Indigenous education review: no more 'biliteracy'; boarding for secondary students


The review recommends expanding the Clontarf program and  introducing a similar program for girls.

Our photo shows a Clontarf graduation barbecue in Alice Springs last year.

The draft review of Indigenous education in the Territory by consultant Bruce Wilson, released today, does not support “continued efforts to use biliteracy approaches”; says secondary education for bush students should be delivered in the Territory’s major towns with appropriate residential support; and on the fraught issue of attendance, says effort should be preferentially targeted to early childhood and primary children and to secondary children already attending on average at least three days per week.

On biliteracy Mr Wilson says Indigenous children need to learn English they way other children do:
“One of the key issues facing the Territory is the number and proportion of Indigenous children who enter school with little or no English. In some schools, the proportion of the cohort in this position approaches 100%. In some cases, schools have sought to establish initial literacy in the first languages spoken by these children. The approach to be adopted has been the subject of educational debate, policy shifts and community disagreement.
“This review has made a decision to focus on the English language skills and knowledge that underpin success in the western education system. Some people will find this a challenging position. The recommendation is based on the view that Indigenous children learn English in the way that other children learn English: through rigorous and relentless attention to the foundations of the language and the skills that support participation in a modern democracy and economy.
“The review does not support continued efforts to use biliteracy approaches, or to teach the content of the curriculum through first languages other than English. This report recommends the explicit teaching and assessment of foundational elements of English literacy, including phonemic awareness, phonics and vocabulary.”
He says the attempt to provide secondary education in the bush has failed:
“The Collins review [Learning Lessons, 199] mounted a strong argument to extend secondary education to remote and very remote schools. In the years since that report, the Northern Territory has spent hundreds of millions of dollars establishing and supporting secondary provision in these schools. The effort has attracted dedicated teachers and gained the support of many communities. This review’s visits to schools and analysis of data demonstrate that the initiative has largely failed. NAPLAN literacy rates for very remote students in Year 9 are about 10%. Almost none of these students gain a certificate at the end of their schooling.
“Heroic efforts to construct a viable secondary program in many remote settings are bedevilled by low enrolments, poor attendance, a limited subject range and inadequate facilities. The review found secondary programs without a clear intention to achieve a qualification and with no systematic overall structure, often staffed by teachers with primary school training responding as well as they could to students seeking a secondary education. Where programs are designed to lead to a qualification, they usually offer students a very narrow range of options. Many students in these locations are still engaged in busy‐work. Students are often only minimally literate, largely disengaged from school, attending sporadically, looking forward to the end of their schooling with little prospect of gaining a formal qualification and in many cases without a realistic chance of gaining worthwhile employment locally.
“Young people engaged in these programs are fulfilling the legal requirement that they remain at
school without benefiting from the moral requirement that they gain something worth having from this experience. Accordingly, the review recommends a dramatic shift in how secondary education is provided. This report proposes that secondary education should, with a few exceptions, be delivered in the Territory’s towns (Darwin, Palmerston, Alice Springs, Katherine, Nhulunbuy and Tennant Creek) with remote students provided with residential accommodation.
“This will require careful management, dedicated resourcing, sensitive negotiation with families and communities and a continuing effort to maintain home links. It is, however, the only means by which many students can be offered a high quality secondary education. The report argues that it is unsustainable to continue to offer secondary programs that lead nowhere.”
Mr Wilson says the education system has its limits when it comes to addressing the disadvantage of Indigenous students:
“Before discussing opportunities for improvement, it is important to recognise the limits of the reach of education in achieving outcomes for Indigenous young people. The review identifies areas in which they experience substantial disadvantage, including health, social conditions in some families and communities (e.g. use of drug and alcohol), nutrition, developmental difficulties, non‐English speaking backgrounds and low levels of adult education.
“Schools and school systems cannot control these issues and should not be blamed when matters beyond their control limit their achievements. Approaches to Indigenous education from the earliest years should take account of those influences and seek to ameliorate, counter and overcome them to the extent possible. But our ambitions for Indigenous children should not be lowered because of these difficulties. Our aim should still be to raise levels of achievement in the Indigenous population so that they match achievement in the population as a whole.”
On attendance he reasserts the 80% benchmark for making progress:
“Attendance patterns in the Northern Territory have declined on the last decade, especially in very remote schools. Despite major programs run by the Australian and Territory Governments in recent years and substantial programs at school level, remote and very remote attendance continues to deteriorate. The evidence is clear that measureable student improvement only occurs once attendance reaches 60% (or three days per week) and that 80% is the minimum for most students to achieve success.”
He says attendance efforts should be preferentially targeted:
“Effort should focus on early childhood and primary children to establish regular patterns of attendance, and on secondary children attending on average at least three days per week. Incentives for attendance should be provided. Work should be undertaken to minimize the effect of a wide range of community activities on attendance. The Clontarf program should be maintained and a similar system‐wide program for girls established.”
The full draft report can be downloaded here.
Public meetings to discuss its findings will be held around the NT. In Alice Springs the meeting is on February 24, 5-7pm, at Centralian Senior College theatrette.


