to support early play based learning for a whole class of children who do not understand English but who do understand speak and play in a living Indigenous language or languages.

What would your priorities be?  You may say start to introduce them to the world of English, but how?

Well how do others learn a whole new unfamiliar language?

If you enrolled in a Japanese language class, would you expect to find the following?

  • not one word spoken in English to tell you what was happening, or where the toilets are,
  • the lesson is filled with lists of Japanese phonemes to learn – sounds that you have trouble getting your tongue around, sounds in Japanese script that you have trouble trying to replicate, and sounds disconnected from any meaning
  • you are given lists of words to memorize as sight words

Or would you expect to find yourself in a fun oral conversation class in the early days, where you are immersed in the sounds of Japanese but given a huge amount of scaffolding support to master a simple conversation?

Australia has a relatively positive record of educating children who are new arrivals from a language background other than English.  How did we earn this reputation?  Do we explicitly teach these children sets of phonemes and request that they learn them off by heart?  Do we teach them sight words so they can respond to picture-less flash cards?  Of course we don’t.  We provide them with a rich and supporting intensive English oral immersion experience and gradually introduce text that builds on their growing English language oral competence.  We fund this rich immersive experience for a full 12 months before we expect them to operate in a standard classroom.

An expanded and generously funded Families as First Teachers program is definitely worth building on. They should be expanded and I would also argue that there could be space in an expanded program to start to introduce English language alongside first language as art of the rich play based environment.

I am not an expert here but both my children went to a bilingual public school, where almost all the other children who attended the program had been part of a bilingual preschool program in the same language.  It was traumatic and almost impossible for them to make up for what they lost in not being exposed to a rich bilingual play environment.

I learnt English in my home, immersed in a loving and oral language rich environment.  Many of my peers came to Australia from war torn countries and learnt English in a much more challenging environment.  There were no Intensive English Centres back then. But they did mix with English speaking children in school classrooms, in playgrounds, in church and shopping centres.  They did hear it in the street, on the buses, on the radio and later TV and in the playground and classroom. Their teachers expected them to learn English in this accidental way – and so they did. But they did not have to sit NAPLAN tests and feel the brunt of NAPLAN failure and

But children in remote communities only ever hear English language spoken in their formal classroom.  They don’t hear it anywhere else, not even in the playground.  So if these children learn English ‘just like everyone else learns English’ we need to replicate these oral rich environments, while continuing to support their learning.

In the NT, this unique language challenge was handled in many communities through the two-way education approach known as bilingual education.  It was endorsed as official policy because there was a growing body of international research supporting it and because, when well funded and supported, it enabled children to have an English language oral immersion experience while still being able to learn about number, text, letters, the culture of classroom learning, the art of reading, nature, art and music and so on utilizing their already developed language skills of their own language.

For example, in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, children in the early years learn in their own language, Yolnu Matha, using texts that had been developed by trained linguists who worked at the school specifically for this purpose. English exposure is largely oral at this stage. This has been the consistent approach at this school for over 40 years but the implementation details have changed over time as funding for the program has whittled away, leaving a bare bones approach.

I am sure you are aware of most elements of the history of bilingual education in the NT. The bilingual education program was once well-funded and well-supported, with trained linguists funded by the program to work with the schools to develop new community specific resources. Teachers were trained in how to work in two-way classrooms including how best to work as a team with their Indigenous Education Workers.

Early in 2000 the NT abolished the program only to reinstate it without critical funding for as many linguists, or trained two-way specialists. Language specific publications were less frequently supported and there was no funding support for revised programs guidelines, updating school resources or for teacher and teacher assistant training. For many years it languished as an unsupported program.

Teachers who arrived at a two-way school found themselves in a two-way classroom with an Indigenous Education Worker, some old language based resources, some old program guidelines and a large number of children many of whom attended on an irregular basis who did not understand them.  They were given no training about how to work with their Indigenous colleague or in two-way education or even basic ESL training.

