The Northern Territory government released the draft report of the independent Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory on February 7. The government’s website says the review aimed to “get an informed understanding of the impact of current programs and initiatives”.
If the report’s recommendations are indicative of government intent, education for remote Aboriginal children in the NT looks set to suffer more blows.
In 2008, the then Labor government in the NT introduced what became known as the “First Four Hours” policy — teaching would be strictly limited to English for the majority of the school day. This rule would apply despite the fact that Aboriginal people make up about 30% of the NT population, and about 65% of Aboriginal people in the NT speak a language other than English at home.
The policy was criticised by educators, Aboriginal communities and bilingual advocates.
It disempowered highly skilled Aboriginal teachers who had been central to bilingual programs for decades, and alienated students and communities from a school environment now dominated by a foreign language — English.
Disappointingly, however, the February 7 draft report recommends a shift further away from the successful bilingual systems of the past. The executive summary says: “The review does not support the continued efforts to use biliteracy approaches, or to teach the content of the curriculum through first languages other than English.”
The review backs up its recommendations by pointing to National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results in the NT. It says that, by year 3, very remote Indigenous students are two years behind very remote Indigenous students in the rest of Australia, in writing results. By year 9, this gap has increased to five years.
Although the review compares remote Indigenous NT schools with “comparable schools” in remote Queensland and WA, it acknowledges that the NT has “many more non-English speaking households and a much less educated adult population” than WA and Queensland.
In other words, remote Indigenous children taking NAPLAN writing tests in the NT are much less likely to speak English or have highly literate parents. And yet they are required to take the test in English.
The review justifies its English-only obsession by saying: “The recommendation is based on the view that Indigenous children learn English the same way that other children learn English: through rigorous and relentless attention to the foundations of language.”
This logic ignores a fairly obvious point, many “other children” come from English-speaking backgrounds, are immersed in English before and after schools, have parents who read to them in English, and play with their peers using English.
In contrast, the review explains that in some NT schools, 100% of students enter school with little or no English.
Phrases such as “skills that support participation in a modern democracy and economy” sound suspiciously assimilationist. This is especially the case when coupled with another of the review’s recommendations — that “secondary education should, with a few exceptions, be delivered in the Territory’s towns … with remote students provided with residential accommodation”.
If adopted, this recommendation would be consistent with recent territory and federal moves to withdraw support from homelands and “unviable” communities, focusing instead on “hub towns” and encouraging remote Aboriginal people to move to areas of more employment opportunities. Assimilation, by any other name.
The review is now open for public consultation.
However, the very day the report was publicly released, NT education minister Peter Chandler all but committed to the recommendations. According to ABC Online, he said: “All of those findings will be not only be considered but tested and, where possible, [we will] work with the federal government to ensure we can introduce as many of the recommendations as possible."
The review comes in the context of mounting attacks on the public education sector.
The NT government has recently used NAPLAN results to “shake up” the system, but for many schools, this has resulted in significant staffing cuts.
The remote school in Galiwin’ku, for example, with 600-700 students, lost nine teachers this year.
“This is insane: you cannot improve education by reducing staff and reducing the budget”, Nadine Williams from the Australian Education Union told ABC Radio’s AM program on January 25. Funding of schools will now be linked to attendance, which the union worries will disadvantage already-struggling remote Indigenous students.
Meanwhile, $1.6 million in national funding was cut to the bus service that took students to school from town camps in Alice Springs. According to the January 29 ABC Online, the NT government believes that the bus service failed to raise school attendance.
Instead the NT government has hired truancy officers for remote communities, who will police people’s homes to ensure school-age children attend school.
Senator Nigel Scullion announced the officers as part of a $30 million program. He said in Yuendumu on January 28: "From tomorrow onwards, every kid in this community must be at school unless they have a doctor's certificate."
Discussions about restoring funding to the buses are ongoing.