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Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Page: 634

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (11:05 AM) —I rise to address the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008. This bill provides an additional $7.162 million over the 2008 year for the recruitment of 50 of the additional 200 promised teachers for schools in the Northern Territory. Obviously any increase in the number of teachers to work in Indigenous communities is very welcome, but 50 or even 200 teachers must only ever be seen as a start. A recent Australian Education Union report called Education is the key: an education future for Indigenous communities in Northern Territory estimated that on the basis of the 2006 census data it would seem that some 7,500 children aged from three to 17 years could be missing out on preschool and school. Provision for these students would require an additional 660 teachers. The report also estimated that if all Indigenous children attended school full time—as opposed to, on average, 60 per cent of the time currently—an additional 700 teachers would be required. That is 1,360 extra teachers that are needed—many more than the 200 that the government has so far promised. That does not include the 300 extra assistant teachers, 85 extra teacher assistants for preschool programs, 100 home liaison officers and 100 extra Aboriginal and Islander education workers that the report also recommends.

We hear a huge amount about the appalling life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, a 17-year gap that has not improved in decades. The statistics for education are equally appalling. Too many Indigenous children continue to fail to read, to write or to count at even a basic level. Most Indigenous children unfortunately are already behind when they get to school and staying longer at school does not appear to necessarily improve their skills. The figures from the national report on schooling in Australia clearly tell the story. Fewer Indigenous students meet year 7 benchmarks for literacy and numeracy than Indigenous children in year 3. According to the National report on schooling in Australia 2006, the proportion of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory who meet the writing benchmarks falls from 33 per cent in year 3 to 26 per cent in year 7 and the proportion of Indigenous children who meet the numeracy benchmarks falls from 65 per cent in year 3 to 30 per cent in year 7. The proportion of Indigenous children who meet the reading benchmarks stays about the same, 40 per cent in year 3 and 39 per cent in year 7. Compare this to the year 7 figures for all students, 89 per cent of whom meet the reading benchmarks, 92 per cent the writing benchmarks and 80 per cent the numeracy benchmarks—twice the rate of their Indigenous counterparts.

The situation in remote communities is worse still. In 2006 fewer than two in 10 children in very remote Territory communities passed the reading benchmark, less than one in 10 the writing benchmark and one in 10 the numeracy benchmark. We know that a child must attend school for at least four days of every week for 13 years to reach the national benchmarks for reading, writing and mathematics, but we also know that conservatively 20 per cent of Indigenous children are rarely going to school. The Department of Employment, Education and Training has estimated that there could be as many as 2,000 children aged six to 15 who are not enrolled in compulsory schooling at all. Despite some improvements, an enormous gap remains in retention rates for year 7 to year 12 between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Only four in 10 Indigenous students stay at school until year 12 compared with three out of four non-Indigenous students who stay on.

These significant disparities that remain between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes limit the post-school options and life choices of Indigenous students and perpetuate intergenerational cycles of social and economic disadvantage. Without a doubt education is a central element of removing the disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and more resources for education across the board are long overdue. The Indigenous population is young: 40 per cent of Indigenous people are under 15 years of age compared with 20 per cent of the non-Indigenous population. The Indigenous population is also growing at twice the annual rate projected for the rest of the population. Indigenous students represent an increasing proportion of all students, particularly in government schools. And the parents and grandparents of those Indigenous students struggled with the school system themselves. There is therefore an urgent need to tackle the view that the disparity in the educational outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is ‘normal’.

But the terrible level of Indigenous educational disadvantage will not be tackled by simplistic solutions. While we strongly support more teachers, the Democrats have great concerns that adequate attention has not been given to the practicalities of implementing this initiative or to the additional resources that will be needed to make it a success. There is already a national shortage of teachers and strong competition amongst the nation’s schools to attract them. Rural and remote regions are already the hardest hit by the teacher shortage—a shortage that the Democrats have been drawing to the attention of governments for at least the last 10 years—and if the NT is to successfully attract and retain extra qualified teachers it will need to offer substantial incentives that make teaching in the communities that are involved in the emergency intervention attractive. Those incentives will need to include a variety of measures such as monetary incentives, additional leave entitlements for travel, subsidised travel, professional development and promotion opportunities and adequate subsidised housing.

