Think of the Child

My children grew up with a deep dark secret. Their mother (me) was/is a lesbian. They usually confessed this to their friends after they felt confident in the relationship. But school in the 80s and 90s really was a toxic sea of homophobia and I can quite understand their reluctance.

One day post school, my daughter was chatting with a group of her old class peers. One boy said that he really regretted not telling everyone that his mother was a lesbian. My daughter, astonished at this revelation said the same. The group then discussed how this news would have been treated and agreed that they would have been really cruel to both of them.
I felt an overwhelming sadness that both children endured living with this dark secret alone and unsupported. I can only hope that this is less likely today. But this requires making information like this safe and ordinary and standing up against campaign like ‘think of the children’

Boob in a Box

My six-year-old son’s best friend is an amazing girl called Pascal. They have been solid buddies for almost three years now. They don’t attend the same school, but have regular play dates and sleepovers, where they play outside in the dirt with items pilfered from my kitchen concocting’ant stew’ (which doesn’t actually involve any ants), make indoor tents out of sheets strung over dining chairs, and put on puppet shows using old fridge boxes as the stage. They have tennis lessons together on a Friday, joyfullyrunning to meet each other at the courts and racing around in circles like a pair of excited puppies.

Their beautiful, innocent meeting of hearts and mindshas given rise to a broader friendship at the family level, which has been cemented through trips to the theatre, lunches and dinners out, birthday parties, and camping trips. The camping trips have been a real revelation, as anyone…

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Did Neoliberalism Kill Gender Equity in Australian Schools?

My starting point for this article is the following puzzle. We live in a world saturated with discussion about feminism across all media and many areas of focus – from gaming, to global conflict. But in our schools it is largely an absent presence.

This is in spite of the fact that, in the two decades following the publication of the landmark Australian Schools Commission Report, Girls, Schools and Society (1975),[1] Australia was one of the world leaders in bringing together the best of feminist academic scholars, education policy makers and education practitioners to develop understandings about the nature of gender inequality, how school contributes to this inequality and the best ways to address gender issues in schools.

During this period, gender equity policies were in place nationally and in all states and there was a lively debate about gender equity priorities, drawing on practice and research, about how gender inequality is constructed and maintained, the implications for the education of boys and much more. Of course it was far from perfect and there were pockets of resistance, but it was never just ignored.

It is true that there are still some programs that are being implemented in Australian schools today that are informed by feminist understandings. Some good examples of this include the safe schools program – a national program addressing homophobia, some but not all anti-bullying programs and a Victorian state school program that has a focus on sex education and gender based violence.

However, these are not across all schools and there are no consistent broader gender equity programs in place. It appears to be entirely up to individual feminist educators to find suitable material and more importantly to find space in pressured teaching programs for any learning that prepares students to understand and respond to patriarchal cultural, economic and social practices and structures that they both already experience and will come across in adulthood.

There are also no longer official systemic policies they can rely on to legitimize this work and I have heard anecdotally that even strong feminist educators often decide not to raise issues relating to gendered practices in their school or to suggest the inclusion of feminist perspectives, where they may be relevant to a particular learning topic, because they fear the consequences.

Why this happened could be seen as less relevant than what to do about it. But what if the issues are connected? What if the ideas, assumptions, practices and or forces that contributed to the demise of gender equity policy and practice continue to impact today?

In my previous article, I noted that I had always assumed that the gender equity movement died because the ascendency of the men’s rights backlash coincided with increasing evidence that, in terms of school level academic outcomes, girls were actually faring better than boys, in crude terms, and that in 1996 the Howard Government was voted in and backed the men’s rights view of the world.

Looking back I can see that this might have been the main driver in the first instance but this does not explain why there was no rebound effect.

Why has gender equity stayed off the schooling agenda for 20 years when there has been such a significant resurgence almost everywhere else?

In this article I make the case for the following propositions:

  1.  That neoliberal understandings[2] have had a profound impact on the structures and cultures of schooling and this has reduced the opportunities for the kinds of intellectual work required to bring feminist considerations to mainstream learning.
  2. That neoliberal understandings have also impacted on the kinds of feminist understandings that are most accessible to educators by privileging individualistic perspectives and practices.
  3. That the impact of this has been significant and problematic for young people who leave school and enter adulthood poorly prepared for negotiating patriarchal structures, practices and assumptions that they encounter as adults particularly around work and family.

