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Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR —We welcome Mr Rob Fysh from Peace Lutheran College. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been previously provided to you. I invite you to make a short opening statement, at the conclusion of which I will invite questions from the committee.

Mr Fysh —First of all, I would like to thank you for this invitation. I hope that I have something worthwhile to contribute, although I think much of what I have to say will not be news to you. I understand the committee has three main areas of interest. I would like to make a contribution in two of them: the health of young Indigenous people—in particular mental health and suicide—and linkages there may be between education and employment.

I will tell you a little bit about my institution. Peace Lutheran College has been a day and boarding school in Cairns since 1994. From the beginning, we have served Indigenous families from remote communities, as well as international and local non-Indigenous families. Most of our Indigenous students in this time have come from remote communities, and most therefore have been members of our boarding school. Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal communities, because they have a strong Lutheran affiliation, have been major sources of our students, but we have also had many students from all over Cape York and Torres Strait. We have had approximately 200 students from remote communities pass through our school, and therefore have a relatively small but representative database of some of the health issues affecting these young people. Unfortunately, our database of post-school destinations for many of these students is not as complete as we would like it to be.

I will give you a short presentation about health issues affecting our students. The college has a small medical centre staffed by two nurses. We also have a local GP who comes in on a sessional basis, usually twice a week. The role of this medical centre is to look after the medical needs of boarding students. I have asked the staff there to compile a list of typical health issues our students present with, and with your permission I would like to read some of them: ‘Routine health checks are carried out throughout the year by our GP. Through these checks we become aware of hearing problems, parasite infestation, head lice and scabies, tooth decay, recurrent boils, sexually transmitted diseases.’ I will say here now that the first six that I have just read out are very common in our boarding students from remote communities. In addition, it is not uncommon to encounter cases of tuberculosis and weight problems due to diet. There are other long-term illnesses: bronchiectasis, rheumatic heart and genu valgum—knock-knees.

It is also, unfortunately, not uncommon to encounter mental health issues. We currently have 10 of our Indigenous boarding students, out of about 40, seeing a counsellor from Wuchopperen, which is a local sponsored health provider for Indigenous people. It is not unusual to have students self-harming or attempting suicide. It is not a weekly event, but it is not unusual. Our counsellor also helps children with anger management problems. We encounter general problems due to lack of hygiene, students with foetal alcohol syndrome and students dealing with sexual abuse. Almost every Indigenous student at the college would be presenting with one or more of the above issues.

The picture for our non-Indigenous boarding and day students is very different. Although we encounter issues of emotional and sexual abuse in our wider school population, the proportion is nowhere near as high as it is in our Indigenous boarders. Non-Indigenous students commonly present to our counsellor with depressive symptoms or emotional adjustment issues, but the incidence of items on the list I have just read out is minimal or absent.

That concludes what I have to say about health issues. As I said, I doubt any of that is news to you, but in some way it is helpful to me in the role that I occupy to be able to articulate that.

I want to say a little bit about the linkages between education and employment that we have discovered in our 17 or 18 years of operation. As I said before, our database is not complete. I am a little ashamed about that. We are taking steps to do our best to improve it. We have information on immediate post-school destinations for only about a third of the past students in the groups that we are talking about. You can form your own opinion about why that might be; I suspect communication is a major issue there. We are talking about approximately 200 students and we have information on a third of those—say, 60 or 70 students. Of that number, 20 per cent are engaged in TAFE or university study or full- or part-time work. We are not sure about the other 80 per cent. They are probably mostly engaged in raising families, I would think.

I have a list of occupations, which is of anecdotal interest, from our database. We have a public servant in Canberra. We have an occupational therapy student at JCU. We have a butcher. We have a manager at Hungry Jack’s. We have a person working at the post office in Hope Vale. We have an apprentice diesel fitter. We have a couple of TAFE students. We have a storeman, a childcare worker at Kowanyama, someone studying dance at the NAISDA Dance College in New South Wales, someone studying at Batchelor Institute in Darwin and a couple in full-time employment. That seems a little sad to me that that is all I can point to. I am assuming, with some confidence, that that is not the whole story on the post-school destinations of our students, but it is the only firm information I can give you.

