Northern Territory Review of Indigenous Education

I have just finished reading Bruce Wilson’s Draft Independent Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory and I am impressed and dismayed.

I am impressed because this is the first time I have seen a report on the NT Department of Education (DoE) website that notes the systemic failure of ‘bush schools’ in the NT and the devastating consequences of this. This report has placed the urgency of this situation squarely on the public agenda and this is important. I am impressed because he has been willing to question the business-as-usual assumption that the answer must be to keep doing what we do, but to do it better.

His recommendations about centralising all remote indigenous secondary education into urban and regional centres took me completely by surprise and I am still considering my response to this.

But I am also dismayed. Wilson has plenty to say about funding and resourcing but at no time in this report does he raise the underfunding of NT remote schools.

The evidence of significant under-funding of remote schools should have been obvious to Wilson for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the Gonski modeling work showed that this is clearly the case.

For example, in an article in the Australian on July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that, according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many Darwin, and some Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded and its remote schools underfunded.

The article notes that Giles thinks “Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less “ and that he “accused Canberra of trying to hoodwink the Territory into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools”.

According to this article, under the Gonski model, Darwin High School and Palmerston Senior College are overfunded by around $2 million, Moil Primary School is overfunded by more than $1.3m, Taminmin College is overfunded by $2.5m, and Bradshaw Primary School is overfunded by more than $900,000. These are all schools in Darwin or Alice Springs with comparably low numbers of Indigenous students.

The I Give a Gonski website look up table lists the percentage increases Indigenous NT remote schools would have received under the Gonski funding principles. The following examples show clearly the degree of underfunding:
• Shepherdson College – in Galiwin’ku, an Indigenous community, 73%
• Yuendumu School – an Indigenous community, 60%
• Umbakumbar School – an Indigenous community, 86%
• Alekarenge School – an Indigenous community, 68%
• Docker River – an Indigenous community, 110%
• Borroloola – a mining town with a majority Indigenous population, 92%.

The systemic misuse of funds intended for addressing Indigenous disadvantage has occurred across time and under both parties, Labor and the Coalition.

Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is a challenging and possibly intractable problem. However it seems to me that the NT Government has taken advantage of this reality and never seriously tried. The shift to an outcomes focused approach through the 2008 COAG reforms was a blessing to the NT because it took away any pressure to account for funding inputs while still allowing them to ‘fail magnificently’ because we all expect failure in this sphere anyway.

Secondly, the NT funds schools based on attendance not enrolment.

This systematically discriminates against remote schools because it leads to a gross underfunding of remote schools where schools average attendance rates are between 50% and 62%. So while NT saves up to 50% of its staffing costs in remote, 100% of these children actually attend over the school term – just on an intermittent basis. They still need to be allocated to class rolls and taught when they turn up. This churn of children through classrooms makes it very hard to provide a systematic approach to developing the skills and understanding of the minority of children who attend on a regular basis.

Thirdly, The NT does not fund the ESL needs of its remote Indigenous population in ways that are comparable to how all other Australian states/territory fund the intensive English language needs of new arrivals from non-English speaking countries.

Wilson notes the significance of the English language challenge for remote education. He stresses that in some communities 100% of children arrive at school with no ability to understand English at all. This significant issue needs a systematic approach and requires dedicated funding.

This fact stands irrespective of the policy position taken over bilingual education. Bilingual education has not been properly resourced since funds were ripped away over a decade ago.

Across Australia, it is recognized that non-English speaking newly arrived children require a time (about 12 months) in an intensive English language oral immersion program. There is no dedicated funding for anything similar in NT remote schools – irrespective of the approach taken.

Fourthly most states have a publicly available set of principles for staffing their schools that includes a needs-based component as part of core funding.

They might put different weightings on different needs – e.g. they might give extra weight to higher levels of low socio-economic status, remoteness of school, ESL needs, percentage of single parents or use enrolment data about parent occupation and education. The NT, with the highest levels of inequality between its top and bottom schools, does not. Efforts to develop such an approach have been a work-in-progress now for over 6 years. I used to wonder why they bothered until I heard departmental officials deflect any questions from Australian Government officials or consultants or reporters about their needs based funding policy by saying it is being reviewed.

What has never been attempted in the NT is the implementation of a long-term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools. This was an opportunity to put this urgent priority squarely on the table – an opportunity lost.

Wilson has described the urgency of the problem very clearly and convincingly. But he has not got to the core of the problem.

He identified the almost total systemic failure to support over two generations of people living in remote Indigenous communities to a level of basic literacy required for even an unskilled job. But he failed to unearth the fact that while this has occurred with copious wringing of hands there was never any chance of success. It was never funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Why /How did this happen?

Bruce Wilson is not known as a ‘briefcase for hire” to trot out pre-determined views. In fact he is well respected in the education consultation field. So why did he miss this issue?

This is hard to figure but here are a few things that might have contributed.

Firstly, funding allocations would not have been articulated in his visits to schools.

