If Queensland and WA do meet their indigenous literacy and numeracy targets, it will take until 2028 for their indigenous students to catch up to other Australians. COAG has used a gap rhetoric to hide its retreat from the 1997 goal, “fix the problem in four years” to 2008’s “fix half the problem in ten years”.
Education departments blame high failure rates on “indigeneity” rather than on the failure of classroom instruction for which they are responsible. This hides the fact that more than 80 per cent of indigenous students in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT are already passing literacy and numeracy tests like other students. Indigenous students have the same distribution of intellectual capabilities as non-indigenous students, and those failing make up only a minority clustered in schools that are not delivering quality education.
Up to 20,000 indigenous students attend so-called “indigenous schools” located in bush communities on indigenous lands. For years these schools have not taught mainstream curriculums, have had high staff turnover and poor teaching, with classes often left to untrained indigenous assistant teachers who could not pass Year 3 NAPLAN tests. More than 40 Homeland Learning Centres in the Northern Territory, some in derelict shacks, are still without qualified teachers for every day of the week.
A few of these indigenous schools have been revitalised with mainstream curriculums, rigorous instruction and a strong ethos. They include Cape York “academies” run jointly by the Queensland Department of Education and Cape York Partnerships, where children are learning and attendance is high. Sadly, these reformed schools only account for perhaps 1000 students and the federal government’s My School website shows failure rates in most other indigenous schools are still at 90 per cent or more.
Most of the 40,000 failing indigenous students sit side-by-side with other students from welfare and other low socioeconomic backgrounds in what Craig Emerson has termed “residualised” mainstream schools. They have a downward spiral of poor discipline, high staff turnover and poor teaching. Rather than offsetting socioeconomic disadvantage, these schools exacerbate it, and employers complain their graduates lack elementary literacy and numeracy.
Enrolments of non-indigenous students in “residualised” schools are far higher than those of indigenous students.
Returning rigorous classroom instruction and discipline to these schools is not just an indigenous problem, it is a national education problem. It requires effective principals with autonomy in hiring and firing, budgeting, time-tabling and organising before and after school programs.
Welfare dependence is contributing to high failure rates. Those children who are passing NAPLAN come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families living and working in major cities and regional towns. The students who are failing are the children of welfare-dependent indigenous families who do not have work-day rhythms of work and school, without working men and women role models, and where educational expectations of students and parents are low.
The NSW government has identified its “residualised” schools and is now targeting them with a program centred on enhanced principals who, in as well as delivering high standards of education, will be able to draw on social services to mitigate the impact of welfare dependence.
Queensland has not only made the largest inroads into failure rates, but has done so with one of the lowest expenditures per student in Australia. This is not a coincidence. Most of the “indigenous-specific” programs on which more than $300 million is spent annually are not only wasteful, but counterproductive, taking resources away from classroom teaching.
For example, in April, Peter Garrett, the federal Minister for School Education, announced an $800,000 program to place artists — “theatre specialists, puppeteers, visual artists and circus performers” — in schools that do not have the funds to employ full-time qualified teachers. “Indigenous-specific” program contractors continue to clamour for business while failure rates stagnate.
WA’s autonomy for principals has contributed to its improved performance. Principals must have the right to refuse counterproductive “indigenous-specific” programs but get equivalent funding for classroom instruction if they are to lift school performance.
Government must lift its performance on indigenous education so that all children have equal opportunities to enter decent careers, training and further education. Shamefully little is being done to give indigenous children from low socioeconomic backgrounds the chances that other children take for granted.
Helen Hughes is a senior fellow of The Centre for Independent Studies and Mark Hughes is an independent researcher.