The funding of NT remote Indigenous education is a first class disgrace and should be completely overhauled as a matter of urgency

Many readers will have read the article published in The Conversation yesterday (20 August 2014) written by Marcus Waters.   This is an opinion piece from a Indigenous academic in which he claims that Noel Pearson, has allegedly managed to completely hijack Indigenous education and community development funding policy for a small group of ‘his people’ and for programs that are not evidence based or adequately scrutinised. This paints a picture of a great deal of money sloshing around at the sole discretion of a powerful individual and available for services for less than 3000 people living in only four remote Indigenous communities. This is an extremely important issue but it is only one end of the problem.During this same week, another Indigenous education funding media story of a very different kind aired that received no attention whatsoever. In fact, the transcript of the interview (which is the story) had to be purchased by the NT branch of the Australian Education Union (NTAEU) because it was not available on the web.

This 18 August 2014 FM 104.1 transcript is of an interview with the NT Education Minister Peter Chandler by Daryl Manzie. The discussion topic is the current dispute between the NT Government (NTG) and the NTAEU branch of the Australian Education Union (NTAEU). This short exchange about school funding is my focus:

Manzie: Now look the Union, I have just talked to the interim head Jarvis Ryan this morning and he said look it’s all about resources and the Government is not providing sufficient resources to remote schools and you are cutting them even further, I mean, how do you answer that particular argument Peter?

Chandler: Well it’s a load of rubbish Daryl. I have visited schools and other locations and we have got some of the best-resourced schools in the Northern, in Australia. Some of the infrastructure we have in the Northern Territory compared to Queensland, the difference is remarkable, the resources in those schools are remarkable and I have mentioned this before but you visit schools like Aurukun, nineteen classrooms one smart board in the entire school, whereas we have got smart boards in most classrooms in the Northern Territory.

Is there anywhere else in the world where school funding disparity claims would be defended in the basis of the comparative number of smart boards? Isn’t this a bit like comparing two cars and their value on the basis of the CD player?

And isn’t it also predicable and extremely sad that claims of over funding and poor funding in relation to Indigenous Australians can grab headlines but the persistent reports of underfunding, under servicing, and more specifically, the rip-off of remote Indigenous communities by the Northern Territory Government are ignored.

One of the key findings of the first (2011) independent evaluation of the NT Emergency Intervention (NTER) was that the problems that gave rise to concerns about child safety were in large part the predictable result of chronic under servicing of these isolated financially impoverished communities. It also concluded that many of the initiatives funded under the NTER should have been in place as part of normal services – a proper housing planning, maintenance and replacement program, safe houses, policing services, infrastructure planning and maintenance, food security and quality standards for community stores and so on.

This chronic under-servicing has been a consistent state of affairs over a long period no matter which party held Government.[1] While elements of this story are exposed time and time again absolutely nothing ever changes, and, I fear, that nothing ever will. Many commentators argue that it would be political suicide for any Government to even hint at diverting funds spent on Darwin residents and white directed infrastructure to remote communities.

School education servicing is no different. I have written about this in great detail in a number of articles[2].

When I worked in NT Department of Education, it was common knowledge that Darwin schools were overfunded and remote schools underfunded. It was also common knowledge that for obvious political reasons this was never going to change.

This under-funding happens through deliberate policy decisions.

Firstly, the NTG is the only jurisdiction in Australia that does not have a needs-based school staff-funding model. This is despite the fact that it invested time and resources from 2007, over multiple years, to fund a unit dedicated to revising the staffing formula to include needs based weightings. The existence of this unit was useful for fobbing of queries about the staffing formula, including in response to queries I made in 2012.

This overfunding-underfunding came to light again just recently. The Gonski modeling work revealed stark funding disparities between NT provincial (Larger NT towns and Darwin) and remote schools. This was one of the reasons why Adam Giles turned down the Gonski Gillard offer.

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 thought “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 the following schools are overfunded relative to the Gonski school resourcing standards:

  • Darwin High School – overfunded by around $2 million
  • Palmerston Senior College – overfunded by around $2 million
  • Moil Primary School – overfunded by more than $1.3m,
  • Taminmin College – overfunded by $2.5m,
  • Bradshaw Primary School – 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 – needs an increase of 73%
  • Yuendumu School –needs an increase of 60%
  • Umbakumbar School – needs an increase of 86%
  • Alekarenge School – needs a increase of 68%

Given this sorry state of affairs, does anyone believe that Giles and Chandler are going to use the additional Gonski funding allocated to the NT by Federal Minister Pyne for needs based funding? Perhaps they will set up another talented team of statisticians to develop a new staffing formula? But they don’t really need to bother, do they, because no-one is asking.

