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.

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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.

Submission

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.)

Learning Japanese the Bruce Wilson Way: Responding to the NT Review of Indigenous Education Part 2

This is part of a three-part critique of the draft report: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory written by Bruce Wilson.

The public release of this Report resulted in a brief flurry of media reports and then nothing.  Most of the media reports highlighted only one recommendation: to deliver secondary education mainly in large (non-Aboriginal) communities and close down secondary offerings in most remote/very remote communities (my focus for part three).

However, when I read the report, I found it worrying on a number of levels.  The first issue for me was its refusal to address the adequacy or otherwise of funding provided by the NT for Indigenous education.  This was the subject of my first piece on this subject.

The second very troubling aspect of the report relates to the early learning experiences of Indigenous children.  Now it is clear from his writing that Bruce Wilson is not an expert on this issue nor was he required to be.  But given his lack of expertise, it was his responsibility to do his due diligence on this important subject – to deal with the key research findings in a field  – before making influential (and conveniently cheap) recommendations.

This is the crux of the problem:

Bruce Wilson notes that in many remote/very remote communities almost all children arrive a school with almost no English. He then immediately narrows his focus to the question – how to get these children up to speed in English reading and writing? And the answer for him is simple – Do what we do for Australian children but do it earlier.

The key elements of Wilson’s recommendation are as follows

1)    Children in pre‐ school should be explicitly taught appropriate phonemic awareness skills and English sight words

2)    Schools in the early years should implement the standard Australian curriculum in English and mathematics, in English only, until satisfactory levels of English are achieved

This is problematic on so many levels.

So what did Bruce Wilson miss here?

Almost 100 per cent of children who grow up in 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.

Now I don’t know about Bruce Wilson, but 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. They did not have to sit NAPLAN tests and feel the brunt of NAPLAN failure and their teachers expected them to learn English in this accidental way – and so they did.

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.

A potted history is required here. 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 upported and there was no funding support for revised  programs guidelines or for 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.

As a blogger who goes by the name Munanga noted in his linguist focused blog article, Northern Territory Indigenous Education Review (Part 1) The 2011/2012 Federal Government inquiry ‘Language Learning in Indigenous Communities‘ which received over 150 submissions and toured the country, … found that using Indigenous languages in the early years of education is linked to improved attendance and community engagement

The report from this Federal Government  Inquiry reports on the input from Dr Brian Devlin as follows

I can certify that during my time as principal at Shepherdson College, attendance was 82 percent on average and in some classes, for example, John Greatorex’s year 6 class, attendance was consistently above 90 percent”

It also note the fall-off in attendance since the 2008 policy change and refers to an observation by Greg Dickson, an academic from the Australian National University:

 Sadly, evidence shows that Lajamanu School has suffered since its bilingual education program was removed in 2009 under the First Four Hours policy. Attendance figures have barely risen above 45% since mid-2009, down from 60% (and above) between 2006- 2008 

Thirdly, Bruce Wilson’s advice on how Indigenous children should learn to read is based on absolutely no evidence and goes against not just common sense but all the evidence.  As Lisa Waller, a PhD student, argued in a recent article, Learning in Both Worlds writes, the evidence is consistent and overwhelming

 Joe Lo Bianco, professor of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne, says that some 1200 international studies provide empirical evidence of the effectiveness of bilingual education for students who do not speak the dominant language when they start school.

In his booklet Indigenous Languages in Education: What the Research Actually Shows, Australian National University adjunct professor, Charles Grimes, cites 691 of them. “It’s easy to think that if you teach more English, students will learn more English. But that’s not how it really works,” Professor Grimes says. “Study after study shows that children learn best in the language they understand best. That should be obvious.

Now Bruce Wilson has handed the NT Department of Education a gift on a platter.  A recommendation to terminate the poorly funded program and put something quite definite and even cheaper in its place, with no evidence –  just a half baked bit of ‘wisdom’: It will fail on all three counts – learning, attendance and community engagement. – a triple failure

If the ‘wisdom’ that Indigenous ‘children learn English just like other children learn a new unheard of language’ had been properly examined it would support 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.