Neoliberalism and Schooling[3]

The gender equity policies and practices that were taken up by school systems right across Australia, in the period between 1975 and 1995, took place in school settings that lacked the significant elements of neoliberal understandings of schooling.

There were no national standardised tests and even when they (the NAP, now NAPLAN) were first introduced in the mid 1990s, they did not become high stakes tests until the Labor Party, excited by Joel Klein’s vision decided to report the results a school level through the MySchool website in 2008.

The Howard and Kennett visions of improving schooling through markets and school choice had not yet begun. While many parents decided to send their child to a non-state school, and a small number of parents chose out of area public schools, the local community public school was still the default. Politicians were not yet sprouting the idea that schools across all systems would improve by competing with each other for teachers and students and that it was the responsibility of good parents to make an informed choice about their child’s schooling.

The National Curriculum Statement and Profiles, that had been completed by the early 90s, looked very different to the more proscribed syllabus outline we have today. They were firmly based on developmental understandings of children’s learning, they rejected A-E grading and the notion that children must be assessed against year level standards.

Australian participation in global testing, PISA and TIMMS, was in the early stages of negotiation. Indeed, we did not know how well our students were doing in a global context, as there were no global standards or comparative data.

Teachers were still accused of being not good enough and there were vicious debates about how to teach reading, and the merits of progressive education vis-à-vis other methods. However, progressive education as understood in the broad traditions of John Dewey and Jerome Bruner dominated, and the idea of education for full democratic participation was not hotly contested within the profession.

Schooling was seen as being about much more than test scores and preparation for work. Issues that had importance beyond the world of work, like gender justice, could be prioritised in such an era. Teachers were not pressured to teach to the test and had the time to introduce broader learning themes.

I am not suggesting for a minute that things were perfect or even necessarily better. I know from my own experience during this period that our understanding of education disadvantage was not well examined and that deficit understandings of poor, Indigenous and disabled students may well have led to lowered expectations and complacency about poor outcomes. The ideas about teacher professional standards, school improvement, teacher collaboration and continued professional development existed in the research but had not yet been comprehensively implemented across all systems. But there was an absence of the kind of pressures that have become associated with the global education reform initiatives of marketisation and high stakes testing that have been documented by a many researchers in Australia and internationally.

I will draw on just two such studies, both Australian.

The first was undertaken by The Whitlam Institute, in response to public concerns about the effects of high stakes testing. They conducted a survey of teachers and principles to ascertain their perceptions of how high stakes testing has impacted on students and classroom practice.

In relation to classroom practice, survey respondents noted the following impacts:

  • NAPLAN preparation is adding to an already crowded curriculum – over 85%;
  • NAPLAN is affecting the range of teaching strategies they use – 59%.
  • NAPLAN is impacting on the way in which school communities view curriculum areas, with subjects that are not tested reduced in importance – 75%
  • The focus of NAPLAN on literacy and numeracy has led to a timetable reduction for other subjects in their schools – over 66%.

This suggests that the pressure to prepare students for the NAPLAN test is reducing the space for the kinds of enquiry that used to occur in the days when there was a gender equity policy and readily available relevant curriculum materials.

But it goes beyond this. The NAPLAN performance pressure does not just impact on individual teachers in individual schools. Schools are now in competition with one another for the most desirable school enrolments and desirable parents. NAPLAN results are published on the MySchool website so that parents can make ‘informed choices’. On the website, schools are compared with ‘ like schools’ – that is those who have similar student demographics and parents can also compare their NAPLAN scores with schools in the nearby vicinity.

The Whitlam survey also noted the following respondent views:

  • The publication of ‘weaker than expected’ results would negatively affect parental perception of the school. – 95%
  • Poor NAPLAN results would negatively affect media reports about the school – 95%
  • Weak results would damage the school’s reputation in the community – 96%
  • Lower than expected results on NAPLAN would mean that a school would have trouble attracting and retaining students – over 90%
  • There would be a negative impact on staff morale – 90%
  • Weaker than expected’ results would lead to a negative student perception of the school – 75%.