Then in 2008, Marion Scrimgour, the then Minister for Education and an Indigenous woman, in response to severe pressure about poor NAPLAN results, took everyone by surprise by announcing a new NT government policy to teach only in English for 4 out of the 5 hour school day. Scrymgour later apologised for this ‘mistaken’ decision (Rawlinson, 2012).

However, a number of schools, refused to comply, and in 2012 the NT Education Department released their compromise: “English as an additional language policy” which, while never using the words two-way or bilingual, does state that

  • While there will be a focus on learning English, home/local languages can and should be used where appropriate to support learning in all of the learning areas
  • Sometimes, particularly in the early years and for students newly arrived in Australia, it is better to introduce concepts using the home/local language. This is good teaching practice and is to be encouraged throughout the day.
  • It is important for children to learn to read and write in their home/local language as well as read and write in English.

But then it curiously adds the following

The Department of Education and Training values home/local languages and culture and will support communities through the use of school facilities after hours for cultural and language activities and within the curriculum through language and culture programs.

So my take on this is that schools can continue the practices of utilising home languages in classrooms but there will be no support financially, through training linguist support, guidelines or anything else.  And there will be no more use of the terms and concepts the communities value and understand – bilingual education or two-way schooling.

The upshot of this is that bilingual approaches limp on, with untrained teachers, no dedicated funding, and no strong community engagement.  This is a program condemned to fail for three major reasons:

Firstly, two-way approaches had the strong support of the local communities.  When the NT, using Commonwealth funds, negotiated Remote Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs) with Communities, bilingual education was frequently their strongest priority along with including Indigenous knowledge in the school curriculum and employing a senior local cultural advisor. The Actions of Scrimgour undermined all the trust building and shared vision that developed through this process.  It killed community commitment and trust in the Education Department.

Secondly, student attendance is suffering from the unsupported approach to English language learning and will almost certainly plummet still further if this recommendation becomes policy.

While data is thin on the ground about the historical situation there is some evidence that bilingual programs led to better student attendance when it was properly supported and funded.

Now you have handed the NT Department of Education the final nail in the coffin – a recommendation to terminate the poorly funded program and put something quite definite and even cheaper in its place.

I have three points to make about this

  1. You are correct in understanding that as currently funded and supported (i.e. not supported), it is failing Indigenous children.  The may retain their language, but they do not develop sufficiently in English oral and written comprehension to cope in an English language classroom.  Whatever you recommend, sham must stop.  It is criminal neglect.
  2. You are wrong to see that the issue is only about written literacy.  You neglect to consider the important of developing English language oracy
  3. Whatever solution is to be developed, must consider how best to support students to become proficient users or the English language as speakers, writers and readers.  This must be planned for and properly supported.

Personally I accept the case for bilingualism on cultural rights and educational grounds.  But not this shoddily funded program.  I will leave others to argue what I believe is a strong case for retaining bilingual programs where communities want it. A summary of key arguments from experts in the field is provided in an attachment to this document (this is posted as a separate post).

But my point is that even if communities agree to an English language dominated approach to their children’s schooling, there needs to be a well funded two-way approach with a rich English language oral immersion program and teachers trained to deal with the challenge of supporting children’s learning in a language not accessible to the teacher.

Even educators who don’t support a fully developed bilingual education, because of practical concerns about maintaining it, will acknowledge that if it is taken away something that fulfils a similar function – that allows children to learn to speak and understand English while still developing their learning  – must be fully funded and implemented.

The key problem with your draft report in regards to this important matter is that you have made it appear as though the NT is currently delivering a coherent and appropriately funded program designed to develop the English language competency of remote and very remote children.  What happens moving forward will be critical.  Will the NT effectively lock the gate on remote children and continue to roll out under-funded programs – bilateral or otherwise?  Will the current Indigenous Education Workers who know how to work in a two-way classroom die out leaving none in their place?