  1. This is a reasonable appraisal of remote Aboriginal secondary schooling but it lacks an analysis of the alternatives it advocates, particularly boarding schools. In NT boarding schools, declining and highly erratic attendance, disputes between students and financial troubles have all been abundant over the past few years but the reviewer believes that this approach will work with ‘community support’.
    There needs to be a lot more discussion around the relationship between communities and boarding schools.
    In 2010, I was employed as a consultant to run community workshops in the remote Pilbara WA to find out how parents and community members thought that the (failing) boarding school model could operate better.
    Some of the results were surprising.
    These meetings concluded that the parents did want their older kids to attend boarding schools, in fact, they strongly supported the idea.
    They said the problem was keeping their kids at the school and they were clear that the kids had claims on them that created attendance difficulties.
    For example, if they visited the boarding school and students wanted to return home with them they could not refuse, even if the students had been perfectly content at the school before their visit
    On their part, the only community events parents wanted the kids back home for were funerals of close relatives – nothing else.
    The final conclusion of these workshops was that parents wanted boarding schools situated as far away as possible from the community, they specifically said that they did not want the community to be easily accessible to the school.
    They also said that they wanted as little direct contact with the school as possible during term time.
    Contrary to ideas around close school- community connections, engagement and accessibility, the Pilbara parents supported a model of a distant, hard to access boarding school that operated without their involvement during term time.

  2. My Polemic. The first line did it: “Bruce Wilson’s report released today does not support “continued efforts to use biliteracy approaches”.
    Having just seen Pilger’s Utopia and noticing not a word about the failure of governments to provide quality education [in some cases any education] to students in remote communities. Thought maybe we need a follow up film to expose some of the hidden truths – systematic strategies, silenced stories, orchestrated political propaganda as to the real reason education in remote communities is not working. Until this is understood and addressed nothing will work.
    In December 1998 the announcement was made to phase out Bilingual Education programs and replace them with English only programs.
    This came about as the results of similar reviews and subsequent recommendations as this one.
    Schools that were providing effective models of two way education using a multiliteracy and culturally inclusive approach harnessing the rich resources within the community, were dismantled, teachers removed and the wisdom and skills of the Indigenous, elders, educators families and students were no longer required.
    In fact if one connects the dots this “takeover” was in my opinion the precursor for the intervention because programs that demonstrated, empowered community driven initiatives [and there were many] were not wanted.
    Also the people working in close partnerships with the community were removed and discredited. People were worn down and there was a loss of spirit, hope and a sense of alienation and disbelief immobilised people into passivity.
    New mostly monolingual inexperienced staff were brought in and Principals were rotated through “recalcitrant” schools and communities to implement the new directive and re write history.
    During the process there has been an extremely high turnover of selected temporary principals, the removal of experienced multilingual assistant teachers, and expert indigenous educators / leaders were marginalised, silenced and removed from positions, secondary aged programs closed, contradictory often authoritarian mandates and instructions from afar, constant changes to curriculum policy, methodology and practice, the list goes on.
    These issues are the ones that need addressing – and the skilled educators-practitioners with a proven record of success need to be brought to the table to advise politicians, policy makers and providers with the tools and mechanisms to Deliver the Goods. Working together with Anangu in front.
    There are many experienced teachers who know that high levels of attendance, engagement, performance and commitment become a natural consequence when people are given a voice, a role and the means to take responsibility and ownership for their efforts. The celebration and public recognition of these achievements results in improved health and community wellbeing.

