Making school success praiseworthy on remote Aboriginal communities

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OpEd by RALPH FOLDS

A kid learning quickly to read and write on a remote community is not considered smart, except perhaps by the school teachers. The smart kid is the one who has learned to speak all the languages of his relatives at a young age.

But there was a time when literacy had value and many people learned to read and write.

Back in the era when Aboriginal lives were supervised, travel required a superintendent’s permission and individuals did not own cars, families could only keep in touch by letters. Reading and writing had a purpose and was highly valued.

Some adults also learned to read the scriptures, taught by local pastors. A knowledge of the new religion was high status in welfare communities like Papunya where newcomers from the bush were looked down on as myall.

But what drives literacy now on remote Aboriginal communities?

Despite the increasingly desperate Education Department initiatives there isn’t much at all.

The demise of remote Aboriginal literacy reflects the lack of its perceived usefulness. This has contributed to a profound disengagement between Aboriginal youngsters and most of their schools. Attendance rates in very remote community schools and Yirara College are very low. The very remote Aboriginal school attendance dropped from 19% to just 14% in 2019.

The Australian Education Union’s NT branch president Jarvis Ryan said:  “Low attendance signals that people aren’t buying the product — there’s something wrong. We need to ask the questions, why aren’t students engaging, why aren’t families engaging?”

Non engagement by students has become normalised and teaching Aboriginal teenagers often reduced to a performance to a disengaged audience.  For example, Yirara teacher evaluation doesn’t include outcomes like student achievement or retention. A good teacher is one that ticks boxes like introduces the lesson, irrespective of student engagement.

A few years ago, the NT Education Department decided that the low outcomes were caused by teachers setting low standards. They mandated raising standards and expectations.

School attendance crashed.

But out of the ashes of conventional schooling, an unlikely driver of Aboriginal literacy has emerged. Remote community members have taken to Facebook and other new communication technologies with astonishing enthusiasm.

But once the idea of cultural destruction wrought by new technology is pushed aside it is obvious why. In a society where family has supreme value, the technologies connect extended family members; they strengthen family and group identity.

They are a means to instantly support relatives, in some cases threatening suicide, and to reinforce relatedness. All communication is by reference to the relationship rather than name.

English is used on Facebook but Aboriginal languages have been given a huge boost because families and groups like the privacy and sense of shared identity by using their own languages.

Far from being swamped, Aboriginal languages have experienced a resurgence.

Just as the older generation needed to be literate to keep in contact with relatives the new generation are embracing new tech for the same reason. They are becoming fluent in reading and writing in the emerging literacies.

There is an opportunity here for schools to ride this wave of purposeful literacy through bilingual programs.

The NT bilingual programs have long been poorly supported and in decline. They focus  on a single Aboriginal language as a bridge to English literacy, but the communication need is now quite different.

Bilingual programs need to meet the needs of students to communicate with a range of different language group speakers. 

Could the smart kids on communities become the ones learning to read and write at school? It’s a tantalising possibility.

IMAGES from the Yuendumu School website.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Uneducated kids, easy to radicalise as young teenagers, fill their heads with hate and loathing and turn them against the very culture which tried to provide them with an education, the very culture which will also provide them with health care, welfare, housing, security and a chance of bringing them into the 21st century.
    A race who is left behind will forever be second class citizens by their own doing, no fault of the culture which tried to educate and nurture for the best.

  2. Just looked at the 2021 NAPLAN results for remote Aboriginal Territory schools.
    What a shocker!
    Just 7% writing at the expected standard in year 5.
    13% of tested students reading at the required standard in year 7.
    And many students were not tested.
    An extraordinary number of students, about 30%, did not participate in the tests which makes sense when you have an overall attendance of about 30%.
    Remote communities have clearly disengaged from their schools.
    So why fund them as if they were attracting a high attendance?
    If schools really were funded strictly on their attendance, as the Chief Minister has threatened, staff numbers would be halved.
    Of course, there would be an outcry but the fact remains that remote schools have become a very expensive waste of taxpayer funds.

