By KIERAN FINNANE
Minister for Indigenous Advancement Alison Anderson says there is no conflict between her vision of schooling in the bush and the Chief Minister’s. In a long speech to parliament on Tuesday she said that teaching traditional culture and language “should not be done in schools”. This has been reported as in conflict with County Liberals policy, with Chief Minister Terry Mills stating yesterday that, while the objective is to teach English, “you have to use the language that they bring into the school in those first two or three years”.
Ms Anderson told the Alice Springs News Online this morning that this of course is the “pragmatic” way to go: “You can’t start teaching bush children in a language they can’t understand. You use the traditional language to get to English, which is what schools do now. It’s called ‘scaffolding’. I believe in bush children being fluent in English, it’s what parents want. How to get there is a pragmatic matter for the schools.
“All through my speech I stuck up for culture and language. But no white man can teach you your language. Aboriginal people teach their children language in the first few years of life. Then at school they begin the journey of scaffolding into English.”
In her speech Ms Anderson identified the two goals she will strive for as Minister for Indigenous Advancement – real education and real jobs, even though she is not the Education Minister or the Employment Minister and she went to to explain why. What follows is an edited version of the speech.
“Too much of the public discussion about Indigenous people has assumed, whatever the problem, government is the answer. It has been assumed that any problem can be solved with the right policies and the right amount of money. I would have no issue with that if it was correct but the history of the past 40 years, including the Intervention, shows it is wrong. I believe it failed because it came over time to treat Indigenous people as passive and, by treating us as passive, it helped make us passive. It also treated us as different and encouraged us to live in a parallel world that was supposed to be a dreaming but became a nightmare. The time has come to reject those beliefs and say that Indigenous people need to engage with other Australians. In particular, we need jobs and, for jobs, we need education.
“We Indigenous people need to be more like other Australians. I do not mean we should abandon our beliefs or our language but, like dozens of other cultures in Australia, we must learn to combine our own identities with participation in the broader society that will not weaken us. It will make us stronger in who we are. To preserve the old ways, we must embrace the new ones …
Indigenous schools’ lost generation
“Many people who have been to Indigenous schools in the past generation are so poorly educated they have never had a real job. In employment terms, they are the lost generation. Our schools stole their futures from them. All we can do now is fix the problem for the next generation. It is a huge challenge but I believe we can do it.
“The problem is this: we have been treating education politically but a good school is not political. What is taught and how it is taught should not be determined by the local community. A good education is like good policing or good health care. It is something most people in Australia recognise when they see it. It is the same in Geelong or Townsville, and people are happy for the government to determine its shape whether in public or private schools. Like good health, good education is the same everywhere and we do not need to debate it.
“The people of Perth and Brisbane do not want to run their local school or tell the teachers what the curriculum should be. They just want to send their kids out the door in the morning and know they are going to learn to read and write and count, to use computers, and find out about the world. That is real education and many of the schools in the Territory are not providing it; in fact, our Indigenous schools are a continuing disappointment.
“We tend to speak words of encouragement about the state of things and not confront the facts head on. In doing so, we patronise young Indigenous school students. We fail to tell their parents how poor the results really are. We fail to hold those parents responsible in a rigorous fashion for their part in schooling their children. We mask and soften the truth. At times, it seems as if we still operate a double standard of expectations. For remote communities, we are prepared to ask for, and accept, second best.
“I want to draw, for a few moments, on the research done by Helen Hughes and her son, Mark, published by the Centre for Independent Studies. Professor Hughes’ family escaped the Nazis and came to Australia where she became an economist and worked for the World Bank and the United Nations for many years.
“For the past five years, she has been researching Indigenous education and doing some work in East Arnhem Land and recently Mark and she wrote a paper about what the latest NAPLAN results were for year three pupils. They showed that the past rates for Indigenous pupils in the Northern Territory are 47% for numeracy and 32% for reading. That means over half our eight year olds cannot do sums and two thirds cannot read. No other state or territory comes close to that level of failure. If we do not change that, we will never improve the lives of Indigenous people in the Territory.
Remoteness not the problem
“So what is the problem? Is it that our kids are Indigenous? Obviously it is not. Most Indigenous kids in Australia live in towns and cities and do just fine in education. Is it because our kids speak a second language at home? No, it is not. Australia is full of kids who speak another language at home, but do well at school. Is it because there is not enough money? Unlikely. Indigenous kids here get 40% more spent on their education than other children. So what about remoteness? Are small remote schools the problem? Not really, according to Helen Hughes. She points out that while Indigenous pupils in remote areas have a reading pass rate of 25%, for non-Indigenous pupils, it is 93%.
“So what is the problem? Helen Hughes says, and I agree, that the problem is the quality of the schools, particularly the curriculum and the teaching methods. If we taught our kids the same way kids are taught in Newcastle and Fremantle, their results would skyrocket. The Hughes are not the only people to recognise this. Three years ago on Cape York, Noel Pearson and some colleagues did the report called the ‘Most Important Reform’ that came to the same conclusion. We need to fix our schools.
“A real education is a basic human right and it has been denied to Indigenous people of the Northern Territory for too long. The beauty of focusing on education is, it is one of the few things governments can actually do. At least if it has the will, there is a way. With the right curricula and policies and funding, we can get properly functioning schools with proper teachers. If you get the schools right other things will gradually fall into place.
The curse of truancy
“Take truancy, which is the curse of good education in the Northern Territory. At the moment we try to fix it with carrots and sticks, by trying to force parents to send their kids to school or by bribing the kids to come, but the Hughes’ research shows that once schools start to provide a real education, the pupils will come anyway. Not all of them, but most of them. Most people are not idiots, they want the best for themselves and their children.
