PUBLISHED IN ‘THE AUSTRALIAN’: The official results are not in but every indication from reforms in three Cape York communities suggests a breakthrough is finally occurring in remote indigenous schooling. Children are attending at just below mainstream levels and many are learning faster than the state average. If these trends are sustained, then the serious dysfunction that has characterised remote communities for the past 30 years will decline rapidly.
Earlier this week I travelled with Tony Abbott to one of these three communities, Hope Vale, to witness the reforms in action.
Hope Vale is a community I know well, having worked as Noel Pearson’s deputy director and helped design some of the measures being put in place. The children were in uniform, attentive and progressing, a rarity in remote Australia, where children are six to seven years behind by the time they reach Year 9.
The reforms are controversial as they represent a radical departure from predominant education orthodoxy. The starting point has been getting children to school on time, every day. Many measures contribute to this objective, including alcohol management and helping families to manage their money. However, the most important measure has been the linking of welfare payments to good school attendance, overseen by a Families Responsibilities Commission.
These measures have been put in place in four trial communities during the past few years as part of a welfare reform package. This commission, which comprises a retired magistrate as the chairman plus local elders, is empowered to call parents before it if they have breached one of four basic welfare conditions, including sending their children to school. They can direct a person to get assistance, provide a stern warning or put the person’s welfare payments under management (which means that a person receives, in essence, vouchers rather than cash).
The strength of the model is that it empowers local elders, giving them ownership and authority over local problems. “It assists parents to take responsibility,” as one of the Hope Vale commissioners says.
The second and more controversial reform has been the introduction of a new, highly prescriptive teaching method, called direct instruction. Developed in the US by the National Institute for Direct Instruction, it is based on several core principles. First, children are grouped according to their ability, not their age. In one of the classes we visited, there were children who were nominally in Year 3 sitting alongside children nominally from Year 7. Grouping by ability means that every child has the capacity to advance from their present position. It seems obvious to point out, but if a child is in a class two or three years too advanced, they will not learn and will disengage.
Second, no one advances to a higher level until there is mastery from the previous week. Regular and frequent testing is integral to the method and is a normal part of a daily lesson. If someone has a problem, it gets picked up within a couple of days. Third, lessons are tightly scripted and teacher discretion minimised. The controlled nature of the instruction makes the outcome relatively independent of the teacher’s
aptitude. Almost any teacher, or indeed non-teacher trained to deliver the programs, will achieve good results. This is vital in remote communities, where it is difficult to attract and retain high-quality, experienced teachers.
The school principal in Aurukun, one of the other communities to introduce direct instruction, says that “the overall atmosphere of the school presents itself as revolutionary compared with what could be felt a year before.
Perhaps it is too early to be as excited as I am. In remote indigenous communities, it is always sensible to be cautious of early success as there is a large list of projects that have started with a canter only to quickly fail, often when a key person moves on. The most promising aspect of these reforms, however, is that they are working simultaneously across three communities. They do not seem to be dependent on a single person.
In a year or two, the National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy tests will start to show whether real progress is being made. I will be amazed if the results are not positive. If they are, we may finally have a systemic approach to addressing one of our most pressing challenges.
Alan Tudge, the Federal Member for Aston, was a former Deputy Director of the Cape York Institute and recently accompanied Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to Cape York.