  3. @ Corinne Please ask yourself one question: How would English monolinguals fare in Naplan tests, if the questions were in Warlpiri, or Spanish for that matter.
    I am an active member of Yuendumu School Council. In my opinion taxpayer funds spent on Yuendumu School is money well spent.

  4. @ Frank Baarda: Frank, you have made a very valid point. Many years ago, I went to a non-English speaking country to study and initially flunked most of the tests, because I couldn’t understand the questions. As it turned out I actually knew the answers, but sadly that didn’t count when I didn’t know what they were asking.
    But I needed to succeed, so I studied the language and it all ended well.
    So perhaps it is that Corinne is frustrated at her hard earned money is being wasted in so many areas, that Yuendumu just gets labelled as one of them? I am, as are many others too.
    I have no issues with spending money on Aboriginal development including education, but the bureaucratic policies seem to be directing too much money in so many areas, with poor results and or no way of measuring success.
    Education and health certainly chew up exorbitant amounts of money with little or no return, which is generally fine, but there has to be some metrics to measure the benefit of education.
    I am unsure of what the actual attendance rate is at the school but if it’s poor, then for their own benefit (education) this needs to change.
    Do they they have the will to succeed? If so, show us all and it will go a long way to changing others and my skepticism.

  5. @ Frank Baarda
    That would have been a sensible answer 30 years ago but not now.
    Aboriginal people on remote communities are watching TV, listening to the radio and busy on FaceBook most days of their lives. Many are right here in town for some of their lives and they can communicate in English.
    Yapa are not monolingual these days.
    Their poor attendance at Yuendumu School is the main reason they do so badly on their Naplan tests.
    Enough of the excuse making.
    Like many other remote community Aboriginal kids Yapa attend school when there is nothing absolutely nothing else to do.
    Their parents allow them this choice.

  6. In mainstream society the benefits of education are obvious. A good job, a nice house, money to spend and status.
    In remote Aboriginal society these don’t hold up.
    The house is free and there is no status in working.
    People appear to own cars most of the time or access them without being employed.
    Additional income is a mixed blessing when you have demanding relatives with entitlements to your money.
    There is no educated role model generation for kids to follow.
    They know that school will not benefit them and their parents know it as well, even though they mouth a pro education sentiment.
    Disengagement from school has deep roots.

  7. @ Frank Baarda: I would allow that remote NTG schools like Yuendumu are dedicated to improving academic outcomes.
    I know teachers at Yirara College who say that is not at all the case there.
    Each student at Yirara earns the Lutherans around $50,000 a year but the teacher workforce is a disaster.
    Teacher morale is worse this year than ever before.
    Teachers with little or no experience are managed by staff chosen on the basis of their attendance at church rather than own achievements in classrooms.
    Church going music teacher from interstate to managing teachers at Yirara?
    The Lutherans thought this was a good fit.
    Student achievement is woeful, few stay long in the chaos of the College.
    Teacher turnover is arguably the highest in the nation.
    Yirara is not good value for tax payer money.
    Yes tax payer funds, the Lutheran Church contributes nothing.
    So remote schools like Yuendumu are not the worst Frank and I’m sure you make a good contribution to improving retention and outcomes.

  8. @ Frank Baarda: Good you are chairing the school Yuendumu School Council Frank, your expertise is exactly what is needed.
    So much of the curriculum in Aboriginal schools may work in mainstream classrooms but has no chance in the remote context.
    It takes people with the experience of yourself and Wendy to know what will engage Yapa students.
    @ Corinne Milich: Last year Yirara College employed 43 non teaching staff and just 19 teachers, most of them with little teaching experience and none with Aboriginal students. So you can see where their priorities lie.
    Yirara is a religious school first and an academic one a distant second.
    The problem with cutting back on remote schools is that once students have been through the Yirara mill they are back on their communities, often with no educational support at all.
    I’d like to see some Yirara funding redirected back to communities to support teenagers and young men and women.

