Labor governments at state and federal levels are persisting with two unpopular proposals for education in remote Aboriginal schools — the scrapping of bilingual education and the linking of welfare payments to school attendance — despite opposition from communities and educators.
The partial ban on Aboriginal language in schools was flagged by then Northern Territory education minister Marion Scrymgour in August last year. It would restrict teaching in Aboriginal languages to the end of the day, requiring teaching in English for the first four hours. The proposal was to scrap bilingual education within six months.
Supposedly, the plan is meant to improve literacy rates in remote Aboriginal schools by forcing students to speak more English.
A March 12 AAP report said NT Education Union president Rod Smith credited a recent drop in school attendance to the partial ban on local Indigenous languages.
On February 5, when talking to Scrymgour, Mandawuy Yunupingu from Yothu Yindi and a teacher for 20 years argued: "We shouldn't be doing anything that requires Indigenous students to leave the things they already know outside of the classroom."
In a letter to Scrymgour posted on the Northern Myth blog, Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan, who had been involved in bilingual education programs for more than 60 years, reproached the minister for what she saw as an attack on her culture.
"All my children and grandchildren went to school every day and they all read and write English and Warlpiri", she wrote. "I hear the children of my relatives who live in other communities with no two-way bilingual program talking mixed-up language and not even understanding Warlpiri properly ...
"In our communities it is most important for government people to work together with the community people to provide what the community wants, not just for the government to force their ideas."
Meanwhile, the federal government has begun a trial linking NT parents' welfare payments to children's school attendance. It had proposed to extend this to the Kimberley region in Western Australia, but the Liberal state government has refused to support the trial.
Opponents of the plan say that this merely penalises the most impoverished in these communities and will do little to improve attendance.
"These trials fail to address the underlying causes of non-attendance and only further undermine families in need of support", WA Greens senator Rachel Siewert said on February 17.
"Rather than punishing struggling, low-income families, the government should be focussing on the underlying causes of truancy and delivering a real education revolution so that all kids want to be at school," she said.
Green Left Weekly spoke to Kerry Mulholland, who works at a remote school of 100 students near Fitzroy Crossing in WA. The school has six teachers and covers both primary and secondary education. It services four different Aboriginal communities and it takes students about an hour-and-a-half to get to school each day.
"We have four languages taught in the school. As part of the Kimberley literacy strategy, there is English, Aboriginal English, Kriol [an NT Aboriginal creole] and [Aboriginal] language and we support that in the class room. The Aboriginal education workers are there to model Aboriginal English and Kriol and we have separate language teachers that come in and help with [Aboriginal] language teaching ... we have two Aboriginal language groups in the area, whereas most schools have just one.
"If these programs were stopped by state or federal government, then that would destroy our current strategy. There would also be a great outcry, particularly from the communities themselves."
She said that the school had a great deal of success in attracting students by providing more infrastructure and support, but funds and staff were limited. "I think that you have to start with the support systems: [making sure] that kids are healthy and safe and that they have adequate transport and food and medical services.
"Almost all of our kids have basic health problems like nits, boils, and ear and respiratory infections.
"More resources such as school nurses or local clinics [would go a long way] to improving attendance. We're very isolated — it's 120km to the nearest hospital. It's these things that are affecting attendance. We provide school meals, which helps a lot."
Mulholland said that poverty is the main factor in school participation. Attempts to link welfare to attendance would only make things worse.
"Changes to welfare in this way just seems to cause more problems, particularly when combined with the transport issues.
"It's just another reactive paternal policy — our government telling Aboriginal people that they are not doing a good job and need to be forced to do the right thing. They should be working with the Aboriginal people to think of other strategies."