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Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Page: 637

Senator CROSSIN (11:19 AM) —I rise to provide a contribution to the debate on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008. It gives me some pleasure to rise today to speak to this bill, which will see a very small start in really helping to close the gap in education in the Northern Territory between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. For many, many years we have seen the previous government pay little attention to Indigenous education, with minimum consultation of the parents and communities involved. Indeed, under the previous government, we saw many decisions made on what were pure economical grounds rather than sound, educational grounds. For example, they abolished the Indigenous parent groups in schools, ASPA committees, and took away in-class tuition in early childhood, where kids actually had to fail a year 3 MAP test before such tuition was made available. Such decisions were made with minimal real consultation with Indigenous parents and certainly, I think, with a very limited sound basis of educational research and rationale. They were indeed made despite findings in a DEST review that, while these programs might have been improved, there was in fact no justification for the massive changes that occurred in the programs.

As a result of these actions, Indigenous education severely suffered under the previous government. The executive summary of a national report to parliament on Indigenous education and training, which is dated 2005 but was tabled only some weeks ago, in 2008—so we are at least a year behind in this department under the previous government’s tabling of this report—states that the national literacy and numeracy benchmark test results show that Indigenous scores in 2005 were lower than the 2004 scores on eight of the nine benchmarks, and in eight of the nine cases the gaps between Indigenous and all student outcomes actually widened.

So, under the previous government’s 2005 reporting benchmarks, we see a situation that has worsened from the previous year, not improved. Further, that summary also states that the proportion of Indigenous students who achieved a year 12 certificate actually decreased to 49 per cent in 2005, while the proportion of non-Indigenous students increased to 87 per cent. At page 75, the national report states that progress against the 2005 IEP—Indigenous Education Program—targets are the lowest yet recorded, with only 16 per cent of all the total targets being achieved. Let us take stock and have a look. These brief figures from the national report demonstrate the lack of success of previous government policies in Indigenous education. It seems that all they achieved over the years was a reduction in spending on public education and a shuffling or reorganising of short-term programs with little chance of getting any results. There really is a need—and there is now a terrific opportunity with Labor being in government at the federal level and at the Northern Territory level under the ministership of Minister Marion Scrymgour—to have a really close look at what is happening in Indigenous education.

During the government’s Northern Territory intervention, we heard about an emphasis on the Little children are sacred report; we heard an emphasis on making sure that kids were checked, that health checks happened and that attention to kids’ health occurred. We talked about more policing and we talked about quarantining income support so that more money would be spent in shops on food for children. There has been a huge gap in the debate—that is, about Indigenous education. Very little has been said about Indigenous education. I spent last weekend scouring through probably 50 to 100 articles that have been written on the intervention since last August by a range of journalists, researchers and academics. I can find very few that link the lack of debate on education with the intervention in the Northern Territory. Everybody is talking about getting more kids to school and everybody is talking about the key to Indigenous education success in this country being raising the literacy and numeracy standards. But that is where the rhetoric stops. There is now a need in this country for a revolution in Indigenous education.

The figures that I have just read out show that what we have done in the past is clearly not working. I do not think that the former government ever took the time over its 11 years to do any analysis of that and to have the people in the department put to the minister that you cannot just keep churning out the same education dollars for schools in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australian and Queensland under the same model. It just is not working. Senator Allison alluded to some of the problems that are out there. But, after 28 years or so in the industry, I believe that the major problem out there is quite simple: we, as a nation, have to start to fund Indigenous education as we fund education for people who come from a non-English-speaking background. We fund migrants who arrive in this country at a better rate per hour, on a lower teacher-class ratio, than we do Indigenous kids in the bush. We have to stop having classes of 22.

