Teachers key to remote schools

In Aurukun on Queensland's Cape York, the school leadership refuses to accept that the complexity of the issues facing the indigenous community is an excuse for its children not getting a good education.

While a massive enrolment drive in recent years has seen numbers rocket from about 180 to 290 students, attendance rates remain low. So you name the attendance "carrot", Aurukun's school leadership has already tried it. But attendance is only the tip of the educational iceberg in Aurukun and other remote indigenous communities across northern Australia. Even when carrots get children into the classroom, the school has no control over who will be there to teach them.

It is no secret that remote primary schools are not staffed with teachers who have proven their effectiveness in the classroom, but rather with first and second-year teachers. The centralised teacher allocation system rewards teachers who serve time in remote schools with fast tracking to good positions in good schools.

Some new teachers may already have grasped best practice and some even thrive on the challenge of teaching in a remote school. But too many inexperienced young teachers find themselves just counting down the days to freedom, or simply leave early. Remote schools face teacher vacancies each semester, despite the glut of primary school teachers.

Teaching in remote communities is not for the inexperienced. Few children are "school ready". Many come with no previous exposure to English, let alone reading and writing. Many would not have slept or eaten adequately, let alone had anywhere to do homework or anyone to supervise it. In each classroom, there will be students who are regular attendees, students who might attend two or three days a week and then disappear for weeks at a time and, after an enrolment drive, students who have never set foot there before.

It is little wonder that remote community schools report that only 20 per cent of their students might achieve the national benchmarks for minimum levels of literacy and numeracy. Many believe even 20 per cent is an overestimate. Indeed, in Western Australia in the late 1990s, researchers found that 80 per cent of children in primary school were reading at kindergarten level or below.

But the research tells us that teacher quality can make a significant difference to learning outcomes. Economist Andrew Leigh from the Australian National University, for example, has reported that a teacher in the top 10 per cent can achieve the increase in literacy and numeracy test scores in half a year that a teacher in the bottom 10 per cent can achieve in a full year.

Imagine the difference that good teaching could make in remote community schools. But how do we make it happen? First, remote schools need to attract teachers who have a track record of effectiveness in the classroom. Under the centralised teacher allocation system in all states and territories except Victoria, school principals and communities currently have little say in which teachers are hired and how much they are paid.

This will only be achieved if remote schools are exempted from the centralised system and have greater flexibility to offer employment packages and salaries that will attract effective teachers. The mining industry has shown that it is possible to attract a large skilled workforce to remote areas on high salary Australian Workplace Agreements.

It is in the interests of Australian taxpayers to pay out in teacher salaries now before today's children leave school without the basic literacy and numeracy that they need to gain employment and avoid the welfare trap. Second, remote schools need assistance to close the literacy and numeracy gap facing their students.

Research in the Cape York communities of Coen in 2005 and Kowanyama in 2000 showed that the average child was falling about nine months behind in literacy for every year of primary school. To even begin to close the gap, these children need intensive, systematic, skills-based instruction and they need it for several hours each day.

The good news is that Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Beaman have pioneered MULTILIT (making up lost time in literacy), a lesson-by-lesson program of phonics drills and reading practice that teaches children both the strategies and the work ethic with which they can succeed.
The beauty of MULTILIT is that it need not be delivered by teachers with education diplomas.

Those university students or recent graduates who are up to the challenge — both of living in a remote community and delivering this program with energy and rigour — could train as literacy instructors and work for a semester making a difference in a remote school. Eventually, if primary school teachers embed this program from the first year of school, Year 3 to 6 teachers could stop putting out spot fires and start teaching the same curriculum as other schools.
Let's fix teaching quality in remote community schools and better attendance will follow.

Kirsten Storry is a policy analyst in the indigenous affairs research program at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.