|Many readers will have read the article published in The Conversation yesterday (20 August 2014) written by Marcus Waters. This is an opinion piece from a Indigenous academic in which he claims that Noel Pearson, has allegedly managed to completely hijack Indigenous education and community development funding policy for a small group of ‘his people’ and for programs that are not evidence based or adequately scrutinised. This paints a picture of a great deal of money sloshing around at the sole discretion of a powerful individual and available for services for less than 3000 people living in only four remote Indigenous communities. This is an extremely important issue but it is only one end of the problem.During this same week, another Indigenous education funding media story of a very different kind aired that received no attention whatsoever. In fact, the transcript of the interview (which is the story) had to be purchased by the NT branch of the Australian Education Union (NTAEU) because it was not available on the web.
This 18 August 2014 FM 104.1 transcript is of an interview with the NT Education Minister Peter Chandler by Daryl Manzie. The discussion topic is the current dispute between the NT Government (NTG) and the NTAEU branch of the Australian Education Union (NTAEU). This short exchange about school funding is my focus:
Is there anywhere else in the world where school funding disparity claims would be defended in the basis of the comparative number of smart boards? Isn’t this a bit like comparing two cars and their value on the basis of the CD player?
And isn’t it also predicable and extremely sad that claims of over funding and poor funding in relation to Indigenous Australians can grab headlines but the persistent reports of underfunding, under servicing, and more specifically, the rip-off of remote Indigenous communities by the Northern Territory Government are ignored.
One of the key findings of the first (2011) independent evaluation of the NT Emergency Intervention (NTER) was that the problems that gave rise to concerns about child safety were in large part the predictable result of chronic under servicing of these isolated financially impoverished communities. It also concluded that many of the initiatives funded under the NTER should have been in place as part of normal services – a proper housing planning, maintenance and replacement program, safe houses, policing services, infrastructure planning and maintenance, food security and quality standards for community stores and so on.
This chronic under-servicing has been a consistent state of affairs over a long period no matter which party held Government. While elements of this story are exposed time and time again absolutely nothing ever changes, and, I fear, that nothing ever will. Many commentators argue that it would be political suicide for any Government to even hint at diverting funds spent on Darwin residents and white directed infrastructure to remote communities.
School education servicing is no different. I have written about this in great detail in a number of articles.
When I worked in NT Department of Education, it was common knowledge that Darwin schools were overfunded and remote schools underfunded. It was also common knowledge that for obvious political reasons this was never going to change.
This under-funding happens through deliberate policy decisions.
Firstly, the NTG is the only jurisdiction in Australia that does not have a needs-based school staff-funding model. This is despite the fact that it invested time and resources from 2007, over multiple years, to fund a unit dedicated to revising the staffing formula to include needs based weightings. The existence of this unit was useful for fobbing of queries about the staffing formula, including in response to queries I made in 2012.
This overfunding-underfunding came to light again just recently. The Gonski modeling work revealed stark funding disparities between NT provincial (Larger NT towns and Darwin) and remote schools. This was one of the reasons why Adam Giles turned down the Gonski Gillard offer.
In an article in the Australian on July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that, according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many Darwin, and some Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded and its remote schools underfunded.
The article notes that Giles thought “Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less “ and that he “accused Canberra of trying to hoodwink the Territory into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools”.
According to this article, under the Gonski model the following schools are overfunded relative to the Gonski school resourcing standards:
These are all schools in Darwin or Alice Springs with comparably low numbers of Indigenous students.
The I Give a Gonski website look up table lists the percentage increases Indigenous NT remote schools would have received under the Gonski funding principles. The following examples show clearly the degree of underfunding:
Given this sorry state of affairs, does anyone believe that Giles and Chandler are going to use the additional Gonski funding allocated to the NT by Federal Minister Pyne for needs based funding? Perhaps they will set up another talented team of statisticians to develop a new staffing formula? But they don’t really need to bother, do they, because no-one is asking.
Secondly, the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing all schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (which is standard practice in all other states).
This is a long standing practice in the Territory; it was one of the points of grievance for the Wadeye community that took both the Commonwealth and the NT Governments to the Australian Human Rights Commission arguing that they had been discriminated against and short-changed over a long period. They won the case but the ramifications were contained.
The Commonwealth tried to force the NTG to change its policy and, as part of negotiations around the NTER, the two Governments signed, in September 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding on Education that committed the Commonwealth to fund an additional 200 classrooms, to house student numbers if all attended everyday and to fund an additional 200 teachers.
In return, the NTG committed to fund on ‘agreed student numbers’ rather than attendance. This agreed student number was to be derived from triangulating ABS and NT data to arrive at an estimate of the actual numbers for school age students in each community. Needless to say this work was never completed.
The NT took the money but did not change the funding approach.
This policy and practice systematically discriminates against remote schools. With attendance running at between 50% and 60% in most remote communities, the NTG saves up to 48% of its staffing costs in remote communities. However, 100% of these children actually attend over the school term – just on an intermittent basis. They still need to be allocated to a teacher or teachers and to class rolls. They still need to be taught when they turn up.
A remote teacher colleague in the NT informed me recently that in their school they now have some class rolls of over 55. I ask you to imagine how you would teach effectively in such a situation.
I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we are, if we are honest, convinced that nothing can change; it is inevitable an ‘Indigenous deficit’ that we nobly struggle to overcome. Or perhaps we just don’t want to know?
I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.
I don’t know who I am more angry at:
I know many Australians care about these issues but it is’ over there, hidden from view’ and ‘oh so complicated’. But what if underneath our helplessness and failure to focus, there resides an unacknowledged and implicit assumption that ‘it is all their fault – their problem’ ?
