PALRIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to speak on the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2013. In some respects this is a non controversial bill because all it does is extend for a further year the funding of three particular initiatives. So the Coalition will not be opposing this bill, but I do have some concerns about it which I would like to raise in the time I have available. I would also like to make some broader comments about Indigenous education.
My concerns about this bill are twofold: one in relation to the process and the other in relation to the content. Firstly, on the process, this is now the third time that the Labor government have introduced a bill to extend the funding of these three programs for a further year and it is simply not good enough. Programs which the government want to support should have funding for three or four years so that those programs can be embedded properly, not have annual extensions like what is occurring here. The reason they are doing that is because these programs were supposed to be brought into the fold of the broader school funding reform programs but, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, those school funding reforms have been taking months and months and months to bed down and we are still no closer to having a solution from this government. School funding reform is something that Labor have been talking about since 2004, when they last put up a school funding model. That is nine years ago now. Surely that is sufficient time for the government to put up an alternative, given that they dislike the existing model so much.
The second concern I have in relation to this bill goes to the content of it. This bill extends the funding of three particular measures: firstly, a nutrition program; secondly, additional teachers; and, thirdly, the Former Origin Greats program. In some respects these are all fine programs. But, like so many well-intentioned programs in this area, they chip away at the edges and have less systemic impact on what is a fundamental problem, particularly in remote areas of Australia. Yes, through this we will provide a breakfast program because kids are not being fed in the morning by their parents. Yes, we will provide more teachers because the classrooms are in chaos and they need additional support. Yes, we will get the Origin Greats to appear from time to time, which will hopefully inspire the kids to stay at school for longer. But none of these three particular measures will be decisive on the crisis which is occurring today and perhaps all of them address the symptoms of the problems rather than the underlying structural issues which are in play.
Let us look, for example, at the breakfast program. Yes, we need a breakfast program because kids are going to school hungry, and if they go to school hungry they are not learning as well. But the real issue here is the dysfunction of the families, such that they are sending their kids to school—if they send them at all—without having an adequate breakfast and without a packed lunch. That is the real issue. So we can put in this program today and we can feel good about putting in a program which ensures that the kids will receive breakfast and will have a lunch, which we want to occur, but we have to address the fundamental of the parents’ responsibility. The danger is that if the government takes this responsibility for providing breakfasts and lunches then, over time, parents and entire communities start to believe that that is no longer their responsibility to provide—and that will occur within six to 12 months.
This is indicative of Indigenous programs across all remote communities. The breakfast program is one of those where, over time, people now expect it: ‘I’m a parent but I don’t need to feed my kids breakfast before school, the government provides that.’ You see that in every aspect of individuals’ lives where the government has taken away a responsibility from what are normal family or parental responsibilities. This is what we need to be addressing here. By all means, we should support a breakfast or lunch program, as we are doing here. But what we should be adding to that is a measure which says, ‘If we’re going to do that then, at the very least, we should be insisting that the parents make a small financial contribution towards it,’ so that they know that it is still their responsibility to be doing that.
In some respects this overall philosophy goes to the heart of some of the issues in the remote communities where over time, and all for well-intentioned purposes, we have introduced measures which have reduced individual responsibility. That is why the great leader Noel Pearson talks about the right to take back responsibility. That is what he talks about, where we actually need to reduce the government impact and let individuals again be responsible for what rightly they should be responsible for. I think that this should be the lens by which we look at all programs which we put in place particularly in the remote communities. It is the lens of whether or not a particular program that we put in place either helps towards individuals taking responsibility or diminishes it. If it diminishes it then I think we need to take a second look.
More systemically, I think we need to be addressing the structural problems in remote Indigenous education. I see three broad structural problems. The first is family dysfunction, which means that kids are not being fed and are not going to school. The Cape York reforms, of which I am very proud to have helped contribute to their formulation, have now got a mechanism which is making a difference in this area particularly through the Families Responsibilities Commission, which ties welfare payments to school attendance and to more properly looking after children. I think that type of measure could be replicated more broadly.