“Let me describe how a remote community of the future might look. At its heart would be a proper school, just like a small version of school in Darwin or Sydney. There would be at least one full-time teacher with a university degree and five years experience. We would attract those teachers by paying them well and providing decent housing and community support. There would be a community committee to support the school. Not by telling it what to do, but by helping it run like other schools in Australia. The committee would help the teacher settle in, help care for the school grounds, help feed the kids and take them to the clinic if they were sick. Help make sure they come to school in the mornings.
“In other parts of Australia, the parents do those things. It is a sad fact, many Indigenous parents are like children themselves, that is something we have to face up to. For a while we are going to rely a lot on the grannies of the community to make our schools work. We need to ask the grannies who have already done so much, to do some more. To help us make our schools normal.
“I hope that one day, parents will start feeling ashamed of the situation, start looking after their kids a lot better, but that day is a long way off. We have to be realistic. I am hoping, if we start to turn our communities into places that welcome education, young teachers from other parts of Australia will want to come here for a few years. Look at the old missionaries and the American Peace Corps. Look at all Australians today who volunteer in third world countries. There have always been people prepared to lend a hand.
“The Northern Territory is Australia’s own third world. It is the nation’s internal colony. We have to ask other Australians to help us change that; we cannot do it alone.
Make remote schools normal
“One of the things we have to do to make schools normal is introduce normal curriculum just as they have in Melbourne, London, or New York. I am not suggesting we abandon our traditional culture or language, but teaching them should not be done in schools. It should be done after school and on weekends and during the holidays. That is when most of the other cultures in Australia teach their children traditional ways. The job of the teachers in our schools will be to teach what is taught in normal schools around Australia. You can buy the curriculum off the shelf from any state you like. That is the only way our children will grow up to be able to compete for jobs and work alongside people educated in other places.
“Another thing we have to do to make schools normal is to stop holding events that take kids away – no more sports events that go on for days. Some people say these events are traditional, but I have my doubts about that. Some have traditional roots, but they have grown because of the welfare world, because people have had so much empty time to fill. We need to educate parents to see that a new approach to education will involve some hard choices. There will no more excuses for children missing school. There is something government and local councils can help with. There should be no more support for any type of event that takes children away from home during school term.
“Let us imagine we can improve education; we can make it real. That will take many years even if the changes I am describing come in. It will be many years before the first group of kids to receive a real education leave school. However, let us imagine that happens. Where will they go? I see them going for interviews for jobs now automatically filled by non-Indigenous people who often come to the Territory from other places. I see Indigenous people starting to fill those jobs because they are well educated and, sometimes, because of their local knowledge. They understand this place and its people better than the other applicants for the position. That happens in many places; locals have an advantage. It should happen here. I am talking about real jobs, not blackfella ones.
Phase out blackfella jobs
“My sister-in-law has been a teaching assistant for 25 years and, although she is a good worker, it is a dead end. She can never use that experience to move up or on. We need to phase out all the jobs we created for Aboriginal people: the teaching assistants and the special positions for Aboriginal police and healthcare workers, and all the rest. They imply that Aboriginal people cannot do normal jobs. We need to replace them with real jobs that require real education; jobs that are not dead ends but that could lead on to other jobs, including jobs in other places if that is what some people want.
“In that way, education can set us free. It can make us independent for the first time of all the non-Indigenous advisors who have tried to control our lives. At the moment we are being advised into the grave by people better educated than us. This needs to change. We need education to set us free – free of dependence, unemployment, welfare and victimhood. Education has set billions of human beings free; it can do the same for us. Once we are independent we will have choices. Most 25-year-olds in Sydney can work anywhere in the world. They have the education and the work experience. I want our 25-year-olds to have the same choices.
“Of course, many young people will want to stay in their communities, but even to do that requires education, if they are to take advantage of the job opportunities that exist. There are opportunities, both existing ones and jobs we can create, to grow food, make bread, and fix cars. For people who can read and write and use computers to keep learning there are plenty of job opportunities in the communities.
“It always surprises me how hard it is to get fresh food in remote places. There has to be a potential to change that. We have the land and the sun, and we have the example of the old missions where food was grown successfully. I see hundreds of new jobs across the Territory in that one area. Again, we will need help. Again, I suggest we ask other Australians to assist us. Not bureaucrats or soldiers, but gardeners, bakers and mechanics to stay with us for six months and share their knowledge. However, that is a vision for the future. First we need to make our communities places outsiders would want to live in.
“I know there is much to be done; however, I believe the rest of Australia cares about what happens here and is just waiting for us to take the first step. It has more to offer us than a view of Indigenous people defined by their victimhood – more than welfarism or the intervention. We need to convince it that the Territory is not a museum and is not a nightmare. Above all, we need to show our fellow Australians we want to be normal. We want the right to be just like them and keep our identity, but to live fully in the 21st century.
“Today I have been describing a dream, but it is not a romantic dream. I hope it is not an impossible one. It is a dream based on looking at the past and being honest about what has gone wrong. It is a dream that does not aspire to the creation of some Utopia of a sort that has never been seen on the face of the earth before. My dream is we should get real and, for the first time since Europeans came to this land, Indigenous people should be thought of and treated just like everyone else. To someone in Melbourne, Shanghai or New York, that might sound like a very modest dream; however, as all of us here today know, it is actually a big one to suggest that Indigenous people in the Northern Territory should live normal lives with real education and real jobs. That is the most radical dream of all.”
By KIERAN FINNANE