 To find out more about the evidence of under-servicing in remote communities go to, Margaret Clark, Getting Accountability Settings Right for Remote Indigenous Australians Ch 22, Achieving Quality Education for All, perspectives from the Asia – Pacific and Beyond, Phillip Hughes Ed, Vol. 20 Springer 2013. To read a more detailed analysis of the problems and role of both levels of Governments in under-servicing remote Indigenous communities in the NT go to Michael C Dillon and Neil D. Westbury, Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia, Seaview Press, 2007.
I was outraged when I first heard that PM Julia Gillard required the Gonski Review of School Funding to ensure that, in developing their options, ‘no school should lose a dollar’. I was not the only one.
It was a disgraceful requirement to impose on the first comprehensive review of school funding arrangements in 40 years.
Some observers might have wondered why there wasn’t more outrage. The reason is really very simple. Most of us who care passionately about a better deal for needy public schools didn’t like this imposed requirement but felt that getting more money flowing into public education, and establishing a more transparent and fair set of principles for needs based funding into the future, was so important that it was better to accept the terms of the Review and work for the fairest outcome possible under these terms.
The no loser stipulation was also seen by many as a possible circuit breaker to the highly polarized debate that pitted private school against public school funding. It was viewed as a win-win opportunity that would increase the probability of support for the model across from private sector school lobbyists, and consequently enhance the chance of success.
Immediately after the release of the Gonski report, there was a sense of optimism because the private sector did not publicly oppose the Gonski package.
But even then the undermining had begun. The private sector, almost immediately, initiated backdoor, undocumented meetings. This resulted in the Government response to the Gonski Report revising the modeling to ensure the Catholic sector share was maintained in proportional terms. For example, the needs based Gonski weightings were for students in the bottom 25% of the SES scale but the reworked model applied needs based funding for students in the bottom 50% of the SES scale. This shifted the proportion of the needs based funds from the poorest schools to the less poor schools and ensured that the Catholic Systemic schools retained their proportional share of increased pool of Commonwealth funding.
The Gillard Government also put the implementation of Gonski at risk by delays, by attempts to tie the funds to other Commonwealth initiatives, by making it an election issue and through delaying the bulk of the funding to the post budget period out-years.
Then when it looked like there would be a change of Government several outspoken private sector advocates started to spruik alleged negatives of Gonski. Ironically the high price ticket for the full Gonski, necessitated in large part by the no losers stipulation, made the package an easy target to shoot down by the very sector that benefited from this stipulation.
So we are back to fighting for a fair deal for the Public Schools. We need now to talk about why the ‘no losers ‘ framework was a bad bad policy idea. It’s time to speak out about the rank injustice and the waste of funds in a policy that gives tax payers education funds to schools that have resources other schools can only dream about and that simply do not need them. This is the focus of this article.
Why was Gillard’s no school will lose a dollar imposition bad policy?
This paper identifies five very important reasons why we should work towards a school funding policy that continues to support sector blind needs based funding fully without wasting much needed funds on schools whose level of resourcing means that they can manage perfectly well with no additional taxpayer funds.
The initial decision to fund elite private schools, 40 years ago, was not the result of considered policy
Government funding for a very significant number of elite schools had never actually been the policy intention of the initial review of school funding undertaken by the Schools Commission over 40 years ago.
The Karmel Review of school funding originally recommended giving priority in the use of public funds to schools whose standards were below certain agreed desirable levels, and deferring the eligibility for extensive support of schools with resources above this standard until others had been raised to a standard nearer to them. The report stressed that they accepted the right of parents to school choice but not their right to public assistance to facilitate this choice.
The Whitlam Government failed to get this through the Senate and was forced to amend the legislation to extend funding to all schools.
They won this ‘concession’ – now a sacred right – not through any merit of their case for funding, but in spite of it. They won it on the backs of the urgent and pressing needs of the Catholic parish schools, that with the demise of strong sacred orders to fill their classroom ranks, were unable to fund their local parish schools on their own.
Poor policy decisions and blatantly pro-elite schools decisions have progressively increased funding to elite schools
To explain how, and why, I need to give a potted history of Commonwealth Government funding to the private schools sector since the 1970s. In significant ways, this 40 year period can be divided into two distinct parts: the Pre Howard years and the Howard years.
1973-1996 The Pre Howard years
Before the 1970s, the common sense logic was no different from that which operated in most other countries: Governments fund schools out of taxes. These schools are designed to cater for all comers. Not everyone uses these services but they are part of the Common estate just like hospitals, unemployment services, parks, police, footpaths, roads, public transport, sporting facilities. Some people access and/or need, these services more than others. Some can effectively opt out but the services are available for all. Governments don’t fund private roads or private security services for those who don’t find the public system meets their needs. I don’t get a rebate if I don’t use public transport or footy ovals. This is still how most countries think about their schools.
According to Jean Blackburn, one of the key authors of the Karmel Review, the decision to push the school funding bill through the Senate, by accepting the inclusion of elite schools, led to school funding arrangements that can only be seen as unique and extraordinary in a number of respects, and not in a good way. By funding schools that did not need the funds, it established a logic, almost unique to Australia, that because the wealthy pay taxes for services like education they are entitled to have a ‘market share’ of those taxes applied to schools of their choice.
One of the other unintended consequences of this significant amendment to the legislation, pushed through for political reasons, is that the usual considerations essential to good policy development were skipped. The school funding arrangements put in place by the Karmel Review established accountability free funding, where monies were provided with no strings attached, unlike any other Government grant based program.
This mattered less when the funding recipients were struggling Catholic and other schools that needed the money for teacher salaries. They had no room for discretionary spending even with new funding. But as Jean Blackburn observed years later:
There were no rules about student selection and exclusion, no fee limitations, no shared governance, no public education accountability, no common curriculum requirements below the upper secondary level.. We have now become a kind of wonder at which people [in other countries] gape. The reaction is always, ‘What an extraordinary situation’.
