NT schools back on the agenda

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6 December 2016

Public education in the Northern Territory is expected to get a boost following the change of government.

If the new NT Labor government fulfils promises the party made during the recent election campaign, it will reverse cuts made by the previous Country Liberal Party government.

The CLP government was handed $272 million in Gonski funds from Canberra but it came with no strings attached. As a result, much of the money ended up in consolidated revenue or in rebuilding infrastructure, rather than helping improve results for students, says Jarvis Ryan, AEU NT President.

“Under the CLP government, none of that Gonski funding made a difference in schools. None of it was used to employ additional teachers or offer new programs. It was a huge waste of potential and money,” he says.

To add insult to injury, the government also cut funding to public schools by about 5 per cent over three years.

Ryan says the most positive change for schools under the new government is the new education minister, Eva Lawler, who comes to the role with decades of experience in NT education.

“She is a teacher, a former school principal and has been a senior executive in the department of education. She is working assiduously to visit schools to identify the main areas that need immediate attention,” he says.

“She’s made it very clear that she wants a strong relationship with the union, the parents, lobbying groups, and COGSO (Council of Government School Organisations), and she wants to improve the culture in the education department.”

Labor pledged funds during the election campaign to employ an extra 165 teachers over four years as well as providing more for students with special needs.

“We’re hoping we’ll see an immediate change at the beginning of next year, with more teachers and support staff,” says Ryan.

The next step is to secure a commitment for Gonski funding from 2017 onwards, using the appropriate resourcing formula.

“The hope is we can work towards a genuine needs-based funding model in the Northern Territory,” says Ryan.

“We welcome Labor’s commitment to reverse the cuts but that’ll just restore funding to the levels of four years ago. We’ve seen significant inflation and wages growth since then.

“That’s why this additional Gonski funding is absolutely critical, along with a strong commitment from the new government that all of that money will be spent in schools, funding teachers, staff and programs,” Ryan says.

Education’s bigger role

Another major item on the new government’s agenda is the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that followed an ABC Four Corners program about years of abuse in youth detention centres.

The AEU will be making a submission to the inquiry and a number of members are expected to be called
to appear.

Ryan says it’s vital that the inquiry look more broadly at systemic disadvantage for Indigenous people.

“For example, there’s been evidence presented that 80 per cent of juvenile detainees suffer from hearing loss, which is quite extraordinary.”

It’s a key barrier to learning faced by Indigenous children, particularly those in remote areas, that could be overcome with appropriate levels of support in schools to make sure that students aren’t falling behind from an early age, says Ryan.

“We know that our jails are full of people who can’t read and write. And we’re failing these kids. That’s the great shame in the NT that needs to be addressed,” he says.

“Education has a role to play here and we need to ensure that we’re doing more to assist our most vulnerable students, those most at risk of falling into the criminal justice system. Additional funding will really help there.

“But it’s also about having better-informed approaches. For example, there’s increasing emphasis on recognising that trauma, such as family violence, is in the background for many students with behavioural difficulties.

“Unless we get onto those issues early and come up with effective strategies, we’re looking at those kids potentially ending up in the justice system. We know that once kids go into that system there’s a very strong likelihood they’ll be back in detention before long and that plays out in their adult life as well.

“If we can do more to assist those kids with learning difficulties and keep them in school; make sure our curriculum is strong and culturally appropriate; and have schools that engage with the community so that people see the value in schools, those things can all contribute to hopefully bringing down the level of juvenile incarceration,” Ryan says. l

Building capacity

The NT is seeing some great things happening in schools in remote areas – despite the funding cuts from the previous government.

Simon Cotton is principal of Shepherdson College and says schools have an obligation to support the advancement of self-determination in Indigenous communities.

Dhapirrk Wukirri is the school’s new motto. It means ‘amazing school’ in Djambarrpuyŋu, the language of the Indigenous Yolŋu people who live in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land.

It features on the school crest and rings out from assemblies as principal Simon Cotton leads 800-plus students in a call and response. “I say dhapirrk wukirri three times and the kids say
it back,” he says. “It’s really gaining ground.”

Shepherdson is one of nine bilingual schools in the Northern Territory. It teaches pre-school through to primary students who speak dozens of first languages and are taught exclusively in Djambarrpuyŋu until the end of Year 3.

Cotton, who’s in his second year at Shepherdson, says the school’s focus is community capacity building through programs that acknowledge two worlds – the Yolŋu and Balanda (white) – and how strong relationships can bring them together.

At Shepherdson, capacity building starts with sending teachers and their Yolŋu assistants to meet-and-greet parents. A hello and a handshake, then other visits including sometimes taking students home at the end of the day to show parents their good work from school.

“A lot of our parents are fearful of coming to the school gates because of their experience of education,” says Cotton. Building strong relationships that foster better understanding means “you’re
better able to have the harder conversations around misbehaviours or non-attendance”.

He wants parents to feel comfortable coming to the school to share opinions, ideas and complaints. And, most importantly, to be listened to.

Supporting self-determination

He says the school is funded and in a good position to offer hands-on support and partnerships that can advance self-determination for parents and students, as well as provide professional development and mentoring for Indigenous staff and aspiring local leaders and organisations.

For the Yolŋu, a big part of that is grounding the kids in culture through programs like Learning on Country, which puts kids together with local rangers to learn about country, bush medicine, the seasons and songlines.

“Australia’s immigrant populations are well versed in where they came from, their culture and their language. That’s been neglected here,” says Cotton.

“We’re losing Indigenous languages and associated cultures at a huge rate. If we want our people to progress and be self-determining in a true sense, they need to know who they are, where they belong.
We need to value them.”