One of the measures Prime Minister John Howard announced last month was that the Government would link income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. School attendance is a chronic problem in the territory's remote communities. In Maningrida, a large Arnhem Land community, the truancy rate is reported to be 68 per cent, meaning that, on an average day, only one in every three school-age children is at school. But here's the catch: remote schools are not ready for an attendance surge that could, in many cases, double their student population. The Northern Territory funds school places based on the number of children who attend during ''census'' weeks, not the number of school- aged children in the community and on nearby outstations.
Maningrida, like other remote communities, does not have the desks or teachers for all community children to attend its school, or an abundance of spare houses for new teachers. School attendance is essential for remote community children to have choices and opportunities for economic and social participation inside and outside their communities. But compelling school attendance, without addressing the issues of education supply in remote community schools, will not result in more children getting a good primary school education.
This is because poor attendance is a cause and a symptom of poor schooling in remote communities. Teaching in remote communities is not for the inexperienced, but remote schools are largely staffed with first- and second-year teachers. When remote community children arrive at the first year of school, few will have had exposure to spoken English, let alone reading and writing. Most of their parents left school in their early teenage years, if not earlier, without basic literacy and numeracy. Most children will need intensive, systematic, skills-based instruction for several hours a day, but their teachers do not have the necessary training in robust phonics instruction. As children grow older, the gap widens about nine months for every year at school.
In the short term, cracking down on school attendance will make the situation worse in remote schools. Teachers will find their classrooms inundated with children with no history of regular attendance and others who have never been enrolled. If the Australian Government is serious about getting results in remote community schools and about merit pay for teachers, now is the time to exempt remote territory schools from the centralised teacher allocation system and to run rigorous trials of merit pay in those larger communities that have large enough primary school enrolments to support a class for each grade level. Strong leadership will be essential for the schools to push through issues associated with a sudden enrolment surge of children who do not perform at grade level.
The Government will need to offer salaries and packages to attract experienced principals to commit to one to two years to rebuild a remote primary school and to give them the autonomy to recruit capable and committed teachers. Many good independent schools and public schools in urban areas will be willing to contribute time and expertise to mentor or support principals in remote schools. One option might be for remote schools to have a school board of community elders, urban principals and senior executives of corporations which want to make a difference.
The boards could assist with building projects, apprentice and internship programs, and new technologies to improve school administration. The best schools should be allowed to expand. Parents should not be restricted from (that is, lose welfare payments) moving to communities with better schools. Schools should be encouraged to run bus services to smaller nearby communities that cannot support full primary school education. Where possible, remote school infrastructure should be used more efficiently. Classrooms and facilities are used for about six hours a day, 40 weeks a year. They lie idle during the late afternoons and school holidays when they could hold adult literacy classes, or, if necessary, a second shift of school classes while building work is under way. In particular, special literacy and numeracy classes could cater for those aged 15 and under who are now required to attend school but do not have the primary school education to attend high school.
Kirsten Storry is a policy analyst on the indigenous affairs research program at The Centre for Independent Studies.