The second structural issue is the structure of schooling itself, particularly the teaching methods used inside the primary schools. We must use basic direct instruction methods that work. That is what we must be using, direct instruction methods that actually work, and we must banish this idea of culturally appropriate curriculum when it is another way of saying lower standards, which frequently is the case. Of course, culture can be taught as part of the school day but, most importantly, it needs to be taught at home and in community settings. School should be for learning: to read, to write, to do maths and to have imaginations opened.
The third structural issue is access to secondary schooling and, realistically for the remote context, that means boarding skills because there simply are not adequate secondary schools in those remote areas. This is why I have been critical of this government’s decision to cut last year, through this particular axe, the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program, which actually provides scholarship support for remote kids to attend good boarding schools in regional and urban areas. We need to be expanding scholarship support so that if parents want to take up the opportunity of sending their children to a good boarding school, in a regional or urban area, they can do that and they can financially afford to do so.
We have an emergency in remote Indigenous education. We talk a lot about crisis in this place but a real crisis is occurring in remote Indigenous education. In year 5 reading less than one in 10 remote students are passing the basic benchmark, and this is the basic minimum benchmark which we require of people for them to move on to the next year.
In Queensland, the official statistics show that by year 9 students from remote areas are on average six years behind mainstream levels. That is the crisis which is occurring today and this bill, for all the good with these three small measures, will not make a demonstrable impact on that crisis. We need to be doing some fundamental changes to make a demonstrable impact on that. I have met in remote communities people who are in their teenage years and who, when they have to sign a form, will sign with an ‘X’ because they cannot write their own name. That is the extent of what is occurring in some of these remote communities. If people cannot read, if people cannot write and if they cannot do basic maths, then we set them up for failure. We set them up for long-term welfare dependence and the poison which that brings—and we all know about this. Getting education right is so critical because if students get a good education, and if they have a loving family, then the world is their oyster. Every opportunity in Australia, or indeed across the world, is opened up to them if they have that good education and a loving family.
Let me finish, in the last few minutes that I have available, with a word of hope. There are great things occurring in remote Indigenous education but perhaps the one that shows the most promise is that occurring in four Cape York communities today through the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy. This has been the brainchild of Noel Pearson and I am proud to have played a small part in helping with his reform agenda over the years, including having been his deputy director for some time. He and the other Cape York leaders have revolutionised the school system in these four Cape York communities and it is truly remarkable. If you go to one of the four schools, even in Aurukun, one of the toughest places in Australia, boys and girls are at their desk, they are studying, they are writing, they are listening and they are absorbing every piece of knowledge offered to them. As the journalist Nicolas Rothwell from the Australian notes:
It is the dream that has seemed beyond realisation in recent years: a remote-area indigenous school where the students are bound for success.
That is what we can have hope about and in some respects what they are doing in those schools is radical compared to what is occurring elsewhere but is largely common sense when you think about it, because what they are doing is based on three essential principles. Firstly, that children are grouped according to their ability rather than their age, because, as you know, if kids are grouped according to their age you will have all sorts of abilities and if a kid has not mastered the content from the previous year he or she will not master the content in the next year and will become disengaged and fall out of schooling.
Secondly, no-one advances to a higher level until they have mastered the content of that level. That student is tested regularly—almost daily—to ensure that they are mastering the content and they go over it if they have not mastered it. That is basic, fundamental scaffolding.
Thirdly, lessons are tightly scripted such that teacher discretion is minimised. This means that in the remote area schools, where we struggle to get the very best teachers, it does not matter as much, because almost anybody can deliver those tightly scripted lessons and get terrific outcomes. This gives me hope in an area where the statistics suggest that there is very little hope.
So, we will pass this bill. We will let it through, but let’s address the real issues in remote Indigenous education. Let’s address the fundamental structural issues. The Cape York reforms and the reforms in some other areas give us some guidance as to how to do that.