In our experience, it seems that the best predictor of a successful transition from school to employment in this group, as in any other—this is not rocket science, by the way—is the degree of engagement with and success in formal schooling. In turn, then, the best predictors of school success for students from remote communities in our experience seem to be the following. First is previous schooling history. The main part of that is whether they have a strong attendance record or not. That is what we look for when we receive applications from students. That does not apply only to students from remote communities, but it is certainly indicative and predictive of success in this group, in our experience. Second is whether peer group support is available, and by that I mean students from the same family or community at the school. It is important for our students from remote communities to not be the only one from that community. Third is whether the student can manage the transition from community life to school life. The transitions both to and from the community would occur eight times each year. These are very difficult for many of our students. Expectations and practices can be vastly different in the two cultures. Fourth is whether the student has a stable and functional family background.

There is nothing of revelation in this, but I have identified some barriers to engagement in formal education. We have a lot of accumulated experienced in interacting with students from remote communities, and I think it is not difficult to identify some of the main barriers to engagement for the students who do not succeed, for the students who go home. The literacy and numeracy level, which is related to poor previous attendance, is also in some cases related in, my opinion, to low academic expectations in some remote schools. The other barrier we would own as Peace Lutheran College is that I do not believe my staff has the ESL—English as a second language—expertise that they need. That is something we have looked at and it has not yet been solved. Other barriers would be characteristic of remote communities themselves. Once again, I am not sharing anything there that you do not know. Dysfunctional families would be another barrier which is related to the remote community, and safety and security is also problematic for many of our children. Abusive relationships and absent or ineffective parents are far from unusual. Cultural influences are another barrier. For example, child raising practices in remote communities can be very different from those in traditional western culture, and that is where a significant number of our students encounter difficulties when they first arrive at Peace Lutheran College. The expectations are quite different, and relating to people can be quite different.

On communication difficulties between school and home family, I would not have thought before I came to my present school that they would be so determining, but they are. They are very difficult. It is very difficult to have instant, useful, effective communication, certainly not from our perspective, with remote community families, and I imagine the opposite also applies. I know that on the odd occasion when we do manage to link up, it is wonderful, but that is far too rare. This is a bit of a stream of consciousness, but the last barrier here is related to a few of the others: simply that the school routine and culture is a major barrier. We have incongruent values between home and school, time management is an issue for many students from remote communities, and violence can be seen as a way of dealing with issues. Those are things which are barriers that can determine whether a student continues with their education, certainly at Peace. Almost all students from remote communities encounter a selection of these. Some are able to overcome them; some lucky ones encounter only a few. Most struggle and many find the struggle too hard and give up. I do not mean to give undue weight to those who give up, because there are some who do not, but it must be said. I did write something about what we do at Peace to help this; I do not know whether you are interested.

What do we do at Peace to help with this struggle? Basically everything we can within our means. Can I say—and this is a bit of personal editorialising—most principles relating to Indigenous education seem to me to be contested or problematic in one way or another. In my experience—and the experience has been costly—it is easy in trying to please everyone to end up tying yourself in knots and making yourself and your institution ineffective. Something I have learnt in five years at Peace is to stop doing that.

So what do we do? We understand that remote students struggle with many things, but we try hard not to patronise them by encouraging them to be different or to take easy options. What I mean by that is that we try hard to support them but not to do that in a patronising way by saying, ‘You’re different; you won’t be able to do that; we’ll look after you.’ We offer support but we also have high expectations. We expect all our students to learn in a mainstream classroom environment. We do not encourage the withdrawal of Indigenous students into special literacy classes. If this occurs it is on the basis that special assistance is available to all students, not just Indigenous students. I might say at this stage that federal government funding policy has on occasion made it difficult for us in doing this because this ISA funding is available for the needs of Indigenous students, so when you have funding based on that principle it is often difficult to do what we do.

We do employ in-class tutors to assist students with marginal literacy skills. We operate a mentoring program for boarding students which teaches life skills and addresses self-worth perceptions. I think most importantly, we provide a safe and secure environment for learning. I do not tolerate any violence. Students who are unable to control violent propensities soon find themselves going home. We believe that in doing that we provide a safe environment, and we do. We do not allow cultural learnings or cultural backgrounds to be used as an excuse for violence. Having different sets of rules for Indigenous students is fundamentally patronising. Of course, what I am saying is not that we do not take into account that people come to us from different cultural backgrounds. What I am saying is that we do not allow those cultural backgrounds to be an excuse for poor behaviour or for lack of adjustment. We teach that certain behaviours and attitudes and values are appropriate in certain contexts.

