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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9287

Senator ALLISON (4:21 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on this motion about retention rates for indigenous Australians in our schools. Anyone who has anything to do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education will know that the concerns that Mr Djerrkura expressed this week are very real, but they will also know that solutions are not easy. The Senate education committee, as Senator Tierney said, has just completed the hearing stage of its inquiry into indigenous education. I would hope that the recommendations of that inquiry can show us some way forward. Senator Crossin rightly complains about reductions in Abstudy and the bilingual program in the Northern Territory, but I hope today's debate does not just come down to political point scoring. I think this issue deserves a tripartisan approach, and it is not a matter that either party in government can claim to have had all the answers to.

I do not believe there is an education issue in this country which is as complex as this one. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their relationships with education are as diverse as could possibly be imagined. The education experience at Badu Island in the Torres Strait is very different from that at Weipa, Kalgoorlie, Maningrida or Yuendumu, and the list goes on.

Some of the issues which work against the best efforts of educators are health, language, remoteness, poverty, social dislocation, the cultural inappropriateness of our school system, the lack of jobs and prospects, post-secondary schools for Aboriginal children, community attitudes to education, incarceration rates, alcohol abuse and racial discrimination. Just a couple of weeks ago in Kalgoorlie, I spoke with the head of the education council, an Aboriginal man, in that community. He told me his education was a good one, but his sacrifice for that was being one of the stolen children. He had been taken as a two-year-old from his family and educated in the mission at Kalgoorlie, not knowing that he had three brothers and sisters in the same place. He was left at the age of 13 to fend for himself. He was sent off into the wide world with nobody to support him. So, whilst his education may have been a reasonably good one, he sacrificed a great deal for that. He told me that many of his fellow children from the community from which he was taken ended up being those who were on the fringes of society, had serious alcohol problems and suffered from very early death rates.

There are enormous problems for teachers, too. Those indigenous people who have been trained as teachers are often snapped up by government departments—they seem to be the worst offenders. If these people return to remote communities, there is no special consideration for them. For housing, for instance, many will be forced into crowded dwellings which make it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to cope with the work which is needed out of school hours and to perform as teachers in communities. There are indigenous teachers, particularly females, who do not have authority over some skin groups and especially some boys, particularly those who have been through initiation. Indigenous teacher aides are absolutely essential in many of the schools the committee visited. They are essential to make these places welcoming for indigenous students. Yet there is no career path for these teachers and the wages are very low. In some schools they are treated very differently from white teachers; they do not have access to staff rooms and the like. In a number of the schools we visited, indigenous people were utilised in schools through CDEP projects. That seemed to be very successful in most places, although, again, the income for those people is extremely low and would hardly allow them to be able to build their own houses or live in a manner which we take for granted.

Madam Acting Deputy President, I recall that you and I visited a very small and remote community up in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory called Jimarda where there were indigenous teachers. They said to us that their biggest problem was that the visiting white teacher did not come often enough. When we quizzed them on why this was a problem, it seemed that, during the times when there was no white teacher there for a range of reasons, those teachers had no authority within the community. We also heard, as I recall, that the white teacher who came a few times a month was a very young woman. She drove from Maningrida to Jimarda, which is a very long distance, and she brought with her—as well as many of the provisions required by that community—a tent, and that was where she stayed when she was in that place. I could imagine that, in an environment where there were no services, running water or electricity, this would, indeed, be a very harsh environment in which to teach. Often the white teachers who are sent to these remote communities are very young and inexperienced, and in some places they find themselves being head teachers in small schools.

The committee discovered that there are still schools which bring students into the school. They shower, clothe and feed them and, as far as possible, they integrate them into what is largely a white school environment. Schools are trying a range of measures to keep children in school. Some schools are collecting children every day, often providing them with breakfasts and other support. Others say that this is simply taking the responsibility away from the parents and is not, in the long term, sustainable and that the question of getting children to school needs to be a collective responsibility of the community. The fact remains that you cannot teach hungry children. So, one way or the other, for the sake of those children we need to make sure that they are able to function effectively within the classroom.