This is consistent with the observations made by Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler in their book, Teacher professional learning in an age of compliance[4]. These researchers undertook extensive school based research in schools across NSW in 2009 and this book is based on this experience.

They observe that the impact of the global education reform agenda has resulted in a retreat into a standardised, audited, and backward-looking schooling culture, the rolling back of a more progressive educational philosophy, an increased acceptance of ‘common sense solutions; a reduced tolerance for ambiguity; and an increase in fear and distrust. They also make the following important observation:

Almost a century after the publication of Democracy and Education, [John Dewey 1916] we find ourselves in uncertain, ambiguous times. …On a policy level we appear to be once again retreating, from a once-within-our-grasp vision of progressive education into safer, more measurable, more quantifiable territory. More worryingly we see the very notion of democracy at the heart of Dewey’s thinking under threat…at the hands of religious, economic and educational fundamentalists and a pervasive neoliberal agenda.

They concluded that ‘the press for compliance leaves little room for a more critical position to be adopted”.

Neoliberalism and Feminism

Neoliberalism has also influenced, profoundly, the dominant ideas of feminism. Eva Cox made this same point recently:

During the past few years, I have been seriously rethinking feminism. This intensified at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival when I attended a session by Michael Sandel on money, followed by a panel on feminism. Sandel analysed the damage done by more than two decades of neoliberal market models; the feminist panel ignored this and just complained about continued inequities, but not why this is so (my emphasis).

Cox is suggesting that those feminists who have the most exposure in popular discourse are not interested in how the neoliberal economic, social policies, practices and ideas have impacted on women – and on particularly on differently positioned women.

She goes on to say that the tamed-down version of feminism of today misses many of the important issues for women because the scope of its focus is far too narrow. Violence might be a fundamental women’s issue but many issues of mainstream economic, political, environmental importance also demand a feminist lens.

The shift to market models meant many women’s groups focused on raising the status of women via access to power in current macho terms. More women in male-defined areas of power – in politics or on boards – was erroneously claimed to be the route to feminist change. But we failed to see they were promoted because they posed no threat to the system that allowed them into the tent to share some of the power that men controlled. There are active women’s groups with current demands for remedies to violence and exclusion, access to childcare, improvements to bad media images and solutions to female poverty and lack of representation. But these are not radical demands and are defined as “women’s issues”, not general problems for society.

I want to see more action in devising solutions rather than just protest campaigns. Feminists need to lead so that we can counter the bipartisan bad policies of the major political parties: low welfare payments, bad indigenous programs, overlong working hours, too many market-based not community-based services.

There is an urgent need to solve many “wicked” policy problems – boat people, inequality, environmental damage. These issues need much better connectivity and social cohesion, so it is irrational that women are not there to contribute perspectives broader than the limited experiences of current leadership incumbents. We need wider views than macho neoliberal economics can offer to cope with the problems caused by an ageing population, mobile workers, single-person households, social inequities and growing personal care needs.

Nancy Frazer goes further and argues that feminism today actually promotes and legitimizes neoliberalism:

 In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.

 Sarah Jaffe, a blogger for Dissent magazine explains how feminist campaigns for equal pay and for equal access to male dominated areas of work dominated feminist activism at the expense of a focus on valuing of women’s traditional work, including unpaid caring and community work and union organizing. This was a feminism that was highly compatible with the neoliberal focus on undermining unions, seeing all activity in market terms, ignoring community and pushing down wages.

 [T]he so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.

. ..The devaluation of work that involves care, work for which women were assumed to be innately suited, continued apace when feminism turned its back. As other jobs have disappeared, the low wages that were acceptable when women were presumed not to need a “family wage,” because they ought to be married to a man who’d do the breadwinning, became the wages that everyone has to take or leave.

Equal pay for equal work means little when the wages for all are on the way down….[ F]or a hotel housekeeper, a nurse, a janitor, the best way to improve your job isn’t to get promoted through the ranks, but to organise with your fellow workers.