Secondly, the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing all schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (which is standard practice in all other states).

This is a long standing practice in the Territory; it was one of the points of grievance for the Wadeye community that took both the Commonwealth and the NT Governments to the Australian Human Rights Commission arguing that they had been discriminated against and short-changed over a long period. They won the case but the ramifications were contained.

The Commonwealth tried to force the NTG to change its policy and, as part of negotiations around the NTER, the two Governments signed, in September 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding on Education that committed the Commonwealth to fund an additional 200 classrooms, to house student numbers if all attended everyday and to fund an additional 200 teachers.

In return, the NTG committed to fund on ‘agreed student numbers’ rather than attendance. This agreed student number was to be derived from triangulating ABS and NT data to arrive at an estimate of the actual numbers for school age students in each community. Needless to say this work was never completed.

The NT took the money but did not change the funding approach.

This policy and practice systematically discriminates against remote schools. With attendance running at between 50% and 60% in most remote communities, the NTG saves up to 48% of its staffing costs in remote communities. However, 100% of these children actually attend over the school term – just on an intermittent basis. They still need to be allocated to a teacher or teachers and to class rolls. They still need to be taught when they turn up.

A remote teacher colleague in the NT informed me recently that in their school they now have some class rolls of over 55. I ask you to imagine how you would teach effectively in such a situation.

I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we are, if we are honest, convinced that nothing can change; it is inevitable an ‘Indigenous deficit’ that we nobly struggle to overcome. Or perhaps we just don’t want to know?

I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.

I don’t know who I am more angry at:

  • deceitful politicians?
  • lazy journalists who let Governments’ get away with unsubstantiated and deceptive claims but run with over funding claims with alarming frequency;
  • the Darwin based members of the NT Education Union who know that their well funded schools are at the expense of their union colleagues struggling in remote schools to educate and manage in the toughest of contexts; or,
  • the Australian public who do not hold governments and journalists accountable for doing their job.

I know many Australians care about these issues but it is’ over there, hidden from view’ and ‘oh so complicated’. But what if underneath our helplessness and failure to focus, there resides an unacknowledged and implicit assumption that ‘it is all their fault – their problem’ ?

[1] To find out more about the evidence of under-servicing in remote communities go to, Margaret Clark, Getting Accountability Settings Right for Remote Indigenous Australians Ch 22, Achieving Quality Education for All, perspectives from the Asia – Pacific and Beyond, Phillip Hughes Ed, Vol. 20 Springer 2013. To read a more detailed analysis of the problems and role of both levels of Governments in under-servicing remote Indigenous communities in the NT go to Michael C Dillon and Neil D. Westbury, Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia, Seaview Press, 2007.




It is the Funding Stupid: Fixing Remote Indigenous Student Attendance

The Commonwealth has recently announced yet another Remote Schools Attendance Strategy focused on improving attendance through the funding of a cadre of school attendance officers and supervisors in identified communities across Australia. In fact it is one of the very few initiatives focusing on Indigenous students that the Commonwealth is continuing to fund.

Attendance is also a key priority for the Northern Territory Government (NTG). The NTG has recently published for final report of Bruce Wilson’s extensive Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory called “A Share in the Future”. This Report underscores the importance of continuing to focus on improvements to attendance in spite of poor progress and makes a number of related recommendations.

There is no doubt about poor school attendance being a stand out feature of remote Indigenous schools in the NT. Imagine having an average 60% attendance rate at best in an urban white dominated schools where only about a quarter of the children attended more that an average of 4 days a week. That is the reality.

However Wilson’s review report makes a number of claims about student attendance, that are questionable and is silent on some of the most important matters that contribute to the problem.

Firstly, Wilson claims that there is a causal link between improved attendance and improved student outcomes. I am sure most of us think this makes intuitive sense but is it actually the case?

Secondly, Wilson argues that the NTG has spent incalculable resources over many years to improve the school attendance of Indigenous students, but without any material improvement. I will dispute this in this article.

Thirdly, Wilson’s recommendations related to attendance, while an improvement on his original draft report, neglect two critical issues: school funding and the quality of what happens in classrooms.