I was at the community of Finke—Apatula—about five weeks ago. There was a very experienced teacher there, with probably some 16 to 20 years experience. She was making playdough with the kids. Then they were going to write up the process of how the playdough was made. She was standing in front of a year 2-3 composite class of 28 kids. I put it to you that most experienced teachers in the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, who have in front of them kids who have English as their first language, would be doing a mighty fine job if they could teach 28 kids in a year 2-3 composite class, let alone out bush in a place like Finke, where those children have English as probably a second, or maybe even a third, language. What we should have seen in that classroom was a comparable, experienced teacher working with her—one teacher to 14 kids. There should have been two teachers in that classroom. In fact, it should have been two classrooms. But we are not funding the system to provide for that. If we do not put resources in to intervention at the bottom level of children’s education, we are never going to lift the literacy and numeracy rates.

I also think it is time that we had a national centre of research for Indigenous education in this country. I see it in health. I see the Centre for Remote Health; I see the Menzies School of Health Research; I see organisations from James Cook University in Queensland dedicating all of their time and energies to medical and health research. For example, what is scabies? Why is it that kids get otitis media by the age of six weeks? What is the link between having dogs in the community and poor health? This dialogue is constantly happening in our country. The research is coming at us thick and fast, and we learn from it. But, when I look at the research around Indigenous education, I see pockets of people doing some great work in some parts of this country, but it is uncoordinated, and very little of it is published and promoted. What we seriously need now, I believe, is a funded centre for Indigenous education research—a centre that will ask why it is that the literacy and numeracy rates are going backwards in this country. Is it because of class sizes? Is it because of the lack of experience out there? Is it the lack of resources? What is it that we are not doing in Indigenous education to achieve the results that we want?

While ever we keep funding it, which I applaud, and while ever we keep giving 200 teachers to places like the Northern Territory, it will all help, but unless we have some sound research I do not think we are really targeting our resources in areas where they are most needed or in areas where the research justifies what we continue to do. We need to ask ourselves what it is about a school in a community that does not engage with Indigenous parents. Is it because parents do not understand what education is about? We do it in health. We teach Indigenous parents why they have to buy healthy food, why it is important that you wash your child every day and the link between having dogs in your camp site and poor health. We educate people about health outcomes all the time, but we never educate Indigenous people about why it is that you must send your child to school every day for 40 weeks of the year. Teachers know the answer to that—that is, if the child is developing, to actually achieve the next stage of their learning development they need to have an intensive interaction with the teacher for at least 40 weeks of the year. We know that, but do we impart that knowledge to Indigenous parents so they get to understand it? I think not. We do not have community liaison officers at every school around this country engaging with Indigenous people. We ought to fund that.

I was at Kalkaringi just two weeks ago, and about eight kilometres from Kalkaringi there is a little community called Daguragu. We have had a massive rainfall in the Territory this year, and at Daguragu the Waddy Creek was up. That meant that the kids could not get across that river and were not able to go to school for that day. What is the problem there? The first problem is this: the school attendance records that are now online under the SAM system do not allow teachers to record that students are unable to attend because the infrastructure is so poor that they cannot get across the river. You are either sick or you are not sick. The system does not actually allow us to know who cannot get to school because they cannot get down the road or across the river.

I did ask the community: ‘How many times a year does this happen. How many days in a year would kids miss school because they cannot get across the river?’ They said: ‘Sometimes it is 15 days a year, on and off—three days here, two days there. It can be as many as 15 days.’ You think about that—three weeks a year over 12 years of a child’s life is at least one year in their education cycle when they miss out on school simply because they cannot get across the river. Do we need to build a bridge? Probably not. The community is saying to me that a walk-over would be fine. If we could just build a fly-over that the kids could walk across to catch the bus, that would be great. But we do not ask these questions as part of our educational debate and research in this country. We never ask those communities that are out bush what prevents their children from going to school in terms of infrastructure—roads, access to the school. We do not ask those questions. If we do not start to ask those questions, find the answers and fund the answers then I do not believe the outcomes are going to improve over time.

