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Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Page: 4294

Dr STONE (Murray) (10:17): On behalf of the Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs, I present the committee's interim report entitled First steps for improving educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studentstogether with the minutes of proceedings.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

Dr STONE: by leave—Today, I am presenting the interim report of the House Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs inquiry into educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We felt the findings of our inquiry to this point were too important to leave in abeyance until, we hope, the minister of the next parliament reinstates this inquiry.

Too often the statistics cite the failures of Indigenous students when compared with non-Indigenous peers. The NAPLAN results for Indigenous children are often below those of their non-Indigenous counterparts and their rates of further education and employment are below those of their non-Indigenous counterparts. These statistics indicate an education system that is failing many of our Indigenous students rather than the Indigenous students failing the education system. We set out to find out what worked, what had not worked, and what impediments there were to Indigenous students going to school, staying at school, moving on to higher education and taking every opportunity that is available to most Australians in this glorious country.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students live in remote communities where there is not secondary school opportunity. So Abstudy, a Commonwealth set of support grants, is needed to financially support these students, especially as some may have to leave home and go to a boarding school or into some other type of residential boarding arrangements. Abstudy is essential if we are to see equality of outcome for our Indigenous students. However, we received extensive evidence of delays, confusion, and an inability to get detailed and complex written forms submitted when families may not have been literate in English, may not have had access to the internet or may not have had some of the support documentation, like birth certificates, to complete the forms and send them through to be processed in time for students to start school at the beginning of the year. We heard evidence continuously—whether it was from communities, from families or from schools—about the problems with processing the complex Abstudy forms.

The committee repeatedly heard from parents that the consequences of these forms not being able to be submitted or to be processed in time were that some children remained in the Torres Strait Islands, for example, for some six months after the commencement of the school term. You can imagine the disappointment of a young Indigenous student in this situation. They have just completed their primary schooling and are ready to go on to secondary enrolment, they need to leave their home—in itself a traumatic thing for the student and their family—but the forms have not been filled in or may not have been processed, and so they are denied access to ongoing education in some cases for up to six months. That is clearly totally unacceptable, particularly for a program that is integral to the government eliminating Indigenous educational disadvantage.

That was one of the driving forces behind us determining to have an interim report placed on the record in this parliament so something can be done immediately about the complexity of the Abstudy forms and the inefficiencies of the process which seem to mean, in some cases, forms are lodged and not processed for up to six months. We want this problem dealt with, and we have recommended that it be dealt with as a highest priority of this or the next government. The breadth of concerns raised in numerous submissions to the committee's inquiry indicated that the whole Abstudy policy as well as the processes of application need urgent review. We also recommend that Abstudy be redesigned and the revised policy be fully implemented by 30 June 2017.

Our report also expresses great concern at the lack of equity in funding to provide for Indigenous girls' education programs, in contrast to boys' access to special programs. We are all very familiar with the excellent Clontarf sports related program, beginning in Western Australia, which has been around for many years. It has delivered many Indigenous boys a new sense of purpose and a new goal of finishing their schooling. It has been an enormous success. Unfortunately, there has not been an equivalent opportunity for girls—until very recently, when a particular program, the Stars Foundation, commenced. But it is in its infancy. It has only just commenced, and it is on a much smaller scale than, for example, a Clontarf program, when considering the numbers it can take and in terms of the funding. We are not recommending that funds be redirected to the girls' program, away from the boys' funded programs. Self-evidently, we would not want to see that happen to the detriment of boys' outcomes. Rather, we are recommending that the remaining funds in the Indigenous Advancement Strategy be allocated to girls' education programs and that future rounds of grants fund these programs for girls' and for boys' support in equal measure.

Also, in our evidence, we took information about some special Indigenous girls' schools which also accommodate their babies. This is a very important thing—of course, not just for Indigenous girls but for other non-Indigenous Australian teenage girls. We commend that program. For a young girl who has a baby, it is not fair that her education stops and that she has to, for the rest of her life, consider limited opportunities.

The committee also expressed some concern about direct instruction, a particular method of teaching that you will now find in much of Cape York and in some parts of the Northern Territory. Despite significant Commonwealth investment of some $22 million over four years, the effectiveness of this pedagogy, of US-based design, has not been independently evaluated. Nor have outcomes been compared with other forms of instruction in Australia. The committee is of the view that direct instruction should not receive additional funds from the Commonwealth until an independent, comprehensive and longitudinal study, or review, finds the teaching methods to be effective in delivering improved outcomes for the majority of Indigenous students. We believe it is very important for comparisons to be made between this particular form of instruction, called direct instruction, and other alternative ways of instructing Indigenous children from their earliest entry into primary school.

Finally, it is the strong desire of the committee for this inquiry to be resumed in the 45th Parliament. We think the matter is of great consequence and importance to the future of Indigenous Australians. We must have our young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and girls able to explore every opportunity and have the same choices that other non-Indigenous children have before them. This inquiry is unfinished business. The committee has not yet completed taking all of the evidence. We also know that there are additional recommendations that can be made when more of that evidence is put on the table. Therefore, the report recommends that, following the federal election, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs task the new committee to resume the inquiry so that this important work can be completed and additional recommendations can be brought to the parliament.

In conclusion, I would like to thank all of the students, parents, teachers and organisations that willingly provided submissions and appeared before the committee. We were often travelling in remote places. We were aware that some of the people who came before us had also travelled for many hours and at great inconvenience to themselves to put their information before us. But they saw it as so important. I would also like to thank the Deputy Chair, the member for Lingiari, who is an expert on all of these matters given his electorate, but also given his previous life in education. I want to thank our committee members, all loyal and true, who make those special journeys, often taking many days out of their electorates. I want to thank the secretariat, particularly Dr Anna Dacre, who has done a superb job over many years working with this committee.

Finally, this is my last time, last term, last day, in fact, to stand as Chair of this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs committee. It has been work that I have greatly valued, teaching me so much more. But, also, it has allowed me to feel that I have contributed perhaps something to the greater good of our Indigenous Australians.

I thank the House and I commend the report.