There is a metaphor, which is in the literature—I do not know how widely disseminated it is—and that is the cultural passport metaphor. What we subscribe to is to give students the skills to apply for a cultural passport they can use when they go back to their communities and when they come to western culture. This applies not only to Indigenous students; it applies to our Papua New Guinean students, to our Japanese students. They are equipped to take this metaphorical passport with them to know that, when they are in a certain context, certain things are appropriate and they can function effectively. That is our aim.

We have high expectations of all our students. I think I have said what I need to say. That is what we do. It is obvious, I think, that we do not have complete success with every student. Simply the fact that we cannot locate 70 per cent of our past students is an indication of that. I am happy to expand on anything I have said. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Fysh. I have a couple of questions about some of your earlier remarks. You spoke about health and suicide and you have expanded quite well on how you engage with those matters. You talked about some of the health presentations more generally, rather than the mental health issues. It must be difficult to try to maintain a strong relationship with the students and the community when you are sometimes presented with issues such as STDs, often affecting those of a young age. What age we talking about in terms of those presenting with things like STDs?

Mr Fysh —Our boarding students come to us typically at year 8, so they are 12 or 13. It is not uncommon for them to present with STDs at that age. It is not universal, but it is not uncommon.

CHAIR —Do you have some sort of reporting regime? Is there some obligation? This is where I am saying it must be difficult.

Mr Fysh —Yes, for reporting abuse. We do, and that is an inexact science, partially because of the lack of communication. Certainly with any student that presented to us with an STD or STI we would make sure we were in touch with Children’s Services. Not by any means all, but a significant number of students in that category would already be in the care of Children’s Services before we begin.

CHAIR —Could you make some comments on when they first come to the school, and there are all those screenings, and then after a period of time. Is there some recidivism in the appearance of these presentations or does the fact that they have been identified and it is resolved, or whatever, mean that they are reducing as you go along?

Mr Fysh —What I am saying is a personal synopsis; it is not sociometric. First of all, we do not achieve resolution in a significant number of cases. We manage the situation. We manage the health issues for the student. We are often unable to attack and address the root causes because we cannot get to the communities. So if we can provide a safe, secure haven for them at school and manage their health issues, that is about as far as we get.

CHAIR —Do you have any mechanism—I know you have said it is rare but fantastic if you do have that sort of communication.

Mr Fysh —Yes, we do have it.

CHAIR —What are the processes available to you?

Mr Fysh —The processes available to us, which we have used, have been visits. Hope Vale and Wuja Wujal are the easiest places to visit. They are within a day’s drive. They are the most common places we listed. We visit families if families are there. We have had one trip to the Torres Strait in the past five years, which was hugely expensive and that is why we have not had more than one. When we go, we find that parents are keen to talk to us if they know they we coming and that is often problematic in itself. Personal visits are the main thing. Telephone calls are what we rely upon. There can often be a two- or three-day lag in trying to contact someone by telephone. That is the reality.

CHAIR —If you know a student comes from a particular place or you just have an address, if they are not wards of the state, when you ring a community would it be the community council or do you have somebody within the department of education who can actually do that stuff for it?

Mr Fysh —Yes, we have liaison people—sorry, the name has gone—who work for Education Queensland and I believe are federally funded also, who we use quite a lot in that respect.

Senator BOYCE —How do Indigenous students come to you? Is it because their families seek you out or for other reasons?

Mr Fysh —We are relatively well-known throughout the cape and the Torres Strait. Certainly in the five years I have been there we have received a fairly constant stream of applications from communities because they have older family members, siblings, who have been to the school. So word of mouth would be the way they would find out about us.

Senator BOYCE —So the parents or the families have some level of buy-in in because they have chosen to use your school.

Mr Fysh —Yes they do. I have no doubt that they want the best for their children, as any parent dies.

