By ERWIN CHLANDA
Education Minister Peter Chandler says he is prepared to order an investigation into Yirara College if there is evidence of tumultuous conduct and danger to students and staff as has been alleged by our sources over the past two weeks.
He says Education Department head Ken Davies told him that there was nothing new in the allegations raised about Yirara. They had been “investigated”.
The last inspection by the department was in August 2013, a spokeswoman for Mr Chandler said this morning, in reply to a question from the Alice Springs News Online.
The News published detailed accounts from two teachers working at Yirara in the second half of last year, and one working there now. (Google this site.)
News reporters had several conversations with them and met them face to face.
We have also reported about a leaked memorandum given to staff two years ago, after a two day meeting, setting out a string of measures to be taken aimed at “de-escalating serious student behaviours”.
It is clear that the problems are not new, that they may have been investigated, but they certainly have not been fixed.
According to My School the college has a total budget of about $6m. Mr Chandler’s office says Yirara received from the NT Government $1.3m in 2013, $1.2m in 2014 and $300,000 so far this year as per capita funding for semester one only.
Mr Chandler, in an exclusive interview with the News, also outlined a comprehensive strategy for education in the bush which seems to underly many of the problems at Yirara.
CHANDLER (pictured): If there is anything new I wouldn’t hesitate sending a team in there to investigate.
NEWS: We spoke to two teachers who worked there in the second half of last year. They gave us comprehensive information for our first report, highly troubling accounts of misconduct. A current teacher confirmed that information and added more: Rampant disobedience, people being threatened, the workplace being unsafe. They spoke to us on the conditions of not being named.
CHANDLER: Encourage them to call me direct with their concerns and I’ll have no hesitation in looking into it further. That’s what I am here for, ensuring the right services are provided, whether they are in the public or private sector. All the information that is given to me is that Yirara has been investigated. A pretty bad call by them, though, not allowing you to go in. That’s just short-sighted. I suggested to Ken [Davies] that perhaps we should be encouraging the school, if they have nothing to hide, to allow the News access to see first hand. They should welcome it.
NEWS: You said recently that the department had met with the principal and the business manager and been told all is well. Was that the sum total of the investigation? Is there some quality control? Do people go in there unannounced? It’s been suggested to us that trouble makers are removed from sight when a scheduled departmental visit takes place.
CHANDLER: The people who are commissioned to undertake these kinds of checks are very experienced. This is not the only school they’ve investigated. They are often tasked to go in. It’s their job. I can’t believe they would put their own positions in jeopardy by not doing a thorough job. [The last inspection was in August 2013.]
NEWS: There are lots of problems with many kids from primary schools in the bush not being at a standard to cope with secondary education at Yirara.
CHANDLER: The principal of Kormilda College up here told me that they use the first 12 months to bring bush kids up to speed, to where their education should be. I commissioned Bruce Wilson to look at the Indigenous education in the NT. I can tell you, everything I thought was wrong with the system is wrong with the system. The approach we’re taking now, particularly with direct instruction being rolled out, to at least 60 remote schools, will provide new opportunities for indigenous kids. For far too long have we been throwing resources at education without focussing on results. That’s wrong.
NEWS: It doesn’t seem Yirara is doing that kind of catch-up in the first years. The teachers are telling us kids not prepared for secondary education are preventing those who are from making progress. The teachers are saying it’s not possible to work under those circumstances.
CHANDLER: If the kids are not made ready they would be leaving those children behind. As the Minister I have to make sure kids turning up to highschool are prepared for highschool. That’s where my focus is. If what you are saying is accurate it’s something I’ll speak to Ken about.
NEWS: Are kids being enrolled irrespective of their educational standard because the college is getting money for them?
CHANDLER: I haven’t seen any great change in the numbers out there.
NEWS: Are kids coming into Yirara because secondary education is being wound back in the bush?
CHANDLER: The very reason that a quality education is not provided in the bush is because teachers are stretched too far. You can have 20, 30 kids in a school, ranging from five years old through to 16 or 17, and expect one teacher to provide a curriculum across all those years. You just can’t provide a quality education that way. It’s the reason why we are looking at regional boarding facilities for highschools.
NEWS: Does that mean you’re looking at a return to secondary education outside major centres?
CHANDLER: Absolutely. The first one of our boarding facilities will be in Nhulunbuy, right adjacent to the highschool. Children will come in from outstations who received what I would call a second grade education. We bring them in to a larger school where they have far more subject choice, and career teachers who can provide them with a far better education than they can get in the bush. If you have one teacher in front of a group of 14 year olds, then that’s the group he’s teaching to.
NEWS: When is the kind of thing you’re doing in Nhulunbuy going to be rolled out in Central Australia?
CHANDLER: Alice Springs is likely to be second, we’re looking at Tennant Creek and Katherine, expanding the current facilities there. Bess Price would like to see one close to Yuendumu. We haven’t detailed exactly where they are going to be.
NEWS: Until that rolls out, is there a case for Yirara to apply a test to applicants and deny enrolment to those who are not sufficiently advanced for secondary education, as it was done years ago?
CHANDLER: I am prepared to seek some advice on that. It hasn’t been raised with me. We can’t have it that these children are being set up to fail.
NEWS: At what point is the department’s investigation into the Yipirinya School?
CHANDLER: The investigation is being carried out by Ian Summers, the former NT Auditor General. I have asked for a report by the end of this month. I wait with baited breath for his report.
Meanwhile there is an impasse in the communications between the News and the Lutheran church. After sustained attempts by Finke River Mission chairman Tim Stollznow to bully us we have requested Bishop John Henderson (pictured) and John Proeve, Executive Director Lutheran Schools Association SA, NT and WA to provide us with another contact person so we can pursue our obligations of fact checking and giving right of reply.
Bishop Henderson and Mr Proeve declined to do that, insisting that we should deal with Mr Stollznow. A string of questions we have put to them have not been answered. Our correspondence can be seen here. We understand Bishop Henderson, Mr Proeve and Mr Stollznow are in Alice Springs.
See Letter to the Editor from Tim Stollznow.
By ERWIN CHLANDA