If you have flown with Qantas recently, you may have seen the documentary Bush School made in 2004 about the Warrego primary school outside Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
It is the inspiring story of how the school principal and administrator, Colin and Sandra Baker, together with the local elders, got the Indigenous children of the nearby Mungalawurru community to attend school every day, achieve the national literacy and numeracy benchmarks, and love learning. It so inspired SBS viewers in September last year that many jammed the online forum with the Bakers afterwards to offer their support.
But here’s the epilogue: the Northern Territory Minister for Education, Paul Henderson, recently announced the closure of the Warrego School, effective from May 11 this year. While the Bakers were on leave last year, the school had lost numbers and never recovered.
Not to worry, said the minister in his press release. Look at the $20 million the Department of Education has spent since 2001 to build new secondary schools and upgrade existing schools in remote areas.
School facilities are important, but getting a good school education is about more than bricks and mortar. Indigenous children in remote areas need to leave primary school reading, writing and doing arithmetic at grade level.
The vast majority of children in remote communities were not achieving the national literacy and numeracy benchmarks before the infrastructure drive and they are not now. In remote Indigenous communities in 1999, only 6 per cent of Year 3 students and only 4 per cent of Year 5 students were achieving the national reading benchmark. In 2004, those figures had risen to about 20 per cent, although many people will tell you that 20 per cent seems optimistic.
If the Department of Education wants to make a difference in remote school education, it needs to look seriously at getting good teachers into remote schools. It is rare for teachers in remote Indigenous communities to have a proven track record of effectiveness in the classroom. Remote primary schools are largely staffed with first and second year teachers.
Teaching in remote communities is not for the inexperienced, although some may rise to the challenge. Few children are “school ready”. Many come with no previous exposure to English, let alone reading and writing. Many would not have slept or eaten adequately, let alone had anywhere to do homework or anyone to supervise it. Some students may have been regular attendees since the age of five, but many will have attended two or three days a week and then disappeared for weeks at a time.
The Northern Territory needs to attract more great teachers into remote classrooms. The few Colin Bakers aside, this will only be achieved if remote schools are exempted from the current centralised system and the Territory offers employment packages and salaries that will attract teachers with a record of effectiveness. It is in the interests of Australian taxpayers to pay out in teacher salaries now before today’s children leave school without the basic literacy and numeracy that they need to gain employment and avoid the welfare trap.
In the meantime, the Territory needs to catch those children who have already fallen behind. To even begin to close the gap, these kids need intensive, systematic, skills-based instruction and they need it for several hours each day. One such program that gets results in literacy is Professor Kevin Wheldall and Dr Robyn Beaman’s MULTILIT, a lesson-by-lesson program of phonics drills and reading practice that teaches children both the strategies and the work ethic with which they can succeed.
The beauty of MULTILIT is that it need not be delivered by teachers with education diplomas. Those university students or recent graduates who are up to the challenge - both of living in a remote community and delivering this program with energy and rigour - could train as literacy instructors and work for a semester making a difference in a remote school. Eventually, if primary school teachers embed systematic literacy and numeracy from the first year of school, Years 3 to 6 teachers in remote school could start teaching the same curriculum as other schools.
If the Territory wants to start getting results from its education spending, it needs to fix teaching quality in remote community schools.
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