OpEd by RALPH FOLDS
A 10-year Australian National University study of a Top End school is challenging government policy relying on boarding schools to deliver secondary education to remote Aboriginal teenagers.
The college is described as a revolving door. Students come for short term stays and drop out. The highest dropout rates are amongst students in Years 7 and 8. Early school disengagement leaves a significant proportion of Aboriginal teenagers functionally illiterate and innumerate.
With no local secondary school to fall on there is no capacity to re-engage these teenagers once they are back on their communities. The next re engagement for the dropouts is likely to be the justice system. Even for the few who persevere with boarding school education, outcomes are so low that school completion does not lead to job security, training or higher education.
The study finds little benefit in the Aboriginal secondary boarding school. Education is presumed to provide social and economic advantages but not when there are high levels of school dropouts and limited post-school pathways.
The authors caution that their findings cannot be generalised, and they call for scalable research into the status quo of secondary education provision in remote Australia. But many of the findings resonate with the experience of secondary boarding in Alice Springs.
Recently the chair of the Yirara College Council was reported to say: “If they didn’t us have us, they would have nothing.”
He’s right. Secondary education is unavailable in 78 remote NT communities. The only choice for most remote central Australian Aboriginal teenagers is Yirara or an interstate college.
This is apparently “best practice” but the research evidence for this claim is absent from the public record.
Given the historical reluctance of Territory Governments to fund remote secondary schools and the Federal funds available for boarding schools, is the current model financial rather than educational best practice?
Not all Aboriginal parents favour a religious education at Yirara and some remote students are highly resistant to leaving their small community for a boarding school. These teenagers often have no secondary education options.
Is Yirara also a revolving door? In my experience, for many students it is.
While not ignoring those that stay at Yirara to complete a secondary education, it’s not uncommon for few students who start in a class to be there at the end of the year.
Some teachers have had almost a new class every term. The 2019 attendance average for Yirara was 33% and just 6% attended more than 90% of the time.
For many remote NT teenagers, secondary education is a couple of terms at Yirara. Some will come back for another short stint, but many never return to any sort of education or training again.
The ANU study stressed the need for teachers to understand the communities their students come from. When students present with complex needs, these often reflect the complex reality of community life which would be helpful to understand.
The study also highlighted the need for strong communication between teachers and the families of their students. With positive relationships with families everything improves in the classroom.
Yirara is not focused on facilitating teacher community understandings or teacher communication with parents. For example, the main contact with families is a separate section of the college that relays information from teachers.
One could imagine that experienced NT bush teachers with a knowledge of remote communities and who may already know some of the families, would fill the gaps in the Yirara teaching workforce, but very few will work there.
Is a school system that accommodates a high level of disengagement of remote Aboriginal teenagers a factor in youth problems in Alice Springs?
If it is then a justice reinvestment model that redirects funding from boarding colleges to remote secondary education may lead to better engagement and fewer troubled youth.
There is a desperate need to reinvigorate adult education programs and alternative on-country pathways to ensure that the opportunity to learn is not foreclosed altogether when a young person drops out of school.
The Alice Springs News gave right of reply to Yirara but it issued a statement that he Principal’s annual leave commences today and while he is grateful for the opportunity to comment, he is unable to do so.
Images from Yirara College promotional video on Facebook.