I recall standing in a very small remote community in the Northern Territory called Djamada and asking a visiting teacher where exactly she stayed when she arrived there for four days of every fortnight or something like that. She said that she stays around here, and gestured to the general environment. I asked where exactly she meant, and it turned out that she brought a tent with her in the back of her utility vehicle and pitched a tent in order to teach Indigenous students. She was very young and no doubt did not mind those sorts of conditions, but I doubt very much that an experienced teacher would put up with that kind of thing. In particular, if there are to be more teachers, they will need to be experienced teachers who can mentor in schools to develop the skills needed to improve literacy and numeracy. There are still too many teachers with little preparation for teaching Indigenous students. We know that the majority of those teachers come straight from university and have little experience teaching, let alone experience teaching in Indigenous schools. So we need incentives to encourage experienced and accomplished teachers out into those schools.

We need better and more comprehensive teacher induction and in-service training—programs that cover cultural awareness and language diversity. This is a crucial issue. I have been in schools where no teacher in the school has even the most minimal grasp of the Indigenous language which is being spoken at home and most commonly by the students that attend that school. We cannot all learn Indigenous languages—I understand that—but it seems to me that if you are going to make education relevant within those communities then something needs to change in terms of recognition of the language most often spoken by those children.

There is also a lack of recognition in this bill of the importance of building the Indigenous community’s own professionally qualified teaching workforce. There are very few Indigenous teachers in Australia. Even in the Northern Territory, where roughly 30 per cent of the population is Indigenous, only 3.6 per cent of the registered teachers identify as of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. And many of these teachers have not completed the normal four-year qualification for teaching. In order to provide teachers for specific communities, to provide role models for Aboriginal students and to encourage diversity within the profession, there needs to be specifically targeted programs to recruit Aboriginal teachers. I know we have been trying to do this for some time but much greater effort needs to be made here. To do that we need to create special training programs that are located in remote communities. We need mentoring programs and specific support at the beginning of Aboriginal teachers’ careers. It is not easy but it must be something which is tackled with greater emphasis. But there is no provision in this bill, as far as I can see, to upgrade the qualifications of underqualified teachers to reach acceptable standards.

Increasing the number of Indigenous teachers in schools is key to expanding the educational opportunities of students. This would ensure that Indigenous students have access to teachers who understand their language, their culture and their learning needs. I think we need to revisit the merits of bilingual education, and Indigenous teachers are well placed to support bilingual schooling where it is seen as appropriate by those communities. Some Indigenous students start school speaking standard, so-called Australian English. However, the majority will speak a form of Aboriginal English, or a creole, one or more Indigenous languages or a combination of these as their first language. Learning in one’s own first language allows children to move from the known to the unknown in their schooling and enables them to acquire a second language with greater ease. At the very least, we should be looking at making sure that many more non-Indigenous teachers in Aboriginal schools have formal qualifications in English as a second language. As the Little children are sacred report points out, classes of 20 children with no English, or a bare minimum of understanding and whose teachers speak only English, are unlikely to engage students, particularly those students, I might add, who have experienced otitis media. As we all know, that infection causes deafness, which can be permanent in Indigenous students, and that is another reason why they typically do not last the year, or even the term, at those schools.

According to an Australian Education Union report five years ago, teachers with ESL experience estimated that an additional 100 positions were needed. But in 2007 it estimated that that figure would be 120 positions. And we cannot forget that, if we want all Indigenous children to attend schools and we want more teachers, then we need to make sure that the facilities are there for those students and their teachers. That means more classrooms, upgrading existing schools, more books, music and audiovisual equipment, and of course computers. It was some time, after going into several schools on various committee inquiries into Indigenous education, before I discovered a school in an Indigenous community which actually had computers. There is obviously a different rule for Indigenous schools than for others in the Northern Territory, at least.

We welcome the extra 50 teachers. They are clearly insufficient to seriously address the current needs, let alone future needs, so I urge the government to think seriously about this. I also urge the Minister for Education and the government to look more broadly at the education needs of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and to do so with some urgency, because this matter has been allowed to fester by previous governments for far too long to be allowed by this one to continue. I would refer the minister to the many reports I have mentioned and to the many recommendations which were made, with Labor support at the time, so that we can implement those many important recommendations as quickly as possible.