Indigenous uplift begins in class: here’s how Canberra can help
First published in The Australian, 8 December 2018
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 10-year 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 most-favoured 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.