 What do we want young women (and men) to learn about feminism?

I am retired from the paid workforce now but I spent many years working in the public service on social policy, some of it on women’s desks. I constantly came across strong, smart, interesting women who stood up against sexism and homophobia in the workplace but whose paid intellectual work appeared to be gender, class and race blind. They did not see it as their role, in developing policy, to consider how particular design elements would impact on differently positioned individuals and families. We need scientists, economists, education and health policy workers to do better than this.

I want a schooling system that insists that students ask questions about what they learn and that equips them to apply a feminist and/or class and/or culture lens to all issues of importance. If we are committed to a fairer more just society we need nothing less.

Feminist questions and perspectives belong in the technology, music, art, English literature, science, legal studies, history, civics and citizenship, environmental studies and health classrooms, not just in wellbeing, sex education, school dress code and bullying policies.

We also need to better prepare students for what Leslie Cannold once described as ‘the equal opportunity train wreck that is motherhood”. Liberal Feminism won’t help with negotiating the structural inequality issues enmeshed in the work relationship conundrums that arise when a baby comes on the scene, even in a supposedly equal relationship.

Stephanie Coontz, Professor of family history at Evergreen state college (USA) observes that: 

…men and women .. are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to arranging their work and family lives. For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying. Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace.

While the US has even worse family friendly policies than Australia, those same tensions exist for young parents here.

While research[5] suggests that most young men and women have similar expectations of work, family and careers on leaving school and remain committed to the ideal of an equal relationship and with shared care of children and equal opportunities to progress in their respective jobs/careers, the reality is that this is extremely difficult to manage and most fail. And when this idea fails, the fall-back compromises are depressingly predictable.

When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work. But unlike the situation in the 1960s, this is not because most people believe this is the preferable order of things. Rather, it is often a reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals.

Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.

So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.

So what happens when young women – including young feminists, with high hopes for their careers – find themselves doing most of the care work and, because they are home more, most of the housework, and find themselves earning less or even being, for a period, economically dependent?

When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by. This behaviour is especially likely if holding on to the original values would exacerbate tensions in the relationships they depend on.

When a couple backslide into more traditional roles than they originally desired. The woman resents that she is not getting the shared child-care she expected and envies her husband’s social networks outside the home. The husband feels hurt that his wife isn’t more grateful for the sacrifices he is making by working more hours so she can stay home. When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.

And when this happens, the frameworks and ideas most readily available to make sense of what has happened do not help, because what is a structural problem – the failure of work organisation to cater for the role of caring and the undervaluing of this role – gets framed as a personal choice.

What I have outlined above only covers the dilemmas experienced by young people who end up in hetero-normative coupledom. Others who traverse these pathways as teen mums, queer parents, divorced and single parents have an even more difficult time.


In my view, young people need exposure to the best analytical frameworks that feminism can provide, not a gender blind education that leaves them to work it out and not a feminism that binds them to the key assumptions and beliefs underpinning neoliberalism, but one that is able to look at issues from a structural perspective and from the point of view and experience of people living in very different contexts.

Schools can and should prepare our young people, men and women, for the challenge of negotiating work life balance in an unequal world. We can’t just paint a nirvana of a gender blind world where work and family options are equally open to all with no detriment.

So how do we prepare them? Well the reality is that we can’t – not explicitly. You try telling even the most highly educated person that having a baby will change their life and not all in a good way. But we can equip them with the tools of feminist analysis that go beyond a liberal feminism of personal choice. We can study issues that will be relevant to their futures as workers and possibly parents.

In the 2014 budget, Hockey announced many unpopular proposals but it is important to note that they were not only about savings. The reforms to higher education and the co-payments for GP visits were also driven by a belief, held by this Government, that all services should have market signals. If implemented, these understandings take us even further into an extreme neoliberal future where education and health are not investments for the common good, but a private good that must be purchased in a competitive market.

To respond to the problems created by neoliberal policies, people need to be able to name and understand the assumptions and beliefs that underpin such practices, and to understand their impacts.