A school just out of Geraldton has an annexe, which apparently is funded by a generous benefactor I think from Victoria. This annexe provides children at that primary school with meals, health services and clothing—if that is what is needed by the children who attend. It is up to those children to refer themselves to this annexe, and they can do that quite comfortably. That is where they get the sort of support that children in so many families in this country take for granted. This school has solved, for instance, the problem of scabies, which affected the whole community, by teaching very young children how to treat this ultimately life threatening disease.

If one thing is clear to me it is that we have to have a holistic approach to Aboriginal education: housing, health, sanitation and nutrition must all be improved. Children cannot learn if they are distracted by unbearably itchy skin, by blocked sinuses and by nits. And they cannot learn if they cannot hear, and so many indigenous children are deaf from infections in their respiratory and olfactory areas. If glue sniffing is rife, then these children may have already damaged their brains. Returning to the issue of scabies, I recall going into the community health centre in Jabiru and asking what the most serious health problem was amongst the Aboriginal community and it was scabies—95 per cent of children and therefore their families had scabies.

In all of the committee's travels, I do not recall seeing one indigenous child with reading glasses. One reason might be that their eyesight is very good, but I somehow doubt that that is the case.

Aboriginal children are very shy and often they come to school with no English at all. There are few schools in remote areas with specialist ESL teachers, yet English is for many of these children their second, their third, their fourth and even their fifth language. The obstinate Northern Territory government is closing down bilingual programs in spite of the very obvious success of those programs, and that is highly regrettable. However, there is some good work being done in South Australia. There are nine languages and there is some degree of teaching material prepared for schools in four of those languages. That is quite considerable, I understand. That is from a total of 50 languages that were once spoken in South Australia.

I found it extraordinary to go into largely Aboriginal schools and hear principals tell us that they were expected to deliver LOTE programs—languages other than English—and in many places the designated language was Indonesian, which was extraordinary, given that the language of the Aboriginal community of the area was not spoken. It seems a great pity to me that white students in this country have not learnt an Aboriginal language. I understand that that happens to just a handful of children in some schools, but it is still very rare, just as it is rare for white teachers to speak an Aboriginal language.

I recall even as a child in this country that New Zealand Maoris would arrive and put on programs for primary school children and we all trotted along to those programs and oftentimes learned words from indigenous languages in New Zealand, yet none of us knew any words from indigenous languages in this country. There are indigenous groups who do not want their languages taken up by white people and taught to their children in schools, but in other communities they very much want that to happen.

At a school in the Central Desert there was a preschool program that I recall which concentrated on oral English, and children who went through that year of preschool were very much more successful in subsequent years in primary school. But the complaint from the school was that they were operating this program on a grant and there was no guarantee that they would be able to employ that teacher, who was developing great expertise in this area, the following year. School after school told the committee about their endless search for money and grant applications.

Federal initiatives to set up homework programs were a great success in some areas and completely useless in other areas where students saw them as a form of detention and there was very little involvement. Some schools, we heard, use that money creatively to find other ways of assisting Aboriginal students to study.

The committee went into some schools in even quite remote areas which were well equipped, neat and tidy and others which were in serious states of disrepair. We heard that many of these schools had enormous difficulty in attracting any funds for capital works. There was one school in particular where there was not even adequate electricity to put the lights on in every classroom and have an air conditioner going in the staffroom at the same time. It seemed to me to be very puzzling the way in which money for capital works, which is largely federal money, is divvyed up amongst school communities and a lot of that seemed to have something to do with the sort of politics in the town.

The problems, as I said initially, are extremely complex in this area. I do not want to pre-empt the report, which the education committee will deliver shortly, but I hope this will lead the way forward and help us to improve the outcomes for indigenous students. There can be no doubt that there must be more indigenous teachers and we must find a way of taking teacher training closer to them in their communities. There is no doubt in my mind either that schools must be made more culturally appropriate. Many schools are still run on a largely white line, and we must be more creative with the way we make these schools comfortable for students to come into and thrive.

Finally, I think the lesson which is also very clear from the work the committee has done is that communities must be involved in decision making in the school. Those schools we saw that were doing better than others all had that very important community involvement in decision making. They were part of school committees and they were very much enthusiasts for education, and that is important in passing on to communities the importance of education for young people.