In­dige­nous up­lift be­gins in class: here’s how Can­berra can help

Fed­eral sup­port can boost strate­gies to im­prove school at­ten­dance in re­mote ar­eas

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - For­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott is the spe­cial en­voy for in­dige­nous af­fairs. This is an edited ex­tract from his state­ment to par­lia­ment on Thurs­day. TONY AB­BOTT

To live in Aus­tralia is to have won the lot­tery of life — un­less you hap­pen to be one of those whose an­ces­tors have been here for tens of thou­sands of years. That’s the Aus­tralian para­dox. Vast num­bers of peo­ple from around the world would risk death to be here, yet the First Aus­tralians of­ten live in the con­di­tions that peo­ple come to Aus­tralia to es­cape. We are the very best of coun­tries, ex­cept for the peo­ple who were here first.

And this gnaws away, a stand­ing re­proach to ide­al­ists and pa­tri­ots of all stripes. Why don’t the ob­jec­tive out­comes for Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians match those of ev­ery­one else? This is the one ques­tion that has haunted us al­most since the very first Aus­tralia Day; and it al­ways will, un­til it’s fixed.

Amid all the gen­er­ally de­press­ing in­di­ca­tors on in­dige­nous Aus­tralia, this one stands out. In­dige­nous peo­ple who fin­ish school or com­plete a de­gree have much the same em­ploy­ment out­comes and life ex­pectan­cies as other com­pa­ra­ble Aus­tralians. And it stands to rea­son that to have a de­cent life, you’ve got to have a job; and to have a job, you’ve got to have a rea­son­able ed­u­ca­tion.

Across the coun­try, school at­ten­dance is about 93 per cent. But among Abo­rig­i­nal kids it is just 83 per cent. In very re­mote schools — where the pupils are mostly in­dige­nous — at­ten­dance is 75 per cent, and only 36 per cent of re­mote stu­dents are at school at least 90 per cent of the time, which is what ed­u­ca­tors think is needed for school­ing to be ef­fec­tive. Not sur­pris­ingly, in re­mote schools only 60 per cent of pupils are meet­ing the na­tional min­i­mum stan­dards for read­ing.

Pos­ing this sim­ple ques­tion — how do we get every child to go to school every day? — prompted a teacher in Gali­winku in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, an el­der who has been there since the 1970s, to sigh that she had been asked the same ques­tion for 40 years. And that’s be­cause af­ter all that time the an­swer still eludes us.

Yes, if there were more lo­cal jobs and a stronger lo­cal econ­omy; if hous­ing weren’t as over­crowded; if fam­ily trauma weren’t as preva­lent, and sorry busi­ness so fre­quent; if the sly grog­ging and all-night par­ties stopped; if there were more in­dige­nous teach­ers and other suc­cess­ful role mod­els; if pupils didn’t have hear­ing prob­lems or foetal al­co­hol syn­drome; and maybe if in­dige­nous recog­ni­tion had taken place and land claims had been fi­nalised … it might be eas­ier.

In their own way, these all feed into the is­sue; but if we wait for ev­ery­thing to be ad­dressed, lit­tle will ever be achieved. There are all sorts of rea­sons a par­tic­u­lar child may not be at school on any one day but there’s re­ally noth­ing that can jus­tify (as op­posed, some­times, to ex­plain) the chronic non-at­ten­dance of so many re­mote in­dige­nous chil­dren.

There have been plenty of pol­icy flip-flops through the years as new gov­ern­ments and new min­is­ters try to rein­vent the wheel, but in most states and ter­ri­to­ries 10year strate­gies are in place, closely mon­i­tor­ing every pupil’s progress and move­ment, stress­ing staff con­ti­nu­ity, back-to-ba­sics teach­ing and com­mu­nity in­volve­ment, and get­ting moth­ers and their new ba­bies straight into the school en­vi­ron­ment. These strate­gies have out­lived changes of gov­ern­ment and min­is­ter.

In other words, there’s fi­nally broad agree­ment on what needs to be done and a col­lec­tive of­fi­cial de­ter­mi­na­tion to see it through, rather than be blown off course by each you-beaut new idea.

At least some re­mote com­mu­nity lead­ers haven’t shirked the “tough love” con­ver­sa­tion that’s needed with their own peo­ple and have ac­cepted re­stric­tions on how wel­fare can be spent, with the debit card in Ku­nunurra, Ce­duna and Kal­go­or­lie, and the Fam­ily Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties Com­mis­sion in many of the com­mu­ni­ties of Cape York.

