|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:
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. 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.
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:
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:
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:
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’ ?
 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.