The funding system established differential funding based on a measure of need. However, in the accountability free environment of the time, that had the perverse effect of rewarding schools that directed a greater proportion of the private income towards capital expenditure – towards buildings and facilities. This increased the inequality in building standards and services between school systems.
When one takes a longer term view of school funding in Australia, it is notable that for the first 60 odd years of the 20th century, school funding was entirely a responsibility for the states. The Commonwealth entered the picture in a minor way only through the specific funding of libraries and science centres.
But over the period 1973- 1996, it came to be understood that the Commonwealth had an ongoing role in core funding for the private school sector but only for specific purpose lines of funding for the public sector. This left all core funding for public education in the hands of the more financially impoverished states. As Connor and McMorrow note this had serious consequences over time:
This is a serious issue in a federal system in which the Commonwealth government raises the lion’s share of all revenues. The Commonwealth was readily able to increase grants to schools in the non-government sector, especially as this sector is only half the size of the public sector, at a rate that was far harder for States and Territories to match for the much larger public sector, given competing claims on their tighter budgets.
By the beginning of the Howard years in 1996, the operation of the private school funding policies had become normalized. The historical newness and the global uniqueness of these arrangements had been forgotten by all but a few, and the sacredness of parent choice had been enshrined in our commonsense thinking as a fundamental right (only for those that can afford it, of course).
Public education activists of the period feared that this approach would lead to the residualisation of the public school system, school segregation on the basis of race and class and greater educational inequality. In 1983, well before the Howard education reforms, Blackburn noted that:
In an ironic twist the achievement of long denied public support for non-Government schools has played its part in producing a situation where it is public schooling and public purposes in education that are now on the defensive.
1996 – 2007: The Howard Years
That was where things stood up until the early 90s. Then came the Howard years, where things went from bad to worse. Here is what Connors and McMorrow have to say about this period:
The next watershed in schools funding policies in Australia followed the election of the Howard government in 1996. The Howard government’s arrangements for Commonwealth recurrent funding of schools were grounded in the belief that the way to drive the quality of schooling was to use public money to promote parental choice of non-government schooling and by this means to stimulate provider competition.
I have emphasized the word promote because the first time I read this extract I missed the importance of this shift from supporting parent choice to actively promoting, not just choice, but private schools as the desirable choice.
This was a blatant attempt to privatize education provision for all but the most needy. Public education went from being the default option at the heart of our democratic vision for Australia to a necessary, but residual, second tier service. This quote in the Connors and McMorrow papers reveals the extent of this new vision:
In this policy scenario, the fundamental value and strength of government schooling was described by Prime Minister Howard as the ‘safety net and guarantor of a reasonable quality education in this country’ for the children of those with parents unable or unwilling to pay for private schooling.
This was a significant ideological shift. Prior to this the idea of residualisation was talked about as a potential unplanned outcome of school choice. But here we have Howard stating that this is now a Government policy goal – to residualise Government schools. This is quite extraordinary.
To support this policy goal, funding to the private school sector, over the Howard years, grew by leaps and bounds.
In 2001 a new funding formula was introduced that was described as needs based. The actual effect was the exact opposite due to a number of significant reasons.
Firstly, a new SES funding model was introduced which tied school funding levels to the average SES of the family’s residential postcodes. This was a windfall for schools that had sucked out wealthier families from socially mixed communities. For example, the inner North of Melbourne has a number of suburbs that have a bifurcated population where public housing high-rise estates abut the trendy new developments of the upper middle class. The SES classification for these suburbs will be an average of the 2 groups, but the families who opt out of public education will come almost entirely from only one of these two groups. They take with them to their private schools the funding levels of their postcode.
But it was an even bigger windfall for the large number of high SES schools whose historical level of funding was higher than the funding they would receive under the new classification. The Government agreed to maintain them at their current levels of over funding (another no schools will lose a dollar moment).
Thirdly, this new scheme tied the private school per-student metric to the average cost of educating a student at a public school (The AGSRC). This might sound sensible and fair. But as low needs students exited the public system in ever increasing numbers, and the concentration of high needs students grew, the average costs of educating this higher needs cohort also grew. This created an unearned windfall to the non-Government system (and by the way pushed up the costs of education with no returns on investment).
This new funding scheme increased funding overall to the private school sector above and beyond the pro-rata student increases. This was justified by claims that schools could use the increased funds to reduce fees and thus broaden the base of parents able to choose private schools. This did not happen due to other perverse incentives built into the new scheme. As Connor and McMorrow note:
At the same time .. the government removed all downward pressure on fees, arguing the non-government schools should be free to raise their private income without affecting their level of Commonwealth general recurrent grant; and that any restraint on fees constituted a disincentive to private effort. This was an example of either policy confusion or obfuscation. If the government’s intention was to broaden the socio-economic composition of those families with access to non-government schools, its policy embodied a powerful nudge in the opposite direction.
So the overall effect of these changes has been:
- An increasing private sector and a contracting public sector, especially at secondary level;
- Increasing numbers of the higher SES families across all suburbs opting out of public schools and into private schools;
- An increasing concentration of high SES students in private schools and an increasing concentration of low SES students in public schools;
- Increasing costs in the public school sector as the proportion of high needs students increased;
- A consequent unjustified increased transfer of funds to the private schools; and
- Increasing inequality of student outcomes tied directly to student background.
In funding relativity terms the funding story is very clear. As noted by McMorrow and Connors:
From 1976, a steady shift started to take place in the Commonwealth’s distribution of its schools funding between government and non-government schools. From a 70 per cent share of the Commonwealth’s total funding in 1974, the government schools’ share had dropped to less than one-third by 2007. The changing policies and priorities of successive governments had contributed to this reversal of the Commonwealth’s funding shares for government and non-government schools, until by the end of the Howard government’s term of office, there had been a complete reversal.