Neoliberalism dominates our understandings today but until recently it was hegemonic – so taken for granted that it was invisible like the air we breathe. The term neoliberalism was rarely used outside of leftist circles and was viewed by many as extreme left jargon. But this is changing as its tensions, contradictions and problems are becoming more and more apparent.

We now have increasing levels of exposure to information that shows how powerful business groups, drawing on neoliberal buzz words about market forces and small government, have had an unequal impact on our democratic processes as large corporations effectively ‘buy Governments’ and used the system to amass huge wealth at the expense of most of the planet. This historic concentration of wealth to a fraction of the population while hollowing out the middle class and increasing poverty is in the popular press and even the Pope speaks out about it.

Best sellers like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything[6] make popular the notion that climate change is intrinsically connected to neoliberalism and this is starting to change the conversation. She makes it clear that we cannot solve the urgent issues facing this planet on which we all depend just by lobbying for better climate policies. We have to change our thinking entirely:

..[W]e will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game – arguing for instance, that it is more cost –effective to invest in emission reductions now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such conversations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on arched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with wonders and beauties of creation”

Now I am not saying that we should indoctrinate our young people about the evils of neo-liberalism and create revolutionary activists. But we can and must expose young people to the important ideas and perspectives of our time and the significant associated debates. Tomorrow’s adults deserve nothing less.

[1] Girls, Schools and Society: Report by a study group to the Schools Commission Nov 1975. Jean Blackburn was the most high profile person who was part of the group and the foreward states that she did the final editing of the publication. This had a significant influence on education policies and practices across all schooling systems in Australia and set in train a series of gender equity policy documents spanning the next two decades.

[2]Neoliberalism, sometimes referred to as unconstrained capitalism,, is, basically, the belief that states ought to abstain from intervening in the economy, and instead leave as much as possible up to individuals participating in free and self-regulating markets. This means that as much as possible, all services should be run as user pays businesses. Individuals are also seen as being solely responsible for the consequences of the choices and decisions they freely make: instances of inequality and glaring social injustice are acceptable, because they are, in the main, the result of freely made decisions.

.[3] to read more about schools and the influence of neoliberalism go to

[4] Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler: Teacher Professional Learning in an age of Compliance: Mind the Gap, Springer 2009

[5] Stephanie Coontz, Why Gender Equality stalled New York Times, Opinion Feb 2013


Hernan Guevo and Johanna Wynn, Rethinking Youth transitions in Australia, Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, March 2011. This is a detailed longitudinal study of young men and women from school leaving and up to their late 30s. This report makes t clear that man and women had similar attitudes to careers , jobs and families but that when children arrive the gendered patters of work and care continue to operate along traditional lines not because couples believe this is how things aught to be, but because of the complex choices and challenges under structurally constrained circumstances.

[6] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, Penguin Group 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This under-funding happens through deliberate policy decisions.

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

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

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

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

According to this article, under the Gonski model the following schools are overfunded relative to the Gonski school resourcing standards:

  • Darwin High School – overfunded by around $2 million
  • Palmerston Senior College – overfunded by around $2 million
  • Moil Primary School – overfunded by more than $1.3m,
  • Taminmin College – overfunded by $2.5m,
  • Bradshaw Primary School – overfunded by more than $900,000.

These are all schools in Darwin or Alice Springs with comparably low numbers of Indigenous students.

The I Give a Gonski website look up table lists the percentage increases Indigenous NT remote schools would have received under the Gonski funding principles. The following examples show clearly the degree of underfunding:

  • Shepherdson College – needs an increase of 73%
  • Yuendumu School –needs an increase of 60%
  • Umbakumbar School – needs an increase of 86%
  • Alekarenge School – needs a increase of 68%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know who I am more angry at:

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

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

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



Tony Abbott backs US-style corporate schools for Australia

I am delighted to be able to post this piece from my friend Lyndsay Connors.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised before the election that there would be ‘no surprises’ from a government under his leadership.

True to form, it is no surprise that he would come out with an announcement, during his visit to New York, ‘that the federal government will unveil plans next month for an Americanised education system in which schools are run in partnership with big companies and children educated to work specifically for those companies or others in the same field’ (Australian Financial Review, 13/6/14, p.6).