Wilson notes in this report that funding issues came up very frequently in his consultations. Most people in remote schools would have mentioned this issue, but for many it would have been experienced as a problem of churn, the short-term nature of funded programs, and the constant shift in priorities. They are not across the bigger picture funding issues.

Secondly, the main focus of the NT Government officials would have been the adequacy and surety of Australian Government funding because of the NT’s heavy reliance on specific funding programs and the fact that many are ceasing in 2014.

On reading the financial section of the review it became clear to me that one of the key drivers for the NT government in initiating this review is the cessation of many Australian Government funded Indigenous specific programs and the impact this will have on the NT education budget.

It seems that this Review is part of the work the NT Government is undertaking to ‘make its case’ for renewed funding by the Australian Government and, of course, for the funding not to be scrutinised and tracked, but to be integrated and based on the COAG outcome based funding principles.

Thirdly, Wilson assumed that the COAG intergovernmental funding principals should be applied both to any new Australian – NT Government funding agreement and to his approach in undertaking this review.

The mantra of outcomes focussed funding and reporting is almost universally accepted across the Australian Public Service. It rests on the belief that Governments are responsible, well intentioned and have their own accountability/transparency process with their communities

Wilson like many today assumes that the COAG approach to funding with its focus on outcomes and a hands-off approach to input controls would lead to Governments and departments having the flexibility they need to deliver the outcomes they commit to.
It may be a reasonable basis for funding with mature states that have developed such processes but good governance cannot be assumed in the NT.

In spite of the fact that this was, in all other respects a very detailed and comprehensive review Wilson did not scrutinise funding inputs, funding allocation principles and mechanisms. Instead he adopted the lofty view that all that is required is agreement on the strategic goals and agreement that funding be applied to achieving these strategic goals.

Identifying the detailed costs of Indigenous education as if it were a separate enterprise is not a requirement for making progress. The review has approached issues of costs from the opposite perspective: what operations, processes, procedures, structures, programs and support are required to deliver a high quality education to Indigenous children in the Northern Territory? The costs associated with delivering an education of that kind will be analysed in a preliminary form in the implementation plan that will accompany the final version of our report. Nor does the review take a position on the current quantum of funding of Indigenous education in general. Instead, the report recommends actions required and the implementation plan will begin to map required spending to put them into practice.

Wilson argued that this was also the approach that the Australian Government should take in their funding of Indigenous education programs in the NT. For example, he argues that for a new agreement with the Australian Government on Indigenous education based on the goals of a newly developed strategic plan for bush students and schools and allocated as flexibly as is consistent with effective accountability. He accepts the logic of an outcomes only focussed approach even while noting the Australian Government concerns about cost shifting and fungbility.

This sounds logical and reasonable. But it is exactly what the NT Government would have wanted him to say. NT has a long history of committing to new strategies and priorities in Indigenous education with little or no funding. For example, in 2009, the ambitious strategy called Transforming Indigenous Education had no associated funding. Similarly, the excellent work undertaken to put in place Remote Learning Partnership Agreements was completely undermined when, following the Government’s prominent formal signing ceremony in a community, it became clear to the community and the school that the agreement could not be implemented because no funding was allocated.

“Don’t look at our funding allocation inputs, just focus on the merit and ambition of our goals and leave us to fund accordingly” is the perfect outcome for a Government where there are no votes in investing in the Indigenous population. This allows NT Governments of all persuasions to keep on doing what it has always done – take Australian Government funds: general Commonwealth Grants Commission ‘disadvantage’ allocations, and specific Indigenous allocations funded through other agencies and continue to use that money to overfund non-Indigenous majority services, facilities and infrastructure. To put it bluntly, Darwin voters win at the expense of Australia’s most disadvantages and under-serviced communities in remote Australia.

Today Tony Abbott committed to closing the gap on Indigenous school attendance. In my view, he is right to single out this as a priority. However, at the same time, he has given the NT new Gonski money with no strings attached: ensuring that Chief Minister Giles can maintain overfunding for schools in Darwin and Alice by continuing to shortchange remote schools.

Abbott also did nothing when, late last year, the NT announced additional cuts specifically targeting the already underfunded remote schools.

Abbott will have hard time delivering on this promise in the most optimal circumstances. But without forcing some measure of funding accountability and transparency on the NT they simply don’t have a chance.

What has never been attempted in the NT is the transparent and accountable implementation of long-term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools. This was an opportunity to put this urgent priority squarely on the table – an opportunity lost.

Wilson has described the urgency of the problem very clearly and convincingly. But he has not got to the core of the problem. He identified the almost total systemic failure to support over two generations of people living in remote Indigenous communities to a level of basic literacy required for even an unskilled job. But he failed to unearth the fact that while this has occurred with copious wringing of hands, there never was any chance of succeeding because remote Indigenous education in the NT has never been funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Wilson should have picked this up if this was truly an independent review.

Do we need to wait another 14 years – nearly a generation more of systemic and racist policy failure for the next review to pick this up?

Margaret Clark

This article was originally published on Margaret Clark’s blog Combatting Schooling Injustice: Commenius Dreaming

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