In summary then, by the time the Gonski Review of School Funding was announced, the initial 1970s Senate political compromise to include elite schools in Commonwealth funding arrangements had blown out through a succession of both poorly developed policy arrangements and deliberately constructed policies that pushed parents to the private sector. Public schools had become significantly residualised and poorly resourced, and funding for elite schools overblown and unfettered.
The no-losers stipulation meant that the Gonski review could never address the harm done through the creation of a highly segregated school system.
Putting more funds into public schools could assist schools to address the additional challenges of teaching the more needy disadvantaged students and could potentially stop further residualisation. However it would not help to break down the segregation that had already been established.
A socially mixed school helps students with the highest needs without any detriment to the lower need students. A highly segregated system imposes another disadvantage on high need schools that Chris Bonnor refers to as ‘ the school effect’:
…the ever-increasing social and academic divide between schools represents a looming disaster for the students being left behind and for a nation that is already feeling the effects.
…..This social pooling of enrolments is making the SES impact of the school itself, as distinct from the direct impact of family SES, far more significant. The impact of family SES on student achievement in Australia is close to the OECD average, but impact of school SES is among the highest in the OECD. ..
[This is because] … students themselves constitute a very significant intellectual and cultural resource for schools – they bring prior learning, family education, networks and know-how. Depending on which students they enrol, schools gradually look and feel different in things such as resources, student discipline and time on task, number and type of welfare issues, teacher qualifications and expectations, curriculum, achievement culture and more.
The only way to address this un-equalising ‘school effect’ is to desegregate our schools, by ensuring that our public schooling system comes to be seen as a high quality system that caters for all through the ability to provide targeted support for diverse needs.
The large funding quantum of Gonski made it a big target
David Gonski in delivering the Inaugural Jean Blackburn Oration reminded the audience that the reason for the $5 billion price tag is because the stipulation that ‘no school should lose a dollar’ required a lot more funding to be put into the system. The flexibility to redistribute would have delivered a lower cost package. For example the overfunding of the some schools could have been redirected. Alternatively, Gonski could have reverted to the funding principles of the original Karmel recommendations and cut funding to elite private schools.
The Gonski funding quantum is not high in GDP terms but the Abbott Government has used it as a reason to walk away from the Gonski model. Cries of, ‘we can’t afford Gonski,’ have reverberated around our newscorp media with a sense of glee. Almost no-one has responded by stating the obvious, that if you want to reduce the price tag, the solution is simple – lose the ‘no losers’ stipulation. That the Commission of Audit did not identify this option speaks volumes about their interests and ineptitude.
The no–losers stipulation was based on a myth
It’s a myth that has now hardened into a self-confirming truth – that the elite schooling sector is so powerful that no Government can ever roll back the unfair funding regime. Belief in this myth explains the backdoor, undocumented meetings that were not offered to the public school counterparts. Belief in this myth explains why the needs based formula was watered down to such an extent that the funding share to the Catholic system was sustained in spite of their higher SES intake. Belief in this myth explains why Julia Gillard, after a visit to an elite private school with world-class facilities, exclaimed, “Isn’t this great!”
This myth grew to ultimate truth status due to an event that came to be known as the “Latham school hit list incident”. Just weeks before the 2004 election Mark Latham, then leader of the opposition, declared that funding for the very elite private schools should be cut and the funds distributed.
The media exploded. It went nuts. Peter Browne on Inside Story in 2012 noted that the media touted it as act of provocative class warfare and electoral suicide:
The plan provoked a furore, particularly on talkback radio. The Prime Minister, John Howard, characterised it as “old-fashioned class warfare,” a phrase that appeared repeatedly – along with “hit list” – in media coverage over subsequent days and weeks. The churches “savaged” Latham (according to a headline in the Australian), and the private schools warned of fee hikes and an exodus back to government schools. Robert Manne described the announcement as “dubious politics.” Andrew Bolt described it as “abhorrent.
The media believed its own story and so the fact that Labor lost the election because of the Latham hit list was accepted a fact. Except that it is not true. Browne’s investigation shows that this is a misunderstanding of why Labor lost the election as the polls of the time tell another story entirely:
Just before Christmas 2003, Newspoll asked 1200 adults to say what they would “like” or “not like” to happen in 2004. Fifty-five per cent of respondents said they would like to see “a reduction in government subsidies for private schools.” Thirty-five per cent opposed such a move and 10 per cent were uncommitted. In other words, only a little over a third of respondents felt strongly enough to oppose what would later become Labor’s education policy for the election.
Latham announced the school funding policy on 15 September, three-and-a-half weeks before election day.
Ten days later, though, an ACNielsen survey of just over 1400 voters found that support for a shift in funding had actually risen since the Newspoll survey ten months earlier. Fully 66 per cent of respondents approved of Labor’s policy, with 27 per cent disapproving and the remainder uncommitted. Even among Coalition voters, the policy attracted support from 47 per cent of respondents, with 44 per cent opposed.
Now that this Government has walked away from both the funding quantum and the key principles underpinning the Gonski recommendations, we may feel demoralised and defeated but we are not right back to ‘before Gonski’. The Review process and the huge effort put in by the Australian Education Union and many others was not a waste of time and effort.
The funding principles of a ‘school resource standard’ and ‘needs based weightings’ have now been firmly established as the way forward on the basis of extensive research and consultation.
The inequality of resourcing and the needs of public education have been clearly demonstrated.
But we also now know that trying to work with the private sector, hoping for a win-win solution will not work, and that this Government’s priorities do not include a fair go for the old, the young, the marginalised, the sick, or even for future generations. This has become crystal clear through the budget., However, civil society is starting to get organised and to build a broad based pro-poor, pro-social justice, pro-environment, and pro-inclusive movement. Manifestos and priorities for this movement are in development through multiple social media based processes.
