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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6390

Senator CROSSIN (3:53 PM) —I rise to take note of the ministerial statement and the National Report to Parliament on Indigenous Education and Training tabled today by the Minister for Education, Science and Training. I will say at the outset that, while this report is welcomed, from my knowledge of the history of Aboriginal education in this country there has not been a comprehensive report such as this one tabled in the parliament today since the introduction of the original Aboriginal education program—which has now been rebadged as IESIP, the Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program—11 years ago. It is pleasing to see that, as a result of amendments made to the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000, this report will be annual.

A review of the Aboriginal education program was conducted by Mandawuy Yunupingu midway through the first 12 years of its operation. But time has moved on and many more millions of dollars have been pumped into Aboriginal education, yet we still see very little change. If you look at some of the statistics, you will see that year 12 retention rate for Indigenous students, for example, was 30.6 per cent in 1995, and that has increased to 35.7 per cent in 2001. On that basis, there has been a 5.1 per cent increase in the year 12 retention rate for Indigenous students in this country in six years, but non-Indigenous students have a year 12 retention rate of 76.2 per cent. That is a 40 per cent difference. On that basis, if we are going to make five per cent improvements over six years, year 12 retention rate of Indigenous students will not equal the non-Indigenous student retention rate for another 48 years. In terms of Aboriginal life cycles, that is nearly two, possibly three, generations away. The improvements, while there, are clearly not good enough. The growth in some areas is moving ever so slowly, and in other areas it is moving backwards.

Senator Carr, in pointing to Indigenous students in higher education, highlighted the difference between the number of male Indigenous students in 1993 compared to today. There was a time when the number of Indigenous people undertaking higher education peaked—in 1998 and 1999. In 1999, for example, the figures for Indigenous participation in higher education in this country were: males, 1,542; and females, 2,598. Those numbers have gone backwards since then, and this document shows us that today there are 1,247 males and 2,319 females in higher education. Both those figures are significantly less than the figures for 1999. There is a very clear answer as to why that is the case: that was when this government introduced significant changes to Abstudy. We can pinpoint exactly why and when these numbers fell dramatically. Since the changes to Abstudy, Indigenous people have not been able to get the financial assistance they need to undertake higher education courses—so they do not do it or they drop out or, as this government would want us to believe when trumpeting a major increase in the number of students who have enrolled in vocational education and training, they undertake VET. The figures show us that Indigenous people have moved from higher education into VET. They do not bother about higher education any more; they enrol in vocational education and training.

The other issue is that we do not know the completion rates of Indigenous students. Page 97 of this report refers to those figures. If the figures are right—the report only says `apparent retention rates'; these are not definitive figures—the apparent retention rates of Indigenous students were just hovering above 0.59 per cent in 2001, 0.58 per cent in 2000 and 0.61 per cent in 1999. Again, we see the figures going backwards. Why is that? I believe it is because in some areas of Aboriginal education there are very bad policies which are not assisting and supporting Indigenous people to enter into the education system and to operate as effectively as non-Indigenous people do. We know that in higher education the amount of money provided to universities, for example, to supplement and assist Indigenous people is based on the number of students enrolled in higher education.

Based on the figures that I have just given this chamber, those figures are decreasing. The amount of money that supports Indigenous students in universities therefore decreases, because the two are linked. And we wonder why we are not getting more Indigenous people enrolling in universities, staying at universities and completing their courses. That is just one area of the education sector. Probably, if I had a chance, I would like more than 10 minutes to speak.

We know from Bob Collins's Learning lessons report that a low retention rate is one of the critical factors as to why Indigenous children in this country are not advancing at the rate they ought to—they simply do not go to school. In the time that I have had to glance at it, this document does not tell us much. It gives us the percentages of children who are not attending school, but in relation to what? Is it in relation to those who ought to be attending school or is it somehow a figure based on the population basis of that area? Clearly we still do not know exactly how many Aboriginal kids out there never go to school and have never been to school as opposed to those children who were once enrolled in schools and now do not attend. Are those attendance figures in this book based on previous enrolments or on the population that we know exists out there and has never attended school?

On secondary education, the new Northern Territory government, to their absolute credit, have moved on this and have decided to do something about Indigenous education. They have actually decided to implement the Learning lessons report, something that the previous CLP government did not want to touch. They have now decided to trial, as Senator Ridgeway said, a total approach to education in four areas in the Northern Territory, where education and health services will be combined and where parents in the community will be assisted in taking a large role in the education of their children. But there are nearly 190 remote schools, and I am only talking about the Northern Territory here. I acknowledge that the Commonwealth government has put additional funds into assisting the Northern Territory government to achieve those aims, but only in four areas in the Northern Territory.

Clearly it is time for this government to sit down and rethink the whole approach to Indigenous education in this country. More money is needed to assist governments like the Northern Territory government to actually get on top of Indigenous education and the lack of outcomes we are having. This government needs to pour buckets of money into creating secondary schools in the Northern Territory. There are at this stage two secondary schools outside of the Stuart Highway radius in the Northern Territory and they have been built by the community or by the Christian schools association. This government needs to assist parents to encourage their children to go to school. All in all, while this is a welcome report, there does need to be an acceptance by this government that it must stop pumping money into programs that just entrench the outcomes that we are getting—or not getting—and that are not improving at a significant enough rate.