So this government does have an opportunity—in fact a responsibility, I believe—to work for the future and to genuinely make the changes needed to improve Indigenous education outcomes. We will do so in partnership with both the Northern Territory government and Indigenous people themselves. I want to note and congratulate the Northern Territory government for finally appointing a new Indigenous Education Advisory Group. It is the only state or territory government around this country that had not done that. That has now been set up—the first time in many years that there has been such a body. The chair is Mark Motlop. I hope to meet with that advisory group soon. That is one step in a positive direction. Indigenous people in the Northern Territory voted overwhelmingly for the Australian Labor Party in the November election. They have put great trust in us to implement our policies in consultation with them, and this we are starting to do. We must be seen to continue this process, though, in an open and transparent way.

This bill is an example of a thoroughly practical measure for Indigenous education which will increase the overall resources available in Indigenous community schools. I want to congratulate the Australian Education Union, through its president, Nadine Williams, and Micaela Cronin, for producing a substantial piece of research that actually showed us what we would need if, under the intervention, the children in the Northern Territory that we think are not attending school—that is, about 2,000 of them—actually started to turn up to school. It sounds really simplistic, but they did the research that showed us how many classrooms would be needed, how many more chairs would be needed and how many more pencils would have to be bought if you suddenly had 2,000 children turning up on your doorstep to attend school. That is not the kind of work that had ever been contemplated by the previous federal government when the intervention was introduced.

Both the department and the Australian Education Union in the Northern Territory have long acknowledged the need for more teachers, and this funding can now make this a reality over the next four years. It will give schools a chance to use additional staff to improve staffing ratios and have smaller, more intensive classes in literacy and numeracy. It will enable schools to adopt a more appropriate English-as-a-second-language approach. When I was out bush the other week a teacher mentioned to me that, if you had smaller class sizes out there, you may well solve the retention rates and the occupational health and safety problems. And that is true. Smaller class sizes out bush would mean there would be more teachers in the school. More teachers in the school mean that you share the load. More teachers in the school mean that you have more colleagues to interact with and the isolation of a remote community may not seem as bad. So there are long-term benefits, not only in kids’ education but also in professional support for teachers if you were to adopt smaller student-teacher ratios.

This bill is educationally sound and it will make a positive contribution to Indigenous education over the years. However, we recognise it is only a start and that years of hard work will need to follow. This bill amends the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 and appropriates around $7 million to recruit the first 50 additional teachers for the Northern Territory—this from an eventual total of 200 additional teachers over a four-year period.

It is estimated that this will ultimately assist in the education of a further 2,000 additional students of compulsory school age who are currently not enrolled at schools in the 73 communities affected in the Northern Territory. We have never done any research or asked ourselves why we have never seen any of those children present themselves at a school in the Northern Territory. We still really do not know why those kids are not even turning up to school in the first place.

The figures show that in those 73 communities there are some 10,000 school age children and, as of last year, only around 8,000 were enrolled at school. So the children who are not going receive no education and are not counted on any staffing formula or resourcing for those schools in their communities. In addition, attendance is not good in many schools, and so these poorly attending children too are falling short in education outcomes. What many non-Territorians may not realise is that, for these Indigenous students from remote areas, English is at best their second language. In some cases it may be even their fourth or fifth language. To achieve English literacy results with such a student requires a different staff-student ratio. It does require more teachers.

So we have a picture of many kids not even enrolled, whom we need to capture, plus some poor attendees, most of whom struggle to come to grips with what the education system means. These children require intensive support to not only get them to school but keep them at school and then ensure there are some sorts of meaningful outcomes. This funding will be provided to DEET in the Northern Territory, who will then recruit, deploy and house these teachers. The federal government is, however, providing some additional funding under the NT intervention for the extra classrooms that will be required.

Recruiting additional teachers in itself will be a challenging task in this time of shortages. But teacher numbers are only part of it. In finishing, I want to quote Mark Doecke in the February 2008 Teacher:

It takes a special person to work with Aboriginal students, one who understands that the most important concern of families is a child’s wellbeing and that the three most important things in a child’s life are family, family and family.

So we can provide additional teachers to communities but, unless we start to engage the families in the education process, educate them about education, then we will have wasted our time again. (Time expired)