The Northern Territory education system continues to fail Aboriginal children

Posted on November 1, 2013


Earlier this week the Council for Australian Governments (COAG) released its latest report Education in Australia 2012: Five years of performance. Key points the report highlighted are:

  • There has been no improvement in school attendance rates of Indigenous students. In fact, the Northern Territory (NT) has gaps greater than 10% in every year. Worst affected are NT year 10 students who have the lowest rate of attendance in the country and in 2012 year ten attendance decreased by 14% to 55%. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous attendance rates in year 10 in the NT in 2012 was 30%.
  • Few improvements of students meeting minimum standards in reading, and no improvements in numeracy, have been recorded. Despite the Closing the Gap agenda between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students the gap remains.
  • There have been some improvements in NT Aboriginal people 20-24 years old attaining year 12. The rate has gone from 47.4% to 53.9% but this figure is still 32% less than non-Indigenous students in the same age group.
  • 78.7 % of Aboriginal young people aged 17-24 are not fully engaged in work or study. This is the largest proportion of young people in the country.

These statistics are particularly difficult to understand given that there has been 5 years of the COAG Closing the Gap agenda and 6 years of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention). Surely, there should have been significant improvements with all this effort – and money – being focused on education in the Northern Territory?

A key focus of the Intervention and its successor Stronger Futures is the provision of extra teachers, extra teacher housing and measures such as the School Enrolment and Attendance Measures which is touted as a “collaborative approach to working with the family and others in the community who might have a role in influencing the child” in order to increase school attendance. Included in the program is the ability to suspend all welfare payments to the student’s carers if there are continued absences. Despite all of this attendance has fallen.

More recently the Northern Territory government has announced cuts to education funding in the Northern Territory. It seems that those most affected by this are the bilingual educators and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) positions. In an environment where so many students do not speak English as their mother language this will have a significant and long term impact on student learning outcomes and will also impact on attendance rates.

The new minister for Indigenous affairs Nigel Scullion has committed to introducing a truancy army to get children to school. What seems to be missing from the Minister’s ideas and the Northern Territory Government’s approach is an understanding of the vast array of evidence that shows harsh punitive measures do not work.

What does work is having high expectations; building relationships; engaging families; developing relevant curriculum; properly resourcing schools; ensuring teachers are culturally competent and personalised learning. Strengths based programs that work are ones which respects culture, respect Indigenous ways of learning and respect the knowledge that the child brings to the school and builds on that. Strengths based approaches also acknowledge parents as integral part of their child’s education and builds partnerships with them. This is a different approach to the deficit thinking touted by the Minister in a recent interview where he suggested that “It doesn’t matter about the colour of their skin or where they live and quite frankly, there is no effort made, none”. It is not true to suggest that communities and parents are making no effort to address attendance rates.

Put simply there is no point getting the child to school if there is nothing there to engage them and they are being taught in a language they don’t understand. The NT government and the Federal Government need to work together and ensure they are building up education in the Northern Territory and not condemning another generation of Aboriginal children to poor learning outcomes. There are plenty of organisations who have the evidence and who can help them improve education for children in the Northern Territory.

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