Senator BOYCE —We have had evidence in other situations about quite extensive programs—for instance, by Rio Tinto—to make people job ready, which means even the basics of just learning a routine and understanding that you need to come at the same time every day et cetera. Do you run any programs like that?

Mr Fysh —We would love to. We have had dreams; we do not run programs.

Senator BOYCE —I am not thinking about four job readiness; I am thinking about school-ready programs.

Mr Fysh —On our campus, yes. Remotely the logistics have defeated us. We would be interested in attacking a project which did have asked dealing with several remote communities and looking at readiness needs in literacy and numeracy in students before they come to us. We would love to do that but it has been too hard.

Senator BOYCE —Should changes in attendance rates at local schools assist in this area?

Mr Fysh —Yes. Changes in attendance rates and changes in levels of expectation of children would definitely assist.

Senator BOYCE —Have you noticed any changes at all in the two years we are talking about, until the present time?

Mr Fysh —It is difficult to say because in the past three years we have adjusted our intake policy whereby we have been testing applicants for literacy and numeracy and we have been advising people who come to us with very low levels to go back to their community and get themselves ready, knowing full well that the mechanisms probably are not there but knowing that we cannot do it either. When I say yes, that we are noticing an improvement in literacy issues of students coming to us, that is partly because we have been more selective.

Senator BOYCE —It is the way you are selecting them, rather than changes in their ability.

Mr Fysh —Yes.

Senator BOYCE —You mentioned your inability to contact 70 per cent of past Indigenous students.

Mr Fysh —Indigenous boys, yes.

Senator BOYCE —Are these successful students?

Mr Fysh —No, of the total roll of past students, we have not had any contact with 70 per cent of them. Communication issues would be the biggest issues there.

Senator BOYCE —Why is that a concern for you?

Mr Fysh —I think it is a little sad, because they are part of us, they have been part of us, and not to know what has happened to them I find is a failure.

Senator BOYCE —Part of the satisfaction of teaching is seeing what happens.

Mr Fysh —I think so. And they were part of our community, so it is a connection that has been broken. On a personal level, I find that a little sad.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you, Mr Fysh.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you, Mr Fysh, for your time this afternoon. So there is no secondary education offered in the communities where your students come from?

Mr Fysh —In some cases there is. I think Western Cape College offers secondary education. We do get some students from Aurukun, but not a large number. When they come, they express dissatisfaction with the local options.

Senator CROSSIN —There is not a huge Lutheran influence in this area, is there? It is predominantly Catholic, isn’t it?

Mr Fysh —Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal would be traditionally Lutheran strongholds, to use the term.

Senator CROSSIN —We have the same in the Northern Territory around the Hermannsburg and Central Australian area. As to Austudy: do students come in to you on an Austudy payment?

Mr Fysh —It is ABSTUDY for boarders.

Senator CROSSIN —No difficulties with it?

Mr Fysh —Oh yes, there are.

Senator CROSSIN —Let us get to the heart of the matter!

Mr Fysh —Yes!

Senator CROSSIN —Tell us about some of the treasures of dealing with ABSTUDY!

Mr Fysh —Whatever I say is said in the full knowledge that the people administering ABSTUDY have an awful job—we understand that. From our point of view, it hits the road with us in a number of ways. Communication, once again, is an issue because, typically, the people we speak with are run off their feet and find it difficult to get back to us and difficult to organise transport for students. The major difficulty that we encounter with ABSTUDY payments is—and this is not really ABSTUDY’s fault at all—that they do not cover the entire boarding and tuition fee and so we end up wearing the cost.

Senator CROSSIN —In terms of what sort of thing—if you take your boarders out to the pictures on the weekend, for example?

Mr Fysh —Yes.

Senator CROSSIN —So the school, generally, would have to pay for that?

Mr Fysh —That is part of what we budget for. We have to.

Senator CROSSIN —Kormilda College in the Northern Territory—you might well know Kormilda College.

Mr Fysh —Yes, I do.

Senator CROSSIN —They have just got a new principal there, actually. They try to get parents to volunteer some money out of their Centrelink payment each fortnight—$20 or $25—so that that can be used for that sort of activity. I do not know if you have thought about that.

Mr Fysh —We do a similar thing. That helps us a little financially; it does not address the problem. It is just a partial addressing of the problem.