As Beth Graham, a noted bilingual expert noted in the comments section of the piece by Lisa Waller:

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.

Bruce Wilson’s ridiculous recommendation might not end up as policy but they have still been harmful.  They 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?  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 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.

Northern Territory Review of Indigenous Education: What Bruce Wilson missed, Part one

I have just finished reading Bruce Wilson’s Draft Independent Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory and I am impressed and dismayed.

I am impressed because this is the first time I have seen a report on the NT Department of Education (DoE) website that notes the systemic failure of ‘bush schools’ in the NT and the devastating consequences of this.  This report has placed the urgency of this situation squarely on the public agenda and this is important.  I am impressed because he has 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.

His recommendations about centralising all remote indigenous secondary education into urban and regional centres took me completely by surprise and I am still considering my response to this.

But I am also dismayed.  Wilson has plenty to say about funding and resourcing but at no time in this report does he raise the underfunding of NT remote schools.

The evidence of significant under-funding of remote schools should have been obvious to Wilson 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 in 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 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[1] 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.  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.

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.

Wilson notes the significance of the English language challenge for remote education.  He stresses 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.  Bilingual education has not been properly resourced since funds were ripped away over a decade ago.

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. 

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.  Efforts to develop such an approach have been a work-in-progress now for over 6 years.  I used to wonder why they bothered until I heard departmental officials deflect any questions from Australian Government officials or consultants or reporters about their needs based funding policy by saying it is being reviewed.

What has never been attempted in the NT is the implementation of a long-term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools.  This was an opportunity to put this urgent priority squarely on the table – an opportunity lost.

Wilson has described the urgency of the problem very clearly and convincingly.  But he has not got to the core of the problem.

He 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.  But he failed to unearth the fact that while this 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?

Bruce Wilson is not known as a ‘briefcase for hire” to trot out pre-determined views.  In fact he is well respected in the education consultation field. So why did he miss this issue?

This is hard to figure but here are a few things that might have contributed.

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

 Wilson notes in this report 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, Wilson assumed that the COAG intergovernmental funding principals should be applied both to any new Australian – NT Government funding agreement and to his approach in undertaking this review.

The mantra of outcomes focussed 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

Wilson like many today assumes that the COAG approach to funding with its focus on outcomes and a hands-off approach to input controls would 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 Wilson did not scrutinise funding inputs, funding allocation principles and mechanisms.  Instead he 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.

 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.

Wilson argued that this was also the approach that the Australian Government should take in their funding of Indigenous education programs in the NT. For example, he 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.  He accepts the logic of an outcomes only focussed 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 him 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.

Today Tony Abbott committed to closing the gap on Indigenous school attendance. In my view, he is right to single out this as a priority. However, at the same time, he has given the NT new Gonski money with no strings attached: ensuring that Chief Minister Giles can maintain overfunding for schools in Darwin and Alice by continuing to shortchange remote schools.

Abbott also did nothing when, late last year, the NT announced additional cuts specifically targeting the already underfunded remote schools.

Abbott will have hard time delivering on this promise in the most optimal circumstances.  But without forcing some measure of funding accountability and transparency on the NT they simply don’t have a chance.

What has never been attempted in the NT is the transparent and accountable implementation of long-term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools.  This was an opportunity to put this urgent priority squarely on the table – an opportunity lost.

Wilson has described the urgency of the problem very clearly and convincingly.  But he has not got to the core of the problem. He 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.  But he failed to unearth the fact that while this has occurred with copious wringing of hands, there never was any chance of succeeding because remote Indigenous education in the NT has never been funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Wilson should have picked this up if this was truly an independent review.

Do we need to wait another 14 years – nearly a generation more of systemic and racist policy failure for the next review to pick this up?


