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Lessons in closing the education gap


Lessons in closing the education gap


A GROUP of students came from the Ntaria School in central Australia to the surf of Sydney earlier this month.

The trip was a reward for school attendance and performance.

At Ntaria, attendance has increased from 50 per cent to 80 per cent and enrolment has almost doubled in two years. The school and its principal, Darrell Fowler, were deservedly praised for their efforts.

However, the fact that attendance of 80 per cent is hailed as a breakthrough in remote indigenous education is disturbing, although none of this discussion implies any criticism of the achievements in Ntaria.

An 80 per cent attendance rate corresponds to missing out on one day of school a week. Four days of schooling a week is not sufficient for a successful primary education, transition to high-quality secondary education and graduation from Year 12.

In 19 of the 20 national literacy and numeracy measures, Ntaria students are still performing "substantially below" the national school average. To close the gap, they will probably need to attend close to 100 per cent of the time.

An essential objective of school education is to enable students to work in the real economy as adults.

There can be no relativism or indigenous exceptionalism here, and I do not think Australia's governments are consciously relativistic about remote education. They probably intend to be realistic.

But, as Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson has observed, the education targets of the federal government's national strategy for Closing the Gap are actually targets for halving the gap over a long time frame, a decade or more.
The official targets, if reached, correspond to thousands of Australian students never obtaining the capacity to hold down real jobs. We must do more, and faster.
Education outcomes for remote students will not be fixed overnight. But our ambitions should remain high, particularly in areas that can be resolved quickly if the will is there.

There are three critical areas where government must take greater responsibility: enrolment, attendance and academic achievement.

The Gillard government in this parliamentary term should lead a national effort that brings enrolment to 100 per cent, attendance to between 90 per cent and 95 per cent, and sets the scene for an almost complete closing of the achievement gap in less than a decade.

Full enrolment can be enforced instantly under the law.  But there has been an entrenched relativist attitude that normal schooling is less relevant to remote indigenous people.

The National Indigenous Reform Agreement signed by the federal, state and territory governments in 2008 did not mandate the obvious target of 100 per cent enrolment immediately in all regions. The government must do that now.

Attendance is a more complex problem than enrolment because the entire community environment influences whether students attend and whether those who attend are ready to learn.

As a first step we need transparency of attendance numbers.  If students do not attend - alert and fed - from the first minute of the important morning hours of learning, the value of that school day is diminished. Attendance statistics must accurately report whole-day attendance by school-ready students.

A target should be set for full-day productive attendance at mainstream levels within two years. Absences for cultural reasons cannot be denied, but must be strictly agreed and limited.

The schools can do only so much to encourage and reward attendance. We must take broader action to make full attendance a normal form of behaviour.
This includes enforcing existing school attendance laws, alcohol management and welfare changes that compel welfare recipients to behave in ways that are not detrimental to the interests of children.

Case managers should be employed to assist families in meeting their obligations. These have been key planks to the Cape York reforms, led by Pearson, that are now producing dividends.

We need a sense of urgency to the school attendance problem. Not in 10 years, but this term of parliament. Every day a child misses school is another day behind in educational attainment.

Full student enrolment and 90 per cent to 95 per cent school attendance would be a huge step forward in closing the academic achievement gap, and is achievable in this term of parliament.

However, it may not be sufficient. Hence the third area for government action this term should be to ensure that every disadvantaged region has a school reform program with a sharp clarity as to the ultimate goal: successful mainstream education leading to economic integration.

Governments are supporting such a reform program in Cape York which, in the absence of an alternative coherent program, should be replicated elsewhere.
The program includes trust accounts where families save money for children's education, the introduction of direct instruction, a method that has been proven to get disadvantaged students up to parity in literacy and numeracy, and longer school days.

These reforms may not achieve all that is desired, but they represent a concentration of innovative policy, clarity as to the goal, and strong government, corporate and philanthropic support. Every region should be supported with a program of similar clarity.

The Rudd-Gillard government considered the 2008 national apology to indigenous people as urgent, making it the first big act of its first term.  But this initial urgency was not backed up elsewhere. It is time for real action in this term of parliament, starting with school enrolment and attendance.

Alan Tudge is the federal Liberal member for Aston. He was a former deputy director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, and senior adviser to former Coalition education minister Brendan Nelson.

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