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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Language learning in Indigenous communities

BOX, Mr Lance Alan, Curriculum Coordinator, Yipirinya School Council


CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief introductory statement?

Mr Box : First of all I would like to apologise for Mervyn Rubuntja not being here. He was scheduled to speak and present this afternoon but some other pressing business came up and at the last minute he was not able to come. I was not able to organise an alternative council member. So I am going to try and represent the council as best I can. Obviously I am speaking from a school perspective, not for the Indigenous council members of the school.

CHAIR: Can you please tell us how your school is funded, for a start?

Mr Box : We are funded as a private school, so we receive some funds from the federal government and some funds from the Northern Territory government.

CHAIR: And you have some full-time and part-time staff there, as well. What is the mix?

Mr Box : Probably about 80 per cent full-time. We are a significant employer of Indigenous staff members. So a good majority of our staff members are Indigenous. Our council is fully Indigenous. The school was established by Indigenous elders to serve the Alice Springs town camps, the outlying communities and outstations of Alice Springs.

Dr STONE: So you were established as a request of the local people, Indigenous peoples?

Mr Box : That is correct.

Dr STONE: How are they engaged in the school now? Do the parents, grandparents and so on come in as very much coteachers? Are they bringing language into the school?

Mr Box : We are one of the few remaining schools in the Northern Territory that continue to teach Indigenous languages. We are swimming against the tide. In fact we teach four of the central desert languages. We teach Central Arrernte, Western Arrernte, Warlpiri and Luritja. The teachers of those four languages are first-language speakers. As I said, we have an Indigenous council. Then we have assistant teachers in the classroom, some of which are language speakers and some English-only speakers. Then we have ancillary staff around the school who are Indigenous folk.

Dr STONE: When your students complete their studies at your school, are you confident that they have good, strong traditional language and that they also have good Australian standard English?

Mr Box : We are dealing with highly dysfunctional town camps, and we are dealing with highly traumatised children. We are dealing with kids who come who have seen murders, who have seen abuse, who have seen all kinds of things. On a daily basis we are struggling to keep our heads above water in terms of just making sure that the place is safe. So in terms of being confident that we have strong language skills, no, we are not confident that we have strong language skills. But that is not the fault of teaching language; it is the fact that we are dealing with a milieu that opposes any kind of learning.

Dr STONE: These children—what would their retention rates be, daily attendance as well?

Mr Box : We probably vacillate between about 30 per cent and 80 per cent attendance, but you cannot predict it. On any particular day you cannot predict what it is going to turn out to be like.

Dr STONE: How do the students respond to learning traditional language? What does it mean to them? Do they sometimes come to school, perhaps, without any traditional language? How do they see that learning? Is it just another subject they cannot be bothered with, or is it a favourite subject that they learn in their classes? What is their response to that language learning?

Mr Box : For most of our kids, they come to school as language speakers. We have some Indigenous students who come as English-only speakers, but they come from families who do speak language. It is the family that chooses which of the four languages that our students learn. Some are actually learning a third language because there is some issue, or because we do not provide for their particular family's language and so they choose the closest one or the one of some distant family. For the younger kids, it is something they really, really love. For the older kids, though, language should be taught out on country. In the Warlpiri, we have a word called ngurra-kurlu, which is a term that speaks of the interrelatedness of five essential elements: land, law, language, kinship and ceremony. You cannot isolate any of these elements. All of those elements hang together. If you take people away from country, they cannot conduct ceremony, and if they do not conduct ceremony, they cannot teach strong language. Ceremony is the cradle to grave, a delivery place for education for Indigenous people. If you do not have ceremony and you do not have language, then your kinship breaks down. Then law breaks down and the whole thing falls apart.

The teaching of language really needs to be done in the context of country, but we have had the funding taken away from us. We formerly had a cultural principal. We had four language teachers. We had literacy workers to generate books in language. We had assistant teachers assisting the language teachers and we had other people helping in the whole language program. But we have now been reduced to simply four of the language teachers. We just do not get the funding to do as much of the country visit and bush trips and all of the other things that are really important for language. For the older kids, that makes the classroom context for trying to learn language boring—which it is because it should not be done in that context. It really needs to be done in the bush and it needs to be done in the cultural context, not in the four walls of a school.

Dr STONE: In part of that conversation then, you mentioned the writing materials, the development of curriculum materials—vocabularies, perhaps dictionaries. How is that developed in your school, because we deliver languages at ours—

Mr Box : I talk historically. It is not functioning properly now, because we just do not have the funding to do it. Historically, we would approach elders or elders would approach us. They would talk through stories and we would record those stories. Then we would write those stories down and produce big books, small books and other teaching resources in language: in Warlpiri, and in Central and Western Arrernte. Sometimes those stories could be translated across, sometimes not. We got our own printing facility and publishing facility, which used to be used a lot more than it is currently being used.