Senator CROSSIN —So how many students are there at your college, and how many would board?

Mr Fysh —There are 530 at latest count; it varies a bit. There are about 90 boarders; half of those are typically Indigenous people. Most of those are from remote communities. So it is about eight or nine per cent remote Indigenous.

Senator CROSSIN —How many communities would they come from? Just give me an idea.

Mr Fysh —I would just have to total them. They would be from Hope Vale, Wujal Wujal and Lockhart River; there would be a few from Pormpuraaw and from Aurukun a scattering; and some from Kowanyama. That would be about it.

Senator CROSSIN —So from about half a dozen, perhaps?

Mr Fysh —And from the Torres Strait—there are a number of islands that we draw from.

Senator CROSSIN —We have struck a situation in the Northern Territory where a couple of our communities, through the ABS classifications, have just been reclassified from ‘very remote’ to ‘remote’. Has that happened to any of the communities you are dealing with?

Mr Fysh —I do not know.

Senator CROSSIN —You would know, because that classification structure is linked specifically to the amount of money boarding students get; you would have experienced a drop in money as of September last year if it had affected you.

Mr Fysh —I am a little embarrassed because I am not sure, but I know that we traditionally struggle with money.

Senator CROSSIN —For the numbers of students you have it would be a substantial amount, because the very remote funding is different from remote funding. You would have noticed a big difference, of probably $100,000 or a couple of hundred thousand.

Mr Fysh —We have not noticed that.

Senator CROSSIN —I am just trying to get a handle on it because I understand some communities in Queensland have been reclassified as well and it has an impact on boarding schools in Queensland.

Mr Fysh —We have not noticed that. I am a little embarrassed.

Senator CROSSIN —That is okay. I take it you have a boarding facility for girls and one for boys?

Mr Fysh —Yes.

Senator CROSSIN —How many house parents have you got?

Mr Fysh —We run a boarding house rather than a dormitory. We run two boys’ houses and two girls’ houses, senior and junior for each. We have a house parent with each house.

Senator CROSSIN —How many are in each house?

Mr Fysh —In the larger houses there are 25 and in the smaller there are 12.

Senator CROSSIN —That is interesting because debate in the Territory, I think, is along the lines of: do we have boarding colleges where you might have 50 in a dormitory or do we actually spend money on boarding houses where there can be more of that one-on-one normality of house parents supporting students? I suppose you would say your experience favours the latter.

Mr Fysh —I would say that even the 25s are too big to give that family feel.

Senator CROSSIN —Do you have many students who run off or who, after the second or third week, want to go back to communities? What is the turnover rate like?

Mr Fysh —It is not high. Every year we would have two or three who would come to school and just close up shop. They would have to go home. We would have one or two, maybe three or four in some years, who would decide that it is all too much and go for a walk. There are not large numbers—but enough to be a cause of concern.

Senator CROSSIN —Even one would be a cause of concern, I suspect.

Mr Fysh —Yes.

Senator CROSSIN —How do you deal with that instance? Do you just accept the fact that they are not ready to come into town to board?

Mr Fysh —What we accept is the limit of our ability to change the situation. We are talking about a student who comes and then decides that it is too much and that they do not want to be here.

Senator CROSSIN —Does returning to their community mean they get no secondary education?

Mr Fysh —It does not always mean that, because often the parents will approach another boarding school.

Senator CROSSIN —I see.

Senator MOORE —Most of the communities have access to some education.

Mr Fysh —Yes.

Senator MOORE —Do any of the ones you have mentioned have absolutely no access to at least grade 10 level?

Mr Fysh —Yes. There are some that only have access to year 7—I am just trying to think.

Senator MOORE —I do not think so.

Mr Fysh —Hope Vale has Cooktown.

Senator MOORE —They bus the kids. My understanding is that every community has some educational capacity within their region to grade 10 at least.

Mr Fysh —Yes. It is a question of whether the student can access geographically the—

Senator MOORE —There would be a number of schools in Cairns who are working through the same issues.

Mr Fysh —Yes.

Senator MOORE —Any of the boarding colleges would, I would imagine. Is there any network in Cairns where you can get together and work through these things as a group to learn and to share, even when students have gone from one to another? Is there anything like that operating?