This is our opportunity to make sure the key school funding principles outlined through the Gonski process can be included in this broad based movement. Let us take what we need from the Gonski model and build a strong and clear narrative about what high quality equity based schooling system would look like in Australia. Let us place this narrative within the larger school funding historical narrative where the last 40 years can come to be seen, not as the sacred baseline, and not as the default position but as a foolish, unjustifiable, politically motivated aberration that has done immense harm.
 Although it is worth noting that while the poorer private schools had less freedom to squander their funds there were many questionable practices that were allowed to flourish because of high growth in evangelical Christian schools. Marion Maddox details some of this in her book Taking God to School
 Jean Blackburn, Changing Approaches to Equity in Education, John Curtin memorial lecture 1991 ANU
 Socio-Economic Status
Christopher Pyne has now made it clear that any concept of sector blind needs based school funding has been joyfully and gleefully knifed. His speech to the Christian Schools proclaimed loudly that this Government has sworn to maintain the Government’s emotional commitment to the continued funding of private schools, while ditching public schools. By any calculation this is the opposite extreme of the Gonski proposal.
It is not sector blind – in fact it is sector funding apartheid
Pyne’s announcements leave private schools in the hands of the Commnwealth Government in a context where the current Government has shown that it is anything but resource constrained where their interests matter. How else can quarantining top end schools from funding cuts be seen? We can’t have a budget emergency if we can still afford to subsidise schools with olympic heated indoor 8 lane swimming pools, specialised art performance spaces and so on. If anyone can explain to me why schools with resources like this and per student fees of of over $20,000 pa need government subsidies at all I would like to hear it.
Pyne’s announcements cost shifts all funding responsibility for public schools to cash constrained states. This means that from 2016, there will be no targeted Commonwealth funds for public schools, with the singular exception of the Chaplins-in-schools program, of course. This is a dramatic shift. For over 40 years, the Commonwealth has provided additional support to public schools in recognition of its special responsibilities for addressing disadvantage, supporting Indigenous populations and maintaining the national education estate.
It is the very opposite of needs based.
The ‘not one dollar lost to private schools’ promise has been kept but the public school sector has been slashed.
There will be no national system of funding transparency and accountability
There is no longer any agreement nationally by states to apply the principle of needs based funding. In practical effect this will mean that states like NSW and Tasmania will apply the principles, but states like WA and NT – where our schools most disadvantaged and underfunded schools lie – will continue shamelessly to neglect their remote schools.
The Gonski funding compromise (which is what it was) was a chance to put in place a win-win funding system, where funding could be increased on a needs base without undermining power and privilege. It was given the fatal blow by this Government but they weren’t the only ones who undermined this win-win solution.
Private education sector workers, parents and lobbyists of all persuasions, where were you when Gonski needed support? Were you pushing for timely and accurate implementation of this win-win solution?
No, we did not hear your voice in support. But we did hear: ‘more funding for disadvantaged students won’t improve student outcomes’ and ‘this proposal is too complicated’ and even, ‘this proposal will lead the Government sector to game the system by concentrating disadvantage’. We also saw your frequent and undocumented backdoor visits with the then PM and education Ministers and the subsequent watering down of the needs based weightings to ensure you did not just ‘not lose a dollar’ but could retain your sector ‘share’ of the spoils.
So I and many others will never accept such a compromised solution again.
One of the first things that will go is this ridiculous Government schools and non Government schools language. Public schools are not just state schools or even just government schools. They are public institutions and a core part of our national education estate – our ‘common wealth’. And the term non Government is a misleading misnomer as Marian Maddox reminds us:
... one challenge of writing about schools is finding appropriate terms. One common terminology distinguishes ‘government’ from nongovernment schools. …these terms are of limited use. .. all Australian schools receive considerable government support, meaning that no school can seriously claim non government’ status … (Taking God to school: the end of Australia’s egalitarian education)
So I will never again use ay other terms but public schools and private schools or the even more accrue ‘government funded private schools’ and I urge all people who care about langauge accuracy to do the same.
Christopher Pyne might be dancing around with glee at the idea of punishing public education – Labor’s base. But public education advocates will not give up. The next phase of the stronger than ever struggle for needs based funding and a strong and vibrant high quality public sector will be gloves off. Bring it on.
Today is the start of NAPLAN day for every Australian parent with a child in years 3,5,7 or 9. The vast majority of parents will send their children off to school as per usual, perhaps with an extra hug and an exhortation to” just do your best and don’t get stressed”.
But for a small, but growing, number of parents, this is a day to do something quite different – to go to the movies, the zoo, a picnic or just stay home and have a pajama day. They have taken the decision to remove their child from testing.
Now there are no rights or wrongs about this. It is a personal decision. But you may be wondering why people are making this decision.
I have been reading the many testimonials from US parents about why they have come to this decision and the few statements I have come across about withdrawal decisions from Australian parents. In this piece I bring together the key reasons.
Here is one US parent speaking:
As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the “status quo” is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and “dumping the losers” are the way to get it done. The only problem is that none of this is true. None of it…..
It is the test that binds all of this insanity together. Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with. Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states. Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners. Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are. Without the tests, there wouldn’t be a target on our teachers.
But tests aren’t really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used. Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve. When used for that purpose, tests are great. Still limited, but great. However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive. As long as high stakes standardized tests – despite their limitations – are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.
There isn’t much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I’m allowed. But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that’s exactly what my wife and I have decided to do.
This opt out movement in the US started as a mere trickle but this year it has reached a critical mass. In Long Island alone more than 20,000 school children did not take the first round of state tests that began April 1.
