Giving indigenous children access to education should be a bipartisan priority
IN his address to the Sydney Institute on March 15, Tony Abbott announced that if he wins the federal election in September, “Australia will have a prime minister for indigenous affairs”.
He explained that all government agencies working on issues to do with Aboriginal Australia would in his new administration report to the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The energetic Opposition Leader regularly spends one week each year doing volunteer work in remote communities in the Northern Territory and the fact that he allocated a full one-hour address to indigenous issues demonstrates the significance that he ascribes to them.
In indigenous affairs there certainly seems to be a mood for change, even in areas that have traditionally supported Labor. At the last NT election, Aboriginal voters turned heavily against the ALP, while more recently an Aboriginal Territory politician, Adam Giles of the Country Liberal Party, became Australia’s first indigenous head of government.
Despite these momentous events, an issue of importance to our national identity continues to bedevil Territorian affairs, namely the lack of provision of educational opportunity in remote communities.
When he visited the Territory at the request of the NT Council of Government School Organisations, author and Aboriginal education activist Noel Beddoe was shocked at what he learned. When Beddoe asked two senior bureaucrats of the NT Department of Education “How many young people living in the remote, isolated communities have no educational provision of any kind?” the answer he received was “No one knows – maybe two thousand”.
Last week, the president of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, told me he believes the figure of 2000 is conservative. The AEU represents the teachers who work on the ground in government schools in the Territory. Beddoe puts the situation thus: “Let’s be clear, these are school-aged children, Australian citizens, who have no schools, no fly-in teachers, no correspondence education, no opportunity of any kind to be educated. Yet Australia is a country that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the education of children in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.”
The Coalition spokesman for indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion, regards the situation as utterly unacceptable. “The matters with which we’re dealing are appalling,” Scullion says. “We have filthy, run-down schools; schools that open a couple of days a week; nice new schools and boarding facilities that have no students in them; perhaps thousands of youngsters who have no educational provision of any kind.”
Surely this state of affairs shames us as a nation?
Last week, the federal Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett, told me he believed the figure of 2000 was exaggerated. Nevertheless, Garrett agrees that even if the figure is in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the situation is unacceptable.
One response of the federal Labor government has been to commit a one-off grant of $28.9 million to the creation of boarding facilities to meet the needs of remote students. Unfortunately the program is significantly behind schedule. Garrett explains that progress in the Warlpiri Triangle in the NT was at the point of proceeding when unrelated conflict broke out between Aboriginal groups. In its aftermath, vital consensus was lost. “I understand the urgency which people feel,” Garrett says. “That doesn’t excuse rushing through of provisions lacking necessary community understanding and support. We do need to get this right. Community endorsement of planning is vital. The issue is affected by profound student mobility, by cross-border issues involving the government of states and territories, by the fact that, at least in theory, education is a responsibility of state and territorial governments, so negotiation is necessary and momentum is lost when governments change.”
Nevertheless, Garrett points out that NAPLAN results have suggested recent improvements in the performance of Territorian Aboriginal children. Moreover, the proposed Gonski reforms would, he argues, attach certain necessary improvements to the provision of further funding.
It is difficult to doubt Garrett’s commitment. And his understanding of the detail concerning individual communities is impressive. But some question the focus on residential provision as a key answer to indigenous education. While accepting that such measures may be one part of an appropriate response, Scullion criticises aspects of implementation: “They’ve built a lovely facility near Uluru, Ngaanyatjaara. Nice buildings, fully staffed. It hasn’t got any students living in it! At Weipa in Queensland, $30m was spent on one of these hostels. A month into this school year it was 80 per cent empty. Two hostels in the Territory have not been built despite having been planned three years ago. And why would you place residential facilities near schools which are failing?”
At the very least, the placement of these structures is a matter for extremely careful planning. Gavrielatos is concerned that where a residential facility is provided, students should be able to regularly return to their families and communities.
“Parents are concerned that they’ll lose their children,” he says. “If this concern isn’t met, residential institutions will fail.” He also sees local schools as being potential centres of community activity.
Scullion is adamant that facilities, particularly at primary school level, need to be located close to where children live: “When the government has provided schools, parents should have the same responsibility of all Australian citizens to see that their children attend. No excuses.”
Anyone who believes that the solution to the vital issue of indigenous access to education is a simple matter has probably never visited remote communities in the NT. Distance, factors of infrastructure, social dislocation, and crises of identity all have an impact in ways unimagined in urban and suburban Australia.
Garrett is particularly concerned at the high rate of teacher turnover. But it seems to me that this is not the most important issue. The stark reality is that, at present, we have many indigenous children who have no way to access any form of education. It is well past time that this matter was given political primacy.
Garrett has expressed the wish that, to resolve the matter, a bi-partisan approach should be taken about indigenous access to education.
It seems to me that this is one area where a combined national effort could be achieved. The truth is that no federal election is going to be won or lost on the basis of things done or not done for the education of children in remote Australia, particularly in the NT.
Perhaps our best way forward to resolve this crucial matter would be to put party differences aside and create a long-term coalition of interests that could remedy this stain on our national character.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books.
‘The Weekend Australian March 30-31, 2013, Inquirer p 18