The relationship between school attendance and student outcomes

The report includes two tables that show that there is a direct relationship between the percentage of days students attend schools and their NAPLAN scores. Wilson makes the common mistake of assuming that this relationship is a causal one: that the more time a student spends in class, the greater their NAPLAN score.

But this is not necessarily the case. A link could be due to a third factor, or the causality could be reversed. For example, a school could radically improve its curriculum and pedagogy causing both attendance to rise and results to improve, or it could be the case that students who are more successful are more likely to attend more regularly.

The question Wilson should have asked is: does a student improve when s/he attends class more frequently? To answer this question, it would be necessary to focus on schools where attendance is improving and then look at their NAPLAN scores. But there is a catch.

At the recent AARE National Conference James Ladwig and Allan Luke presented a paper arguing that there is no relationship between school student attendance and improved student outcomes for Indigenous students. Here is what they have to say:

The overall claim that increased attendance is linked with improved achievement seems like common sense. It stands to reason that if a student attends more, s/he is more likely to perform better on annually administered standardised tests. The inverse also seems intuitive and common sensical: that if an individual student doesn’t attend, s/he is less likely to achieve well on these conventional measures.

But sometimes what appears to make sense about an individual student may not factually hold up when we look at the patterns across a larger school or system.

Ladwig and Luke did not undertake a simple correlation exercise comparing attendance levels with NAPLAN results. Instead they attempted to focus on those schools where student attendance improved.

However, what they found was that Indigenous dominated schools making big improvement in attendance rates are very rare. So rare that the empirical study of the changes in NAPLAN score is making a lot out of a tiny tiny set.

They also found that attendance in remote schools is highly resistant to change. This of course comes as no surprise to long term teachers and principals in these schools who simply sigh and shrug when the latest new or recycled magic bullet is announced.

Luke and Ladwig were able to identify a very small group of schools that showed improvements in school attendance AND NAPLAN improvements, but in every case, these same schools had “implemented significant curriculum and teaching method reforms over the same period examined”.

They concluded that “attending school may or may not help generally, but improving achievement depends on what children do once we get them to school”.

I couldn’t agree more.

What Wilson missed

Wilson’s recommendations around attendance suggest some very important areas for attention – encouraging parent responsibility, identifying the community factors that negatively impact attendance, using kinship connection to enhance attendance maintaining and making more inclusive Clontarf type programs, and better management of the impact of increased attendance on classrooms.

But he neglected to address the two major areas that might make a difference: what happens in classrooms and adequate needs based funding.

Ladwig and Luke have identified the first factor – curriculum reform and quality professional development. But they assume that this is straightforward and will translate to change in what happens in classrooms. I disagree.

What Ladwig and Luke missed

I am disappointed that they neglected to note that all the professional development and curriculum reform in the world cannot change practice in the NT as long as the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing remote schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (standard practice in all other states).

Attendance rates are frequently misunderstood.   I recall a Minister, who shall not be named, once asking why 40% of remote Indigenous students do not attend school in response to a briefing about attendance rates being at 60% for remote NT schools. The reality is both better and worse. All of the students included in ‘the denominator’ (100%) attend school some of the time but the average RATE of attendance is 60%. However in NT remote schools only around 27% attend more that 80% of the time.

I have described in a previous blog just how much staffing by attendance, and not enrolment, impacts on the classroom:

… a primary school with 300 children enrolled, but an attendance rate of 60per cent, 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 27 per cent would attend over 80 per cent of the time, this class of 33 might have about 9 children who attend on a very regular basis and the remaining 24 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.

How can a regularly attending student progress in their learning when the teacher has no choice but to attend to the high needs and behaviour management demands of the irregular attendees? They need a calm learning environment and they get the extreme opposite of this. Staffing on enrolment – on the same basis as other schools – could support this.

I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we just don’t want to know?

One of the issues that worries me about the findings of Ladwig and Luke is that it can operate as a “get out of jail free card”. It can too easly slide into being understood as, “Attendance is dependent on factors outside the schools control and is not a priority. Instead lets just focus on what happens in classrooms”. Of course, don’t be too surprised when this too produces no change. We have come to accept this inevitability.

I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.

Ladwig and Luke have done an important piece of work identifying an issue that requires further investigation. But, it is important that we ask the right questions, and have high quality researchers like this team get into the classrooms for a period of time in order to observe first hand how the current set up in NT remote and very remote Indigenous schools guarantees failure through gross indirect funding discrimination.