Here is another parent – this one not a teacher – explaining her decision to opt out
Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..
Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..
…this year their father and I refused to send our kids to school for …testing. Instead they slept in, watched TV, played outside and read for pleasure. Their grandma also took them to the museum….
I’ve come to believe standardized tests are to learning as an exhibit of butterflies is to nature. In the attempt to pin down what is measurable, we render something wild and beautiful, dead and on display.
While our public school leaders pay lip service to creativity and innovation, they are mandating more class time be devoted to standardized testing in the name of holding teachers accountable for student progress. Next year, Colorado charges headlong into a pay-for-performance system tying 50 percent of our public school teachers’ evaluation to student progress.
Ravitch, … believes parents can halt this parasitic process by refusing to allow students to take the tests that feed it. “Deny them the data,” is the slogan inspiring me and thousands of parents around the country.
But my personal favourite is this letter from Will and Wendy Richardson from Delaware
To the Editor:
After much thought, we have decided to keep our son home during …standardized assessments …. we are basing this decision on our serious concerns about what the test itself is doing to our son’s opportunity to receive a well-rounded, relevant education, and because of the intention of state policy makers to use the test in ways it was never intended to be used. These concerns should be shared by every parent and community member who wants our children to be fully prepared for the much more complex and connected world in which they will live, and by those who care about our ability to flourish as a country moving forward.
Our current school systems and assessments were created for a learning world that is quickly disappearing. In his working life, my son will be expected to solve real world problems, create and share meaningful work with the world, make sense of reams of unedited digital information, and regularly work with others a half a world away using computers and mobile devices. The NJ ASK tells us nothing about his ability or preparedness to do that. The paper and pencil tasks given on the test provide little useful information on what he has learned that goes beyond what we can see for ourselves on a daily basis and what his teachers relay to us through their own assessments in class. We implicitly trust the caring professionals in our son’s classroom to provide this important, timely feedback as opposed to a single data point from one test, data that is reported out six months later without any context for areas where he may need help or remediation. In short, these tests don’t help our son learn, nor do they help his teachers teach him.
In addition, the test itself poses a number of problems:
Over the years, the “high stakes” nature of school evaluation has narrowed instruction to focus on only those areas that are tested. This has led to reductions in the arts, languages, physical education and more.
Research has shown that high scores can be achieved without any real critical thinking or problem solving ability.
The huge amount of tax dollars that are being spent on creating, delivering and scoring the tests, dollars that are going to businesses with, no surprise, powerful lobbyists in the state capitol and in Washington, DC, is hugely problematic.
Proposals to use these test scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation are equally problematic. The tests were not created for such a use, and to create even higher stakes for the NJ ASK will only create more test prep in our classrooms at the expense of the relevant, authentic, real world learning that our students desperately need.
These tests create unnecessary anxiety and stress in many students who feel immense pressure to do well.
In no way are we taking this step because of our dissatisfaction with our son’s public school, the teachers and administrators there, or our school board. We have simply had enough of national and state policies that we feel are hurting the educational opportunities for all children. At the end of the day, we don’t care what our son scores on a test that doesn’t measure the things we hold most important in his education: the development of his interest in learning, his ability to use the many resources he has at his disposal to direct his own learning, and his ability to work with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face. And we feel our tax dollars are better spent supporting our schools and our teachers who will help him reach those goals as well as the goals detailed by the state standards in ways that are more relevant, engaging and important than four days of testing could ever accomplish.
There are many many parent testimonials to opting out and many impassioned arguments about why they feel it necessary to take this step. But for me the following themes appear to stand out:
- The problem isn’t testing per se – but how tests are used – the lack of validity and reliability in their unintended uses. This testing culture punishes and diminishes teachers.
In the US this is particularly problematic, because of federal Government mandates that require states to use standardized tests as one of the measures to assess teachers. This was mooted by Ben Jenson from the Grattan Institute at one point and also by Julia Gillard. But because of excellent intervention by AITSL this disastrous situation has been avoided – at least for now.
But we do use NAPLAN scores as the basis for student outcomes reporting on the MySchool website. This turns these tests from a low stakes test to a high stakes event, uses the data in ways that are psychometrically questionable and fosters an unhealthy market choice model of education.
- The testing culture has impoverished what happens in classrooms and parents want education to be a joyful experience and to prepare students for active participation as adults in social, economic and political life. The kind of learning that can be tested will not equip students for this.
It is interesting to note that almost none of the testimonies I located were from parent who had children who were stressed or made sick by testing days. This is not to suggest that this situation does not exist , but that this is not what is driving the opt out movement. These are parents who want education to be the best it can be for all students and see the testing culture as undermining that, not just for their child but for all students.
- We don’t want to be part of the problem, so we are pushing back, refusing to provide our data to a bad process. In this way we haope to be part of building a movement that will destroy the corporate education stranglehold on our nation’s education.
Many many parents were at pains to state that they don’t believe there is a crisis in public education in the US and that they trust teachers as professionals more than they trust a multiple choice test to assess their childrens’ progress
“How will you know what your child is capable of if you don’t have test scores?” The answer to that is pretty simple. We trust our son’s teachers. The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student’s progress is a relatively recent phenomenon. There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students. We believe this should still be the case. We don’t need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of. Our sons’ teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son’s capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren’t mandated by the federal government. Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer? Even students’ writing will be scored by a computer. They’ll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human’s writing capacity. As an expert in how kids think and learn, I’ll tell you that’s ridiculous. Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles. Yet in in American public education, that’s quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.
In Australia one person who has gone public about his decision to withdraw his eldest child from NAPLAN testing is Glen Fowler, ACT branch secretary of the Australian Education Union.
He has withdrawn his year 3 child, because NAPLAN data is published to show how individual schools are performing.
