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Indigenous education report misses the big picture

A recent report into Indigenous education that points the finger at schools and teachers missed the point. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Any work that shines a spotlight on the appalling state of education for Indigenous Australians is to be welcomed. And so Helen and Mark Hughes are to be commended for their latest effort, a report called Indigenous Education 2012 released by the Centre for Independent Studies.

But the report shows some glaring misunderstandings about Indigenous education and the Hughes team have continued to promulgate simplistic arguments about what is a wicked policy problem.

As someone who has spent years teaching literacy and numeracy in remote communities and researching Indigenous education issues, I find their analysis of Indigenous education in Australia worrying.

Only half the picture

In a series of publications since 2004, Helen Hughes has blamed poor Indigenous student outcomes on “separatist” education in the Northern Territory, “socialist experiments”, land rights, poor quality teachers, bilingual education, postmodern teaching techniques, Indigenous specific programs and welfare dependence.

The latest paper adds “school failure” and “pretend jobs” to this list. While such assertions may find resonance in those who have limited knowledge of Indigenous education, they must be examined against reality.

The Hughes’ research fails to grasp the well-established causal relationships between systemic neglect, socio-economic disadvantage, geographic isolation and poor health with educational outcomes.

These structural determinants of educational achievement are well-noted in research throughout the world, regardless of ethnicity, location or educational approach. Instead of acknowledging these factors as key barriers to be overcome in partnership with communities, their research denigrates the efforts of the people involved in education and community development. They do this through a naive attribution of blame.

A dose of reality

Indigenous education is characterised by a diversity of lifestyle and geographic location, differing histories of engagement with non-Indigenous Australia and a wide spectrum of aspirations for development. Furthermore, the daily routine of school in remote communities takes place against depressingly high rates of unemployment, early mortality, poor health, violence, crime, substance abuse and youth self harm and suicide.

Any consideration of education in remote regions of places like the Northern Territory must recognise the relationship between levels of attainment and poverty, health, housing, access to government services, infrastructure and socio-economic status.

These factors are not excuses for poor outcomes. They combine to constitute the reality within which teachers, students and parents battle every day to raise literacy and numeracy standards. These are the people that make up the schools that Helen Hughes wants to blame for failure.

Who to blame?

Rather than blaming teachers, parents and schools we need to ameliorate devastating legacies of poor health and underinvestment and get pedagogic approaches right. One example of how social variables can contribute to poor educational attainment in remote areas is the prevalence of hearing loss through ear infections.

In a survey of 1000 Indigenous students from remote communities, 79% were found to have an educationally significant hearing disability. This is just one of the myriad health factors that affect education outcomes for Indigenous students.

Similarly, John Taylor and Owen Stanley’s study of Wadeye found that under-spending on education totalled $3.2 million dollars per annum. For every dollar spent on a child elsewhere in the NT, only 0.47c was spent on a student at Wadeye. This underspend has most likely been replicated in other remote communities.

Underinvestment is compounded by a history of Commonwealth monies not being accessed or misspent by former NT governments. The Collins review, found that 46% of money designated for Indigenous Education was going straight to NT Treasury coffers as “on costs”.

This is the extra money, the Indigenous specific expenditure these schools desperately need that Helen Hughes wants to characterise as largess. This is in a context where no high school facilities were provided in situ until 2005. The legacies of such neglect are wide ranging and intergenerational.

Testing tests

Teaching is a tough job and teaching in remote communities is as hard as it gets. Poor NAPLAN results are not an accurate or fair reflection of teachers or the schools they work in. Nor do they show a lack of direct classroom instruction.

We have had ten years of back to basics, literacy and numeracy programs in schools aimed at lifting NAPLAN scores. This is patently not working. The poor scores are a reflection of the deep social inequalities in our educational system.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in low socio-economic areas in other parts of Australia also achieve poorly on such tests. We have to ask, what are these tests really showing? Are they testing literacy and numeracy or are they simply showing us scales of social disadvantage?

It seems clear more nuanced measures of success and failure are needed as a basis to construct good policy.

Getting the facts straight

It is worth outlining a few other facts that Helen Hughes seems to have missed in her analysis. First, there has never been a separate system of education for Indigenous students. In fact 40.5% of students enrolled in the NT are Indigenous and attend urban high-schools and primary schools in Darwin and Alice Springs, as well as attending schools in remote areas.

All NT students study under the Northern Territory Curriculum Framework that covers key learning areas in math, science, English, social science, sports and Indigenous studies. It is based on international and national best practice. There is no separate curriculum for remote Indigenous students.

Second, the Northern Territory has a demographic profile that creates unique educational challenges. 75% of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous population reside in remote communities spread across 1,346,200 square kilometres.

There are 985 Indigenous communities in the NT with a total of 185 schools (151 public and 32 private schools). Getting the policy and implementation mix right is certainly not easy.

Third, phonetics, arithmetic and grammar exercises form a daily part of the teaching and learning cycle in the remote schools of the NT and have done for years. Curriculum frameworks are based on multi-disciplinary pedagogic approaches, not postmodernism.

It is also a fallacy to suggest that nonperformance of schools is causing Indigenous student failure.

Points of agreement

Despite these qualifications, the Hughes make some important points that I support. The chronic lack of expenditure on outstation education, by both the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Government is a disgrace.

Outstation schools should be properly funded and serviced. There are around 10,000 Aboriginal people living in outstations and the children that grow up there need a proper education.

I also concur that the need for standardised attendance data is palpable and that “fiddling” with truancy laws through mechanisms such as controlling welfare payments is a waste of time.

The challenges facing remote Indigenous education will not be overcome through attributing complex causes of poor outcomes to poor schools or bad teaching. Nor will they be overcome through proscriptive pedagogy.

Solutions will be long term and achieved through incremental hard work. We should maximise innovative policy arrangements, redress historic under-investment, concentrate on known factors of success such as community partnership and a mix of direct and indirect classroom instruction. And finally, demand real commitment from all levels of government for all Indigenous students.

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