What would your school do with Gonski money?

Throwing more money at schools isn’t the answer yells Dr Scott Prasser. This is the man who has defended every red cent that the Government has allocated to Catholic schools – even the 50% of them who were overfunded after the SES model was introduced and their funding level was grandfathered.

The Gonski Review Panel did not address the issue of how the additional funds so sorely needed by public and needy schools in Australia because this was outside their terms of reference.

But it is an important question. Glen Fowler in an article in the Canberra Times, How Money Makes a Difference tells the story of Richardson Primary school – one of a very small number of ACT disadvantaged schools and how they managed their Low SES National Partnership funds to improve learning outcomes for their children. He is what they did

Richardson Primary started by enhancing its capacity to gather and analyse data about how their students were performing. They purchased licences from the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) to administer annual internal tests in literacy and numeracy at all year levels. That way, they didn’t have to wait for NAPLAN results. They had up-to-date information about where students were falling behind and needed extra support.

Drawing on hard data that indicated students were struggling with vocabulary development and reading comprehension, the school set about enhancing teacher capacity to address these issues. Every staff member attended a five-day intensive course in Dr Spencer Kagan’s high-impact collaborative learning strategy. Kagan’s approach aims to engage every student, especially those who are struggling, by structuring activities so that students feel individual and collective responsibility for their learning.

Additionally, every teacher attended a two-day seminar with educational expert, Dr Dylan Wiliam, on using his formative assessment strategies to enrich each student’s learning journey.

The school also purchased teacher and classroom resources to complement structured and supported teacher-learning teams that ensure effective school-wide implementation of these key strategies. This razor-sharp focus on improving instructional practice through collaboration and reflection has led to more confident and skilful educators, adept at engaging every learner every moment of the learning process.

The school’s final strategy was to build community partnerships. Working with the YWCA of Canberra, the school established an Intel Computer Clubhouse for 10-18-year-olds in the area. The Clubhouse is an out-of-school-hours high-tech digital studio where young people can work with industry-standard hardware and software and collaborate with mentors on passion projects.


This is an interesting set of initiatives for a number of reasons

Firstly, This school understands that particularly in relation to students who are not achieving agreed benchmarks in reading outcomes, NAPLAN test results come too late. Fowler doesn’t state it but I am sure the school also understands that NAPLAN does not provide information for this group of learners. It is too narrow and not diagnostic in design. It is interesting to note that after using these more diagnostic assessments it was found that the real barriers to reading developments were vocabulary and reading comprehension. These are of course quite linked but neither is well tested by NAPLAN.

Secondly, the professional development focus was cooperative learning using groups of differing ability students using a well-researched evidence based approach. Now cooperative learning has a long history in education but there is a big difference between a few teachers across a school taking this approach and a well-prepared well-trained school adopting it en mass. Its worth noting that recent research has identified a growing trend for schools to adopt streaming approaches in their classrooms – not because it is well researched but because this makes it easier to teach based on NAPLAN content as the key organiser.

Thirdly, basing classroom learning experiences around information based on formative assessment allows for learning personalisation and ensures that the time spent on learning is both accessible and challenging.

Finally, there are things about Richardson Primary school that are not mentioned in this report but that matter a lot. First of all the principal is Jason Borton, who is known to many twitter-active educators as a wise, brave and outspoken leader on key education issues. High quality leadership for low SES schools is critical and systems should be investing in strategies to ensure that. Secondly, I don’t know how but Richardson Primary have managed to have relatively small class sizes – 19 at most in all but kindergarten where the ration is 16-1. Don’t let anyone id you that the size of the class does not matter.

So there you have it, this school has not wasted a cent on extrat resources to drill down on NAPLAN, new fancy learning packages aligned with NAPLAN. In fact they appear t have completely ignored it – and righty so in my view.

Instead Richardson Primary is well placed to support all its children through high quality leadership, a whole school focus on well evidenced pedagogical strategies, intelligent and focussed use of formative and diagnostic assessments across the school and a classroom student teacher ratio that is workable. I don’t know how this school will adapt to the highly financially constrained environment they will find themselves in if the full 6 years of Gonski are not agreed to, but it wont be good and students will be negatively affected.

It would be interesting to collect accounts of what other schools are currently doing that will need to stop. I do hope someone is doing this.