[1] This table is temporarily offine while the new website is being built.

NT’s Adam Giles does a ‘Pyne’ on Gonski

We had fantastic news today.  Gonski is saved.  This is worth celebrating but in doing so, let us also remember that because of the different arrangements for the ‘Hold out’ states (Qld, WA and NT)  – the states where most of our remote Indigenous citizens reside – we do not have a national needs based school funding system in Australia and the losers are our most disadvantaged children.

I don’t know how this will play out in WA and Qld but when I think about what will happen in NT – what this should have meant for remote schools and the lost opportunity –  it makes me want to weep.

In a revealing article[1] in the Australian in July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many of its Darwin, and some of its Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded.

Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less,” Mr Giles said.

Under the federal government’s model, Darwin High School and Palmerston Senior College are overfunded 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.

The NT Government receives additional funds from the Commonwealth Grants Commission for the purpose of delivering services to disadvantaged and remote communities.  In my previous articles, I revealed that a significant proportion of these funds are not spent in remote servicing but on the more white friendly services in Darwin and to some extent Alice Springs. School funding is  one aspect of rort.

You would think that, given that our fellow Indigenous citizens of the Northern Territory, are, as a group, the most disadvantaged people in Australia, this information would have generated some outrage.  But Giles’ admission passed with barely a ripple.

If journalists had bothered to look up the details of the overfunded schools it might have discovered that they all had much lower numbers of Indigenous students than the underfunded schools.  For example, while the proportion of  students  who are Indigenous in the NT is now around 45%.  The percentage for Darwin High School is 6%, Moil Primary is 13%, Palmerston Senior College is 27% and Taminmin High School is 16%.

This same article also made it clear that this was the reason why the NT did not sign up to the Labor Gonski offer. The Commonwealth even offered to modify their deal so they could maintain, but not enhance, the overfunding for the more white schools. The NT still refused.

In addition, Giles made it clear that the NT is not willing to apply the Gonski student resource and needs loading principles to the funding of their schools.

“Mr Giles 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…..

Mr Chandler said that under the Gonski model, Canberra had to approve how the Territory distributed its funding to schools,

So now they are getting their funding from the Abbott Government with NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

The I Give a Gonski website[2] has very helpfully provided a look-up chart so it is possible to see what NT schools should have received  as a result of new Gonski funding.  And remember that in the case of the NT, the Commonwealth gave a set additional amount to all the overfunded schools. So if you look up a Darwin average to well off primary school, you will find that they can expect a funding increase of 32% and a secondary school around 16-19%.

But here are some examples of the percentage increases NT remote schools would have received had the Gonski principles been applied:

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%

Now Tony Abbott has never been a champion of equity – I get that – but he has claimed to being committed to improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

But what about all the wonderful Australians who rose up in their thousands to stop Minister Pyne from pulling the Gonski funding principles and inventing his own.  We were outraged and rightly so and our voices made a difference.

But the NT will be ‘doing a Pyne’  – inventing its own funding allocation plan.  And they have bad – very bad  – form on this.  Remote Indigenous Communities – parents, students, and teachers will see none of the benefits flowing from our successful campaigns to reinstitute Gonski, unless our voices are heard on this.

Can you please pressure your local politicians to seek a nationally applied needs based funding model in Australia, one that is transparent and accountable.  This is not ‘command and control from Canberra’. This is responsible Government.  We should expect no less. Especially when the issue is so important.

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

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

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

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

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

So here is NT Governments latest evil and misleading argument:

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

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

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

But lets looks closer at these so-called facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus Fact One is FALSE especially for remote schools

____________________________________

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

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

For further details please see the 2013 NAPLAN Summary Report

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

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

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

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

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

Fact 2 is true

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

Expenditure

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

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

Attendance

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

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

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

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

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

School results

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

 We must and we can do both.


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

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

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

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

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

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

–       its just too hard’ to know what is best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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