  9. @ Corinne: You are right in that there is much more contact with English than in the past. Bilingual / bicultural education is highly complex and I for one don’t claim to have the answers, my initial comment therefore was rather simplistic. NAPLAN tests however are definitely NOT the way to assess or judge its success or otherwise.
    @ Ralph: We can do better than that. I don’t chair our school council. Yuendumu school council including its chair are predominantly local Warlpiri people, and a joy to be a part of.
    Funding remote schools purely on the basis of attendance is a self fulfilling prophesy. Less attendance, less funding, less staff, less scope to encourage attendance.
    At Yuendumu school we have the largest number of Warlpiri staff than we’ve had for a long time. More and more Warlpiri is finding its way into the curriculum. We have a long way to go but I feel we have turned the corner.
    You never know we may even end up getting higher NAPLAN results! (Joke.)

  10. This conversation has brought back a memory from a time when almost all teachers at Yuendumu School were Warlpiri.
    The principal of the day recalled that an NT minister and Education Dept heads were visiting.
    On the day, there was a full attendance of students and all the Warlpiri teachers were working hard in their classrooms.
    The Minister was impressed.
    But suddenly the school emptied.
    The principal asked one of the Warlpiri teachers where everyone was?
    The Warlpiri teacher looks puzzled at the question and then explained: “The visitors have all gone.”

  11. @ Frank Baarda: Several decades ago Aboriginalisation of schools was seen as the solution to closing the gap in education.
    Many problems emerged after dozens of Bachelor College teacher graduates were appointed as teachers in remote classrooms.
    At Yuendumu principals were exhausted by trying to get Warlpiri teachers to school on time and keep them there.
    The Warlpiri teachers refused to teach English and would only teach Warlpiri.
    The education housing stock of 16 houses was made available to the Warlpiri teachers following lobbying by Peter Toyne.
    Within three years most were beyond repair and either demolished or given to the community.
    Most Warlpiri teachers then left and the school was stabilised.
    Enough time has passed for this history to be forgotten and the old arguments are resurfacing along with the Remote Area Teaching Program.

  12. @ Jon: “Enough time has passed for this history to be forgotten” indeed. Also enough time has passed for this history to become distorted.
    Pam Harris was the first Principal (they were called Headmaster or Headmistress back then) to lobby for Education Department housing for Yapa teachers. This never happened. With a few exceptions Yapa teachers had to find their own housing. The rationale for denying housing to Yapa teachers was that nowhere in Australia were local recruits provided with housing. Fair enough, except that in Yuendumu there weren’t several real estate agents as was the case in most country towns.
    “The Warlpiri teachers refused to teach English and would only teach Warlpiri.” Not true. This myth may have arisen when I’m told that there was an occasion when a Warlpiri teacher rebelled against being commanded by a Kardia teacher to translate everything she said in Warlpiri into English.
    My wife who has taught at Yuendumu School since 1973 recalls most of her Warlpiri colleagues were highly motivated, put in many unpaid extra hours and were a delight to work with, especially at a time when they were more valued.
    Then there is the matter that there is a big difference with using the vernacular as the medium of instruction and teaching a language.

  13. @ Frank Baarda:
    Last year, according to MySchool, Yuendumu had an average attendance of around 100 students and 24 teachers. That’s about one teacher for four or five students.
    Town schools have a much less favourable ratio of teachers to students, it is more like one teacher for 20 to 25 students.
    Town parents would be amazed and delighted to find their children in classrooms with just four or five students.
    On the available data, despite this favourable ratio, Yuendumu students performed not only much less well than other Australian students but also worse than similar schools.
    It will be interesting to get the 2021 Naplan results to see if Warlpiri teachers really are Closing the Gap.

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