Mr Fysh —The short answer is no. There are three other institutions I am aware of that offer boarding for Indigenous students from remote communities. One is Wangetti, which we really have very little contact with—and I should add that perhaps that is not a good thing. I should have more contact with them. The other two are St Augustine’s and St Monica’s.

Senator MOORE —They have been doing it for 50 years.

Mr Fysh —Once again, I am a little bit ashamed to say we have no contact. It is not for want of trying.

Senator MOORE —Sure. It is just one of those things. As you have said consistently in your evidence, the issues are ones that people know. There is a lot of knowledge—not all good. The other thing is that I know there is lots of exchange through the Lutheran education network. I have visited Yirara College in Alice Springs and, many times, Concordia College in Toowoomba, as well as a number of the others that have come up. Is there a network within Lutheran education about these things? One of the things I have noticed is that teachers move between them. I met several teachers in Alice Springs who had been in that kind of thing. Is there a learning network that way?

Mr Fysh —It is very tenuous. There is a network of Lutheran principals, and we talk with each other. St Peter’s in Indooroopilly, Concordia in Toowoomba and my college would be the three boarding colleges.

Senator MOORE —In Queensland?

Mr Fysh —In Queensland. The other two colleges work from a different tradition, a different resource base. They encounter similar issues. There is interaction but, once again, not a great deal. On the other hand, with Yirara College in Alice Springs, the delineation there is that we try to offer a mainstream education—which makes communication, while useful, not necessarily problem solving. Yirara do an alternative program

Senator MOORE —And it is purely Aboriginal people. The whole issue of the choice between boarding and developing a more effective local mechanism is a dynamic that has been going on for a long time; it is getting more media now. Are you aware if there is there a hostel arrangement anywhere in Cairns?

Mr Fysh —I am aware of one for Papua New Guinea students. We have a number of our Indigenous students who use homestay arrangements with families.

Senator MOORE —Is there a difference between their adaptation and success rate and that of people within the boarding school proper?

Mr Fysh —Yes, there is. If there is a trend, students who are in homestay situations are predominantly students who have tried boarding and cannot do it or who were going to fail—who were possibly going to be excluded from the school. In almost all cases, they then continue through to year 12—

Senator MOORE —When they go to the homestay?

Mr Fysh —With a homestay family.

Senator MOORE —That is interesting in itself.

Mr Fysh —Yes, it is.

Senator MOORE —Is that dependent on the quality of the homestay? I would imagine it is.

Mr Fysh —I am not aware of any ineffective homestays.

Senator MOORE —I do not have personal knowledge of the homestay program. Are these families who identify and put themselves forward for this option?

Mr Fysh —Sometimes they are distant relatives. We have a staff member at school who sees it as part of her life’s work to foster Indigenous kids. There are a range of people from different backgrounds who would do it. There are other staff members who do it because they think it is a good idea once in a while. It is not only staff members; there are parents who do it, but not so many.

Senator MOORE —Are you aware if that is a mechanism that is used by other schools who are offering education in Cairns for kids who are not from the Cairns region?

Mr Fysh —I do not have any specific knowledge.

Senator MOORE —There is no professional knowledge of this. It is a mechanism that happens but it may not be documented as well as it could be. That is interesting in itself, and we might put that down for future consideration. It is interesting that your example is that those kids do better.

Mr Fysh —I am talking about a sample size of half a dozen, but still.

Senator MOORE —Of course. The evidence base in this area is very slim, so we grab onto anything just to see how it is working. I have one more question. Is there any difference generally between girls and boys in terms of performance and the kinds of issues you have raised?

Mr Fysh —With health issues not predominantly—

Senator MOORE —Generally there is no discernable difference—

Mr Fysh —As far as completion rates, I have not got a big enough sample to draw from. I do not notice any differences.

Senator MOORE —Two of the three colleges that you mentioned are single-sex schools and one is mixed, so there are all kinds of education things being looked at. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Fysh. If there are other questions from the committee they will be passed to you on notice through the secretariat, and if there are other bits of information that you think would be important for us to know, or pieces of your evidence that need correcting, you will have access to Hansard. Please let the committee know through the secretariat.

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