The use of this data to compare and rank schools is a disingenuous practice, and from my point of view, if the data is being misused, there will be no data provided by my family….
I’ve got no issue with standardised tests which are low stakes – I’ve got no issue with sample testing which is done by PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] every year … there’s no capacity for that to damage the reputation of a school or a teacher or a student.
If I had kids of NAPLAN age I would definitely withdraw them, not because of concerns about the effects on my child but as a political act. If enough parents acted in this way, the results would become even more unreliable and eventually there might need to be an acknowledgement that this is not our best policy. NAPLAN is NOT diagnostic; it narrows the curriculum and encourages low-level thinking, and it harming some children.
Maybe all this could be seen to be acceptable if there was a more important upside to the enterprise, When the decision to publish NAPLAN results to the school level o MySchool was first announced, there were many noble speeches about using NAPLAN to assess which children and which schools need extra help so that resources can be appropriated for this purpose, But NAPLAN is NOT being used to identify those schools needing extra funding. And with tonight’s budget decision I very much fear, school funding in Australia will continue to ignore the needs of our most disadvantaged students. In this context NAPLAN is nothing but a cruel joke.
 if you want to think through your position on NAPLAN the ‘Say no to NAPLAN’ site established by Literacy Educators at Sydney University provides an excellent set of papers about why NAPLAN is problematic.
According to The Australian, Andrew Penfold has broken ranks with all the other members of the PM’s Indigenous Council to support the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
So what can we make of this? Is Penfold brave – standing up to un-thought-through conventional wisdom? Or is he ignorant and dangerously misinformed?
My take is that he is ignorant. His world is a privileged sheltered space and his experience of how racism affects Indigenous people is informed – or not informed – by his sheltered context.
Now I am not a scholar of human rights, the RDA and the debate around free speech and I accept that there may be areas of the RDA that could benefit from a careful review.
For example, Sara Joseph who is an expert has argued here that the outlawing of talk that offends or insults may tip the balance between free speech and race discrimination too far. But in saying this she also stresses that this is a view that has not been formed based on personal experience of being subjected to racially offensive language. She also argues that the courts have never taken a stringent position in interpreting this provision, so the driver to change it is not really there (note: it was not the provision that Bolt contravened).
But there are real problems with the current exposure draft and Sara Joseph’s article is a nice summary of the problems, and worth a careful read.
However, it is clear to me that Penfold has not read Joseph’s article or Waleed Aly’s very damming piece
So how did this upper middle class business man who was educated at elite private schools earn a place on the PM’s Indigenous Council, and an AO to boot, just this year.
Andrew Penfold is widely known as the man who established the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) and its associated Indigenous Scholarship to elite private schools scheme. He is well known because the media has been saturated by feel good stories about individual Indigenous children who have been rescued from a remote backwater and who are now destined for greatness. Penfold himself has authored many of these stories.
Now I am not that concerned about a successful business man setting up a charity that funds poor traditionally living Indigenous kids to attend Australia’s most elite schools, although I do have concerns about it.
My concerns are as follows:
Firstly, this is the venture that has earned Penfold a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council. Now we have been told that this Council will have a big influence on Indigenous policy development and program implementation in Australia. What Penfold has established is, in policy terms, a minor add-on program. It hardly qualifies him as an expert in policy directions that are designed to overcome disadvantage not for the clever few raked from the rubble, but for all Indigenous people. His willingness to split with the Council so early in the piece over something that his background makes him uniquely unqualified to speak about, relative to other Council members, confirms my concerns about his suitability for this role
Secondly, his work and his project concern me because he has convinced the Australian Government to donate $20 million to his fund with absolutely no strings attached. I am presuming that these funds have come out of the very small program dollars currently allocated to Indigenous education.
When a program secures Government funding it must be accountable to a different set of requirements. What should our Government be asking about this feel good work?
I wrote about Andrew Penfold and his feel good but suspect work to ‘save’ Indigenous children one by one here. I don’t plan to repeat all the arguments about why this is a problem here because this article is much more about why I question Andrew Penfold’s suitability for a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council table.
So here it is. Andrew Penfold has justified why the Australian Government should fund his program as follows
We agree that governments must invest in improving education results for all Indigenous students in all schools, but the evidence is unambiguous – for decades billions of dollars a year has been spent by state and federal governments on Indigenous programs that their own departments and officials have described as ‘disappointing at best and appalling at worst’ and making no difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. So if the rhetoric about evidence-based policy means anything, it’s critical that AIEF’s proven, scalable and sustainable model continues to be supported.
There you have it. While Governments should be prioritizing investments that improve the outcomes for Indigenous students across the board, history tells us that this is a waste of money because it hasn’t worked. So my solution is to have the Government invest in improving educational outcomes for the few and forget about the rest. And as for the claim that his program is scalable – well – the limitations are rather obvious.
This is a chilling piece of logic.
Basically, if you are indigenous and living in a remote community, welcome to the lottery – if you win a scholarship and are flown away to an elite school, you will learn to read and can expect to live a rich rewarding life, but if you don’t, good luck. This feels like a future dystopia in a speculative fiction novel.
It is the Government’s responsibility to govern for all Australians. No Government can justify diverting the small amount of funds dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Australia’s most seriously disadvantaged students to fund a lucky win-the-lottery ticket to a privileged life – a rags to riches scenario for a few.
To say that the Government should walk away from its responsibilities for overcoming Indigenous disadvantage for all Indigenous Australians and invest in a privileged lucky few is an outrage, and must be challenged. It should not be applauded or honoured with positions on influential councils, generous untied Government funds, or Australia Day Honours.
But this is the sort of logic that comes from looking at all issues, not in structural terms but in individualistic terms. Andrew Penfold is on the record as saying that he developed his Indigenous scholarships program because he was given an opportunity to go to an elite boarding school and it was the making of him. He does not appear to have considered that his unique experience is not universally applicable with the same results.