Similarly, it is no surprise that some big companies, like cuckoos, would like to lay their own eggs in the schools and systems that are the product of past investment by others – public and private.
Of course, while not being surprised, we can still be shocked.

From my personal standpoint, it is now several decades since my youngest child completed schooling.

Thinking now of my grandchildren, I would be the last to attempt to push them forward ahead of others to experience the benefits of Tony Abbott’s latest brainwave.

No, let the young Pynes, Hockeys and Cormanns be the first to benefit from this educational innovation. Let them reap the rewards of schools designed to prepare them to work for one or another of our big companies. Let them ride this exciting wave first.

The previous Labor government was a disappointment in this regard. When PM Julia Gillard took herself to America, Joel Klein was the New York schools city Chancellor. ThePM waxed lyrical about him, as if he were the repository of wisdom on all things educational, but in no time at all his star appeared to wane. Let us hope that those who plan to have their children’s education curriculum shaped by Rupert Murdoch or his ilk have better luck.

It is reasonable to assume that the schools to be first in the queue to gain the advantages of the Americanised education system will be those to whom Tony Abbott and his government, according to Christopher Pyne, have an ‘emotional’ commitment (see That would be both fair and logical. After all, these are the schools that, leaving aside the small matter of their significant reliance on public funding, are in the vanguard when it comes to privatisation. They are in a state of readiness for the new regime. Many of them even have their own chaplains.

It would be too embarrassing, in my view, for IBM or other corporate players, to have to deal with the likes of the schools my grandchildren attend. The amateurish school fetes, the various ‘spellathons’ and ‘walkathons’ – it would be too humiliating to draw the attention of rich and powerful corporations to these motley attempts at private fund-raising.

Then I think of the many P&C meetings I have attended. To be frank, it would quite beyond the level of sophistication generally found in these associations to handle the kinds of complexity that could arise in the new ‘corporate pathways’ academies. No way could most of them cope, for example, with takeovers. They would be quite out of their depth in the kind of situation that might arise where the company arranging their children’s curriculum and future employment gets swallowed up by an entirely different corporation – possibly an overseas one.

No, it is clear that ideas as imaginative as those envisaged by our Prime Minister can only be handled by the private schools. Not only does he have a soft spot for them, but these are also the schools with which his Government, according to Minister Pyne, will retain a ‘direct’ relationship that will obviate the need for messy negotiations with states and territories.

Under the new Americanised scheme, these schools can be encouraged to shed the shackles of government funding. Consistent with the end of the ‘age of entitlement, they can be freed to seek any subvention they need on top of their fees and other sources of private income from Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates or other corporate leaders.

As for public schools and their supporters, they deserve to be left to their own devices. When it comes to their vision for their children’s schooling, many of them are not yet ready to move on from Henry Parkes to Henry Ford.

Keeping the #Gonski promise alive: finding allies in unlikely places

I was one of the 700 odd people who attended the Jean Blackburn Oration last week where David Gonski broke his silence for the very first time post the Gonski Report Publication. To be honest I was not at all sure what to expect Gonski to say. But I hoped that what he said would assist the hard fought campaign to have need based funding implemented in Australia.

My initial reaction was one of mild disappointment. Gonski is not a firebrand. But now I have read the reports of this event in the media re-read his speech I now realize that there were quite a number of very important messages in his address that need to be teased out.

This article focuses on what might be considered a ‘by the way observation’ by Gonski which goes as follows

 The 11 months of work was an eye opener for me. As a businessman working in an ivory tower I was given what may be a once in my life time opportunity to go into schools and associated organisations.

I saw:

The calibre of people who were principals of schools in the school visits I personally made. I don’t believe I found one I didn’t admire and respect. Some I liked more than others. Some handled me better than others but all had a quality of leadership which was both impressive and inspiring.

The difference between well-endowed schools and those in lower socioeconomic areas which is enormous.

I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked. To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.

He repeated this observation later in his talk

I cannot easily forget the differences I saw in the schools I visited. To say that many of the schools in the state systems need further assistance both in money and tender loving care is to me an understatement.