I’m much more con­fi­dent than I ex­pected to be that, left to their own de­vices, the states and ter­ri­to­ries will man­age steady if patchy progress to­wards bet­ter at­ten­dance and per­for­mance. What will be hard to over­come is the propen­sity of com­mu­ni­ties to find ex­cuses for kids’ ab­sences, and the re­luc­tance of school sys­tems to tai­lor-make in­cen­tives for re­mote teach­ers. This is where the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could come in: to back strong lo­cal in­dige­nous lead­er­ship mak­ing more ef­fort to get their kids to school.

We need to at­tract and re­tain bet­ter teach­ers to re­mote schools. And we need to em­power re­mote com­mu­nity lead­er­ship that’s ready to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for what hap­pens there. The ob­jec­tive is not to dic­tate to the states their de­ci­sions about teach­ers’ pay but to work with them so that what­ever they do is more ef­fec­tive. It’s not to im­pose new rules on re­mote com­mu­ni­ties but to work with lo­cal lead­ers who want change for the bet­ter.

As en­voy, my job is to make rec­om­men­da­tions rather than de­ci­sions, but rec­om­men­da­tions with a good chance of suc­cess be­cause they’re con­sis­tent with the gov­ern­ment’s val­ues and its pol­icy di­rec­tion.

First, the gov­ern­ment should work with the states and ter­ri­to­ries to in­crease sub­stan­tially the salary sup­ple­ments and the re­ten­tion bonuses (if any) paid to teach­ers work­ing in very re­mote ar­eas.

Se­cond, it should waive the HECS debt of teach­ers who, af­ter two years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in other schools, teach in a very re­mote school and stay for four years.

Third, com­mu­ni­ties ready to con­sider the debit card or ar­range­ments akin to it, to boost the ca­pac­ity of lo­cal pupils to at­tend school, should have their most­favoured projects fast-tracked as a form of mu­tual obli­ga­tion be­tween gov­ern­ment and com­mu­ni­ties.

Fourth, the Re­mote School At­ten­dance Strat­egy should be funded for a fur­ther four years, with some re­fine­ments to ob­tain more lo­cal school buy-in and bet­ter com­mu­nity in­tel­li­gence, and to en­cour­age en­gage­ment with lo­cal hous­ing au­thor­i­ties and po­lice.

Fifth, the Good to Great Schools pro­gram that has rein­tro­duced phon­ics and dis­ci­plined learn­ing should be funded for an­other year to en­able fur­ther eval­u­a­tion and em­u­la­tion.

And sixth, the gov­ern­ment should match the Aus­tralian In­dige­nous Ed­u­ca­tion Foun­da­tion’s pri­vate and phil­an­thropic fund­ing on an on­go­ing ba­sis. Of­fi­cial­dom never likes se­lec­tive schemes that send peo­ple to elite schools, but this one is work­ing to lift peo­ple’s hori­zons, to open peo­ple’s hearts and to cre­ate an in­dige­nous mid­dle class with the kinds of net­works that peo­ple in the fed­eral par­lia­ment can in­vari­ably take for granted.

In every state and ter­ri­tory, it’s com­pul­sory for school-age chil­dren to be en­rolled and not to miss school without a good ex­cuse. But tru­ancy fines are of­ten in­ef­fec­tive when jail is the only mech­a­nism for mak­ing peo­ple pay. Hence my fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tion is that all debts to gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing on-the-spot fines, should be de­ductible from wel­fare pay­ments.

How­ever long my pub­lic life lasts — in gov­ern­ment or out of it, in par­lia­ment or out of it — I in­tend to per­se­vere in this cause. Some mis­sions, once ac­cepted, can never re­ally cease. Of course, the fu­ture for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple lies much more in their own hands than in mine, but get­ting more of them to school, and mak­ing their school­ing more use­ful, is a duty that gov­ern­ment must not shirk. An ex-PM has just one unique trait, and that’s a very big mega­phone, and I will con­tinue to use it to see this done.

This is my first state­ment to par­lia­ment on re­mote school at­ten­dance and per­for­mance, but it cer­tainly won’t be my last word on this ab­so­lutely vi­tal sub­ject.

We are the very best of coun­tries, ex­cept for the peo­ple who were here first

BRIAN CASSEY

Tony Ab­bott at Hope Vale School, Queens­land

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