  3. Mr Wilson says Indigenous children need to learn English the way other children do. Mr Wilson is wrong: how can he expect indigenous children to learn English the way other children do if they aren’t learning it at home from their parents and family? Most non-indigenous kids don’t learn English at school. They learn it at home.

  4. @4
    “the skilled educators-practitioners with a proven record of success” (sic)
    Question: What is the success and what is the proven record of it?
    “policy makers and providers with the tools and mechanisms to Deliver the Goods.” (sic)
    Question: What policy makers making what policies delivering what goods with what tools and mechanisms?

  5. @Howard Davies. A big ask but thanks for the challenge.
    “These issues are the ones that need addressing – and the skilled educators-practitioners with a proven record of success need to be brought to the table to advise politicians, policy makers and providers with the tools and mechanisms to Deliver the Goods.”
    I will use one example [there are many across Australia] “to attempt to answer the two questions. Lots of quotes sorry. You will need to do some research and connect some dots.
    “What is the success and what is the proven record of it?
    “What policy makers making what policies delivering what goods with what tools and mechanisms? The following points refer to the action research “Papunya Model of Education”.
    1. Excerpts from my response to the Bruce Wilson review team. A letter to Ken Davies October 2013. “I have said in previous correspondence to you and your predecessors I have fully documented exemplars that demonstrate processes and mechanisms that are essential to the successful delivery of educational services in community learning environments.”
    “In 1992 A FEPPI meeting was held at Papunya and the community ‘Minimum Requirements for Education at Papunya’ was endorsed and provided direction and guidelines for the innovative ground breaking work that became known as ‘The Papunya Model of Education 1992-2001′. This community driven curriculum model that evolved at Papunya was inspired by the Pintupi vision for both ways education and the work of Anangu and Yolngu educators working with indigenous leaders and academics across Australia.”
    See 1987 Kintore: Kevin Keeffe: From the Centre to the City. Aboriginal Education Culture and Power. Also Statement re: Education Smithy Zimran, Co-ordinator of the Kalkaringi Constitutional Convention, August 1998.
    I supplied DVDs providing evidence of these achievements.
    Papunya Restructuring [our School] 1996: A Community School National Schools Network initiative.
    Katu Kalpa Curriculum Frameworks Workshop 2000. Presented by the Papunya School Staff to the NTED Curriculum Frameworks team and several regional schools staff.
    Aurukun Youth Strategy: 2003-4 showing how the principles of teaching and learning and the pedagogical practices developed at Papunya were refined, adapted, contextualised and transferred to meet the requirements of the Cape York Partnership – Literacy Numeracy Workplace Readiness component of the AYS.
    2. Alice Springs News archives. August 30, 2000
    3. The award winning “Papunya School Book of Country and History” was launched in Alice Springs by Dr Yunupingu.
    ” During the period 1998 to 2001, Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle worked as consultants at the school at Papunya where they assisted Anangu staff and students to develop resources for the school’s own Indigenous curriculum, known as the Papunya Model of Education.
    Through this experience, Nadia and Ken were introduced to the Indigenous principles of learning that have inspired and informed the six non-fiction books they have produced – whether as author, illustrator, designer, mentor or compiler. This way of learning recognises country as both the starting point and the centre of all understanding. Collaborative, holistic and experiential, this educational model also honours the learning that children do at home and in their community, and the traditional wisdom passed down by the Elders. With the permission of its practitioners, Nadia and Ken used the Papunya Model of Education with a group of culturally diverse students in suburban Sydney. This project, showcased in the book Going Bush, proved that even city kids love learning from country.”
    4. The following are some excerpts from Yalmay Yunupingu’s speech at the State funeral to honor the legacy of her husband Dr Yunupingu’s life. See the full Speech and also the tribute to Dr Marika who greatly influenced the development of the leadership team at Papunya School.
    “In 1991 he wrote the story of this work in a paper called “Language and Power: the Yolŋu rise to power at Yirrkala School” which details the work he and Mr Wäli Wunuŋmurra did with the Yolŋu Action Group and the School Council.
    He had a strong belief in Aboriginalisation of the school and worked with Batchelor College to support community-based teacher education as we worked towards becoming trained Yolŋu teachers. In the time from 1988 until 1995 seven more Yolŋu teachers gained teaching qualifications at Yirrkala and Yirrkala homelands schools.
    His vision for the Yothu Yindi foundation included the incorporation of Yolŋu cultural knowledge and languages in southern universities. He imagined southern tertiary students coming to Arnhem land to do formal learning with respected Yolŋu elders. In turn our new graduates from Yolŋu schools would enrol in southern universities and gain tertiary qualifications. He always saw the two knowledge systems needed to be balanced, not allowing western knowledge to take first place or to poison us. He was a man who believed in balance. Yolŋu knowledge had to come first and bring the western knowledge in later.”
    “My husband always kept strong contacts with other Batchelor College and Deakin University graduates working across the Northern Territory who were working on bothways curriculum and Aboriginal pedagogy. He was a member of FEPPI, the first Northern Territory Aboriginal Consultative group. He was a signatory to the national AEP (Aboriginal Education Policy) 21 goals. In 2001 at the Yipirinya Festival in Alice Springs he launched the award winning Papunya School Book of Country and History, celebrating the curriculum model developed by Papunya school staff, students and community members using the AEP policy guidelines. Whenever community people asked him for support he was there to give hope and strength against the forces of assimilation which still face us to-day.”