So here is a highly successful business man admitting he did not realise just how neglected many public schools are in comparison with schools he is more familiar with. And as a man of spare words he made this point not just once but twice.

On rereading these two extracts I was reminded of two submissions to the Gonski Review that are noteworthy because of their differences in content and flavour although both came from the top end of town – in this case Banking.

The one that produced the most media reaction was submitted by the National Australia Bank[1].

While currently unable to quote from the submission this SMH article about it notes that

 The National Australia Bank has entered the highly charged debate about school funding with a submission insisting private school funding be maintained in real terms and claiming that non-government schools save taxpayers money…

The submission argues that parents have a right to choose a non-government school for their child, and says any reduction in funding for private schools would have a ”detrimental” impact and place a greater financial burden on parents.

‘Parents of students in non-government schools already save governments billions of dollars each year in choosing to utilise the non-government system.

What infuriated public educators was not just its blatant promotion of top end schools that must be among its important clients, but its complete lack of comment about the adequacy of public education funding, – and this from an organisation that is promoting its corporate citizenship through its involvement in the Schools First Initiative.

The submission prompted Lyndsay Connors the then president of the Australian College of Educators to remark that:

 The purpose of public funding for schools is not to add to the attractiveness of independent schools as NAB customers or to the profits that NAB makes. In a true democracy, governments fund schools to give every Australian child high-quality schooling that offers each of them an equally good chance of success, whatever their family or community circumstances.

The Australian Education Union demonstrated their concern by publicising their letter to Mr Clyne Group CEO of NAB as follows

We write to express our deep disappointment with your organisation’s submission to the Australian Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling, chaired by David Gonski.

The NAB submission is profoundly ignorant of the complexities of Australia’s schools’ funding system and exhibits a total disregard for the majority of Australian students attending public schools and their families.

The submission expresses a narrow view, concentrating on only two of the review’s terms of reference. It is silent on the broader issues raised by the review and therefore the broader challenges facing Australia’s schooling system, including a commitment to equity and addressing barriers to achievement.

Not only is the NAB submission silent on the range of matters being addressed by the Review, it aligns the bank firmly with one set of vested interests. It falls well short of balance that one would expect of a submission from such a significant organisation.

The NAB has sought to present itself as a responsible corporate citizen through the Schools First program, aimed at recognising and promoting school and community partnerships. This has now been brought in to question.


The Commonwealth Bank Submission could not have been more of a contrast.

Here is the Australian Education Union commentary on this Submission

The submission highlighted Mr. McComas’ significant concerns about the poor condition of the building infrastructure in the government school system across Australia; notably that:

– Government primary school facilities (described as the “National Education Estate”) are generally of a lower standard relative to equivalent facilities in the Catholic and Independent school systems.

– The divide between Government and non‐Government schools could not be greater; e.g. some government schools (large and small) are housed entirely in non‐permanent accommodation; permanent accommodation in many locations is unsuitable to current teaching styles and is poorly maintained; administration and non‐teaching facilities in many facilities are of an unacceptable standard; and sporting and extra‐curricular facilities are poor or non‐existent.

It goes on in quite same detail and in this extract we learn just why these two submissions are so different:

 Having seen first‐hand the current standard of the government schools “National Education Estate” it’s no surprise that retention rates are low, that school teacher morale is low, and that academic and extra‐curricular achievement are failing many students.

In dividing up scarce educational dollars and establishing a framework for the funding and development of associated infrastructure, please don’t ignore the immediate need and ongoing responsibility to rebuild a large proportion of the government schools “National Education Estate”.

There is an immediate and urgent need to introduce minimum standards for educational facilities across states and educational jurisdictions based on best practise, for the benefit of all students.

You see Malcom McComas, who penned this Submission for the Commonwealth Bank, had been on the Audit Review Team for the Review of the Building the Education Revolution Initiative. He saw with his own eyes just how run down public schools were in comparison to schools normally associated with CEOs

So on the basis of this admittedly small sample of three powerful ruling class men I say to you invite your local persons of influence into your schools. If they attended a top end school, and are influential in business, the community, politics, or the media, so much the better.