Perhaps this makes some sense of his position on the RDA amendments. Andrew Penfold has not been at the raw end of racial discrimination and racial vilification, so his consideration of these matters is based on his limited individual experience. It is just a philosophical issue to him. It is to Sarah Joseph too, but even she, an expert in these matters, has been honest enough to acknowledge that not having the personal experience of racial discrimination is a possible limitation to her understanding of these sensitive and complex matters.
I do hope some judicious behind-the-scenes conversation at Council meetings with Andrew Penfold will extent his world view, but I am not optimistic.
In a recent article about American culture and the opt out society Alan Greenblatt described the growing and successful movement to encourage parents to refuse to allow their child to participate in national standardised testing as selfish individualism. It might be driven by a parents individual interest, he argues, but it is selfish and against collective interests:
It’s probably true that the time spent on testing isn’t going to be particularly beneficial to the kids, but it’s very beneficial to the system,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “If you have enough people opt out of these tests, then you have removed some important information that could make our schools better.
I find this amusing because the whole corporate reform movement, for which testing is the centerpiece, is built on the neoliberal belief that the best solution to everything – prisons, health, education etc – is to turn everything into a market and allow competition and individual choice to drive better value.
In fact this was the prime motivation described by Kevin Rudd when he first announced the ‘school transparency agenda’ on the 21 August 2008 at the National Press Club. The speech has mysteriously disappeared but I am quite clear that Kevin Rudd said something along the following lines
“If parents are unhappy with their local school because of the information in MySchool, and decide to transfer their child to another better performing school, then that is exactly what should happen. This is how schools will improve, through parents voting with their feet.”
Now nobody who works in a struggling school thinks this is the way schools improve. Australia has run an aggressive market choice model of school funding for nearly 2 decades now and all we have to show for it is a highly class segregated schooling system and high levels of inequality.
So let me reassure parents who are concerned about our high stakes NAPLAN testing regime. Opting out of having your child participate in these tests is much more of a community act than deciding to send your child to an elite school.
I am disappointed to find that even though 2 working weeks have elapsed since the Submissions to the NT Education Review were due, the NT Government has not made them public. But sadly I am not at all surprised.
The NT Government, the Government that we trust and fund to overcome extreme (i.e. 3rd world levels of) disadvantage in remote Indigenous communities, continues to live up to my expectations in this regard.
So as a public service I am posting my Submission in full on this website. Many will ague that I am being too kind in some respects. And this may well be my significant point of departure from many social justice activists who I otherwise respect. You see, I agree with one major point made forcibly by Bruce Wilson. I agree that the current situation is intolerable and that arguments that imply that cultural respect and continuity automatically trump the need to STOP the systemic failure to provide remote Indigenous children with decent life options must be challenged. As I say in this report I believe that
We can’t sacrifice the possibility of a successful future for these children, for a non-realisable future of a community. These communities have deep and complex problems as well as cultural strengths and possibilities. This Review must be about what is in the best interests of these children. But that doesn’t give one license to ignore the vision, values strengths and passions of parents and communities for their children. This hard work must be done.
Please if you disagree with me I encourage you to first read my submission in full before jumping to conclusions and then comment. I promise to p approve all comments unless they are just content free accusations or threatening. In commenting would you be willing to not assume I am motivated by the worst of motives. I am more than open to be convinced that may views and understandings need to accommodate a perspective I have not currently taken on board.
This debate is important – too important to be reduced to the tossing of accusations from our hunkered down thought fortresses.
Sections One and Two are minor variations of the previous two posts on this topic, but Section Three is a new one. it focusses on the compulsory secondary boarding school proposal.
I am submitting this in response to Bruce Wilson’s Draft Independent Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory.
I have decided to write this submission with Bruce Wilson as my primary audience because, as I understand through listening to radio interviews with him, these submissions will go directly to Bruce Wilson for consideration in drafting his final report
This is the first time I have seen a report on the NT Department of Education (NTDoE) website that notes the systemic failure of ‘bush schools’ in the NT and the devastating consequences of this failure. Addressing this failure is time critical now because in many communities the vast majority of Indigenous adults with a functional level of English language oracy and literacy are those that were educated in the mission days. As these people die out over the next decade the impact on leadership in many communities will be devastating. Creating a critical mass of Indigenous adult community residents who are versed in their own language, culture and law and also able to engage as equals with: Governments at all levels, service providers such as schools and medical services, potential employers and social enterprises will be crucial.
So we need to do this for the future of remote communities.
But as you bravely remind us Bruce, we need to do this for the children, even if, one of the consequences of doing so could be that many future children don’t actually return to the community as young adults. This is a critical issue and one many passionate about Indigenous justice have shied away from and with good reason. When it comes down to it, I agree with you on this principle Bruce. We can’t sacrifice the possibility of a successful future for these children, for a non-realisable future of a community. These communities have deep and complex problems as well as cultural strengths and possibilities. This Review must be about what is in the best interests of these children. But that doesn’t give one license to ignore the vision, values strengths and passions of parents and communities for their children. This hard work must be done.
This report has placed the urgency of this situation squarely on the public agenda and this is important. I am impressed because you have been willing to question the business-as-usual assumption that the answer must be to keep doing what we do, but to do it better.
But in this submission I ask you to give serious consideration to the following three issues.
Section One: Funding Accountability, Adequacy and transparency
It is my view, based on experience both with and inside NT Government that you should have addressed the issue of the adequacy of the funding arrangements for NT remote schools.
I have raised the issue of remote school underfunding in the NT in a number of articles. 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
- 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.
- You are wrong to see that the issue is only about written literacy. You neglect to consider the important of developing English language oracy
- 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, 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.)