  6. @1
    I understand that many distinguished people belonging to many distinguished organisations appraise education in and about the outback, even as far away as Sydney.
    However having just referred to the 1998 Collins report, non indigenous students in urban schools achieved national reading benchmarks of 82% and 78% in years 3 and 5 respectively against same age indigenous students in non urban schools of 6% and 4% in the same grades. Any success progress on that situation?
    The remote Aboriginal students I taught 30 years ago had better literacy and numeracy skills than remote students I taught more than a generation later.
    One often lauded school (according to its own cultural story written by the non indigenous career variety) had one whole student with a reading age of 6 according to the base line data at the time.
    And Bob Collins made a no brainier point at a seminar I attended once, that anybody without at least year 9 literacy and numeracy skills had no functional control over their own life. If that was my child I’d call it failure.

  7. @ Howard Davies
    Yes many examples of academic success/achievement – I will cite one specific to your comment. The following is a statement to the Principal of Papunya school from the Principal at Yirara college 15 August 2001. He makes observations of Papunya students enrolled at Yirara in “recent years”.
    “A number of students have been able to be placed in the top academic classes upon arrival for the first time to the school. The English literacy and numeracy levels of some of these students have been close to age for grade … a high percentage are able to cope with mainstream academic work.”
    He goes on to talk about attitudes and understandings of western environment expectations within the school setting. And concludes: “I wish to commend you, your staff, your school council and parent community for the good work being done through the Papunya school and wish you every success in your endeavours.”
    I might add that at this time the school was managing the Papunya Wadu “Learning for Life” project, a demonstration project providing remote secondary aged students and adult indigenous students with multimedia industry training in the local community.
    The focus was on Publishing Broadcasting and Communication and Technology – something where the students excel, real education, highly successful.

  8. @1
    When teaching remote I was a liaison person for David Odling-Smee and David Holt when they were at the Yirara helm in the late 70s and early 80s.
    I recall minimum entry standard for any remote student was year 4 literacy. They were pretty strict about it.
    I was a classroom teacher at Yirara from 2003 to 2005. David Rose and Sue-Ann Tickoft convened a Literacy Scaffolding program ostensibly to remediate widespread illiteracy within the teenage student population. All the teachers, including me, were committed, diligent and caring.
    Professional teachers work hard with whatever standard of skills they encounter. That is a minimum professional requirement. I have observed that people who could not teach Aboriginal children with care and creativity and commitment could not ultimately succeed as teachers anywhere.
    Nevertheless, because Yirara frequently tests its students according to Commonwealth requirements in basic literacy and numeracy skills, evidences of successes or objective skill trends are presumably in the public domain.

  9. The simple fact, proven over and over again, is that boarding schools for children from remote Aboriginal communities are almost always a disaster, regardless of the usual cliches of community support etc.
    Boarding school is often personally alienating and destructive for the child. The transitional colleges run by the NT Department were also a disaster. They created many more problems than they solved. The current proposal for boarding schools is simply going around the same discredited merry go round.

  10. Mr Wilson says Indigenous children need to learn English the way other children do. Mr Wilson is wrong: how can he expect indigenous children to learn English the way other children do if they aren’t learning it at home from their parents and family? Most non-indigenous kids don’t learn English at school. They learn it at home.


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