Comment: Indigenous education – where is the harmony?

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion sits with Xavier College's four School Attendance Officers in Wurrumiyanga in the Tiwi Islands, March 14, 2014. (AAP)

While school children across the country celebrate Harmony Day today, Lilani Goonesena reflects on the lack of harmony in Indigenous education.

It’s not a new subject but it’s one that’s highly contested. Why are school retention rates for Indigenous kids in remote areas so low, and how can they be improved?

The Indigenous Affairs Minister, Nigel Scullion, says that issues “outside the school gate” primarily account for poor attendance. Others counter that kids need a relevant curriculum and quality teachers.

A consultant for the Northern Territory (NT) government, Bruce Wilson, advocated closing remote schools altogether and sending kids to boarding schools in cities. Meanwhile, the Abbott Government has started sending truancy officers into Indigenous communities to force parents to send kids to school.

School attendance numbers from Abbott’s truancy officers are already showing good results. And in the NT, the government is working with elders of the Yolngu Nations Assembly with a plan to employ the attendance officers from the local community who will work with the families of truant kids.

Direct community engagement is certainly a step in the right direction though critics are skeptical of the use of punitive measures. But it remains to be seen as to whether this latest ‘carrots and sticks’ plan will work in the long-term, or if it will go the way of other ‘tough love’ strategies such as Labor’s 2011 linking of welfare payments to school attendance.

Janis Ryan is a primary school teacher who spent the last four years at Shepherdson College in Arnhem Land. She says that Indigenous schools are seriously underfunded with a shortage of teachers and sometimes not even enough chairs for the kids.

Moreover, the overcrowding is a serious problem in a clan society with children being forced to sit next to and interact with rival clans.  

This is a cultural problem that is simply not catered for in the Australian education system.

Budget cuts to NT education can only worsen the situation with a reduction in teachers where they are arguably most needed. One wonders how authorities will ‘Close the Gap’ in education with less, not more, teachers.

It’s just commonsense. So too are addressing the practical domestic issues behind poor school attendance in Indigenous communities.

Overcrowding in indigenous housing is a serious problem. Three or more families may live in a house built for one family. People sleep in shifts and the children don’t get a proper night’s sleep. They are simply too tired to go to school.

Families also share the washing and cleaning facilities and kids may not have a clean uniform or clothes to wear to the school, so they don’t go.

Ms Ryan says that it’s not that Indigenous kids don’t want to attend school; younger ones are particularly keen. But as they get older, they find less and less to relate to in the curriculum.

“It’s absolutely irrelevant”, says Ms Ryan. “It’s really important to connect with the child’s world, and individual teachers do a marvelous job but they’re really doing creative tricks with the curriculum; it’s just not there,” she says.

Moreover, for the majority of Indigenous children, English is not their first language. They only speak it with their teacher. There are no other opportunities to speak, read or write in English at home or in the community.

It’s no wonder that Indigenous kids score so poorly on NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program - Literacy And Numeracy. NAPLAN statistics showing the significant gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous kids are dragged out in every Indigenous education debate.

The purpose of NAPLAN’s standardised testing is to provide information about where the gaps are. But it also inadvertently puts pressure on kids and damages their self-confidence.

Critics of NAPLAN say the tests discriminate against Indigenous kids.

“NAPLAN is heartbreaking with kids who don’t speak English”, says Ms Ryan. “They’re not stupid, they know it’s important but they can’t read or respond to it, and it makes them feel terrible.”

Indigenous kids are even thwarted on the numeracy test. Here they have the skills to compete with their peers but confoundingly, numeracy is also tested through a written, not verbal, exam.

Indigenous children in remote communities often lack the basic facilities and opportunities that most Australians take for granted. Yet they are being tested and compared to similarly aged kids and found wanting. It’s like they are being set up to fail.

Reading, writing and arithmetic are fundamental to a good education. But more than that, education is about encouraging curiosity and engendering a long-term desire to learn. This Harmony Day, the government should consider how it is helping indigenous children do just that.

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance writer based in Canberra.

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