This was, and still is, an opportunity to put on record that whatever approach is taken by the NT, the need for a dedicated fully funded strategy to give all remote children a rich English language oral immersion environment while still allowing learning to take place costs money – for up to date program guidelines, for extensive and ongoing teacher training, for oracy curriculum materials and formative assessment resources and to continually train up a new cadre of Indigenous Education Workers who speak their community language and are competent in the English language. You argue that this last need is not justifiable giving the funding that would be required.   I argue that whatever pathway s taken it is an essential requirement.

You should also recommend that the NT extend and reintroduce ESL tracking of English language speaking, understanding, writing and reading so that schools and the system can track the progress of Remote Indigenous children’s developing English language competency.  In evaluating how whatever program is in place is working it would also be useful to separately track the progress of high attending children.  If they are not making adequate progress in these domains this is an early warning sign that the programs are not effective.

Jarvis Ryan, a teacher from Yirrkala, has argued that bilingual education methodologies should be extended rather than abolished.  If he is correct (I have no reason to doubt this) that, by the end of the bilingual program (year 3), students English language competency, not just in reading but, in understanding and speaking is not up to the level that is essential for engaging in learning in an English language environment this needs to be addressed.  Children cannot participate effectively in learning if they cannot understand and engage in the language of instruction.  This might also help to explain poor attendance. The failure to track this is inexplicable.

Section three: your solution for secondary education

I share your concern that the NT is not able to deliver secondary education program that meets even the barest standard of adequate and that this is not good enough.   I don’t agree that the have tried their best but this is a different matter. What is to be done?

Before I respond to this I need to relay a story.

When I worked for FAHCSIA, I was involved in an exciting project with the women of Galiwin’ku.  Hey wanted to retain funds between paydays so they didn’t routinely run out of food and basics for their kids in the first few days after getting their pensions/pays.  In a community where humbug is just a way of life and drinking and gambling are rife they found this to be almost impossible. After considering a number of options we agreed to fund the development of a basics card for them in partnership with ALPA an Indigenous store that has outlets on a number of Arnhem Land communities.  This project was initiated by the women, not the department and we were in the final days of trialing it with rollout plans eagerly anticipated when the NTER was announced and compulsory income management took our concept and rolled it out as compulsory.

I am sure you can see where I am going here.  It was a shame job and continues to be so today in spite of the fact that had it been community generated and voluntary it would have been enthusiastically supported.

I am convinced there is a role for optional culturally appropriate forms of residential schooling arrangements that bring a critical mass of students together from across Indigenous communities.

I am not convinced that even if voluntarily established there success will be assured.  The sorry history of the enthusiastically supported Commonwealth government funded boarding school on the Tiwi islands attests to the complexity and risk of this undertaking.

When consultations were initiated by FAHCIA on this matter in 2009, residents were supportive of the concept as an option but violently opposed to the children going to Darwin, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs or any other ‘white’ community.

Why not consider setting up opt-in residential centres in some of the so called territory growth towns, as well as in larger centres.

This is also an opportunity to consider different models of schooling.  Could these schools run ‘block programs’ where particular courses are offered for a concentrated period of time and students could spend a semester in the residential program and semester in their home community, with follow up on line support from the larger program.

I agree with you that under current arrangements remote secondary students, including the vast majority who cannot read, are being subjected to a wholly inappropriate program that masquerades as education. We must change this and vastly more accessible culturally appropriate well funded programs to support bringing children together to offer a quality program must now be considered as part of the solution.

You have started an important conversation Bruce and hit out at sacred cows.  This shows an incisive intelligence, moral conviction and courage.  As you embark on this, the next important phase, I urge you to consider the issues I have raised in this submission.  You are welcome to contact me at any point and I will promise not write about any conversations we might have.

Yours in solidarity

Margaret Clark

[1] Margaret Clark, Getting Accountability Settings Right for Remote Indigenous Australians; Achieving Quality Education for All, Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific Region and Beyond Series: Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects, Vol. 20 Hughes, Phillip (Ed.)