I am as guilty as the next passionate public education campaigner of assuming that parents, teachers, principals, and administrators of non-Government schools have a vested interest in not supporting a fully funded needs based aspirational system but this is not actually the case. We have a wide base of passive support and we can turn that into active support. We need powerful allies and we can help to deliver that.

The vocal and outraged response to the budget from articulate people who are not personally affected, should remind us that most Australians can see that there is such a thing as “the common interest” and that a high quality education for all is a core and mandatory part of this “Common Wealth”

What they don’t yet share is knowledge and understanding at an intellectual, emotional and visceral level of the stark contrasts between the amenity of most non-Government schools and the amenity of struggling schools. They need to be shown.

So let them come. Make them come. Invite them to spend time in your schools. Do what takes to get them there.

I will finish with a quote from one of our greatest allies: Michael Kirby who wrote that:

Many current leading politicians did not attend public schools. They can hardly be blamed if they are not much aware of the ideals and achievements of public education or if they fall victim to stereotypes. Every effort must be made to invite members of Parliament (federal and state) to visit public schools. There they will witness the often-desperate needs of the teachers and students in that sector.  


[1] It is interesting and disappointing to note that the Gonski Review Submissions have disappeared from the DEEWR Website and I am sure it is not because they are running out of space.

Submission to the NT Indigenous Education Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Section One: Funding Accountability, Adequacy and transparency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They might put different weightings on different needs – e.g. they might give extra weight to higher levels of low socio-economic status, remoteness of school, ESL needs, percentage of single parents or use enrolment data about parent occupation and education. The NT, with the highest levels of inequality between its top and bottom schools, does not. I used to wonder why they bothered wasting highly skilled staff resources on undertaking a staffing review, but the above experience suggests an answer.

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

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

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

Why /How did this happen?

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

The following reasons come to mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section two: developing English language proficiency and literacy

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

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

Almost 100 per cent of children who grow up in some of the larger discrete Indigenous communities in remote NT speak another language, or more frequently languages. This doesn’t just mean that these children speak another language; it means that they don’t speak English and they don’t hear it spoken in the home, in the playground, in the community, at social functions, on the radio, in shops and in church.

They live in a non-English speaking world, until they arrive at school. At school one of the goals should be to support all children to be competent users of the English language.  But they don’t just need to learn to read and write, they need, first to learn to speak and understand. They will come across English words that have no parallel meaning in their language, home language words and concepts that are not able to be readily translated into English words, phonemes in their language that are not used in the English language and many English phonemes do not exist in their languages.

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

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

Well how do others learn a whole new unfamiliar language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then it curiously adds the following

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have three points to make about this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section three: your solution for secondary education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in solidarity

Margaret Clark

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

Holding Ken Wiltshire to the flame of his own promises

This week Ken Wiltshire, one of the two reviewers of the National Curriculum,  responded to the widespread concern about the quality and impartiality of the recently announced National Curriculum Review   Critics of school curriculum review too quick to perceive a threat instead of potential way forward.

In this article he promises a review that is professional, independent, balanced and robust based on a methodology that will be methodology comprehensive and objective.  This will include the appointment of experts  for each subject area to evaluate those components of the curriculum.

What is not to like about this?

Well there are a few problems still Mr Wiltshire.

The first most glaring problem is the other person with whom you will have to work.  Kevin Donnelly is one of the least professional, balanced or independent educational commentators I can think of in Australia today.  There is no evidence that he can or is capable of changing his spots.  But enough has already been said about this.

The second problem I have is about professionalism and respect. You tell us this will be a professional process.  Now I do assume that being professional includes being respectful.  But your use of the adjective ‘disgruntled’ to describe a letter of concern from over 150 professional educators does make we wonder.  Can you commit to respectful too perhaps?

There is one final thing Mr Wiltshire.  Would you be willing to add the word ‘open’ to your list of promises?  You encourage us all to contribute to the process but do not assure us our contributions will be made public.  Openness and transparency are features of all outstanding reviews in my book.  The Bradley Review of Higher Education and the Gonski Review are great examples of this.