Mr HAASE: Is that shortage of application now because you have not got the funding to provide the staff necessary to use the equipment?

Mr Box : Not just the staff; it is the resources. It is costly to buy the paper, pay for the toner and maintain the photocopier and all the software and so it. It is just more than staff; there are a lot of resources that come with generating.

Mr HAASE: What was the event that changed the flow of funding?

Mr Box : It was a number of impinging events. Intervention has contributed. There is the four hours of English policy in the Northern Territory and along with that policy came the winding down of the supportive resources that the Northern Territory department of education provided for bilingual and Two Way Learning schools in the Northern Territory. Linguists were taken off and no longer made available or there was reduced availability and the money that schools could use had to be directed in other directions. But, being a private school, we just continue to do the best we can. We take it out of general revenue and we just continue, because our elders consider that language learning is very, very important.

Mr HAASE: You mentioned the difficulty of obtaining language teachers. Prior to restrictions on resources did you have a close relationship with graduates of Batchelor college?

Mr Box : We continue to have a good relationship with Batchelor college. Most of our Indigenous students are enrolled with Batchelor college. We provide release time for our Indigenous staff in the school context to continue with their studies. We give very good incentives for our Indigenous staff to study with Batchelor college and to gain certification and qualifications. We have actually had one of our staff members go through and qualify as a classroom teacher. She was teaching in our school until she had to leave due to pregnancy. She will be back. We have another two teachers who have recently enrolled in a diploma of teaching course. Hopefully, in three or four years time they will be qualified teachers.

Mr HAASE: They are currently studying at Batchelor?

Mr Box : They are currently studying through Batchelor Institute and currently work as assistant teachers in our school.

Mr HAASE: Are you aware that Charles Darwin University provides those same teaching courses?

Mr Box : Yes, we are.

Mr HAASE: Here in Alice?

Mr Box : Yes, we are aware.

CHAIR: What are the educational and vocational benefits of these types of programs that you are running for Indigenous students?

Mr Box : Educationally, there is a lot of theory around that talks about the importance of first-language mastery before taking on a second or subsequent language. We are absolutely convinced that it is essential that we establish our kids' mastery in both oracy and literacy in their first language as a priority in the school. We take a bilingual approach at our school. We divide the day into a good percentage of the day for first-language learning and then the rest of the day for English learning. In terms of employment, not a lot of our kids get beyond year 10. Those who stay on stay in an ungraded middle school context, but that is not an educational problem, it is a problem of where they come from. They are traumatised kids, on the whole; we are dealing with very, very sad kids.

Mr HAASE: The kids in the town camp, in the main, go through law?

Mr Box : I cannot answer that question, honestly; it would be guessing.

Dr STONE: Since you are not a state or territory school—

Mr Box : We are a private school.

Dr STONE: You are a private school—how are you funded? Are your parents capable—

Mr Box : Dreadfully.

Dr STONE: Yes, obviously. You are saying—

Mr Box : We are funded as if we are a fee-collecting institution. We are not; we collect no fees. We are funded on a very reduced basis and then have to deliver programs far above what anybody else has to deliver in the context of Alice Springs. We have a very tight, shoestring budget.

Mr HAASE: Could you illuminate for us where is a common source of funding?

Dr STONE: It would be federal.

Mr Box : We get funded as other private schools get funded, through state and federal funding—per capita funding—but we are funded at the rate that private schools are funded.

CHAIR: With the expectation that—

Mr Box : That we will top up with fees, but we do not collect fees. None of our clients pay fees.

Mr HAASE: Are you registered as a charitable organisation? Do you get donations?

Mr Box : We have a very good principal, who has a lot of contacts around the country in private schools. We get a lot of visits from private school students wanting to have the 'Indigenous experience'. We do get donations from time to time, which have been helpful, but you cannot budget on donations.

CHAIR: Thanks, Lance, for a very good presentation. You have raised a lot of important issues. Thank you, very much, for coming. A transcript of your evidence will be on our website. If there are any inaccuracies, please make changes to those. Give our best to the school community.

Mr Box : Thank you.

Dr STONE: Lance, if there is any extra information in your notes that you want to assist the committee with?

Mr Box : I have some answers to some of the previous questions.

CHAIR: Perhaps you can submit those to Susan or John from our secretariat.

Mr Box : I can do that.

Proceedings suspended from 12:55 to 13:23