Koori History Newspaper Archive

... but nothing for Aboriginal children

Australian - 26th February, 2009
Authors: Mike Steketee, Patricia Karvelas

INDIGENOUS leader Noel Pearson yesterday launched a scathing attack on the Rudd Government for refusing to take up the challenge of low school attendance and its ``miserable'' targets for reducing indigenous disadvantage.

Mr Pearson told The Australian that ensuring children went to school could open the way to tackling many more difficult issues in indigenous affairs.

But despite a strong public response to the proposal, which he backed, from fellow indigenous leader and Australian of the Year Mick Dodson that every indigenous child be enrolled in school by January 26 next year, there had been ``not a word'' from the Government, he said.

Coincidentally, Mr Pearson's stinging criticisms come on the eve of Kevin Rudd's delivery of his first annual report on progress towards closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

In indigenous education, the Rudd Government has set goals of giving all four-year-olds in remote communities access to early childhood education within five years, halving the gap with non-indigenous children in literacy and numeracy in 10 years and doing the same for Year 12 or an equivalent attainment by 2020.

Mr Pearson said: ``The challenge I have for (Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny) Macklin and (Education Minister Julia) Gillard is: `Mate, what is it about your commitment here?'.

``When I look at the targets you have set, I can see that they don't betray the necessary belief and ambition that a serious approach to these problems would indicate.''

Ms Gillard told The Australian she ``could not agree more'' with the aims outlined by Professor Dodson and she would be happy to talk to Mr Pearson.

But she would not commit the Government to universal indigenous enrolment by the 2010 school year.

Instead, she said the Government was implementing ground-breaking reforms that had been agreed with the states and that covered issues such as disadvantaged schools and teacher quality, which could see major improvements in indigenous education.

As well, under trials in the Northern Territory, welfare payments were tied to school attendance.

``We will be absolutely unapologetic about driving through whatever is necessary to get kids to school,'' Ms Gillard said.

``If Mr Pearson wants to involve himself in what is not just truckloads of work but several trainloads, we would more than happily involve him in that journey.''

Perth's Clontarf Aboriginal College boasts an attendance rate of about 80 per cent among its 150 high school students.

In 2000, inaugural Fremantle Dockers AFL coach Gerard Neesham, then a teacher at the college, developed a program to address truancy by threading sport through education.

College principal Tony Chinnock said the program had been developed over the past nine years with AFL the focus for boys and basketball the focus for girls.

``Some kids might come just thinking they want to be a sports star, and we'll sneak up and give them an education while they're there,'' he said.

``If it's a natural passion for Aboriginal kids, why not work on it?

``It looks to be an easy process on the outside using coaches, mentors and liaison people and teaching and programs, but it's all to do with getting them at school, keeping them at school and driving a result, which is years 11 and 12 in the long run.''

Among boarders, the attendance rate is above 90 per cent, while it can reach 85 per cent for other students.

Mr Pearson said indigenous educator Chris Sarra was ``dead right'' to say magic bullets did exist in indigenous affairs.

``For example, in education, if we solve attendance, a whole lot of things start to work,'' Mr Pearson said. ``If you don't get that simple thing right, cutting the Year 12 attainment gap has got to be hard.''

Mr Pearson said that in remote areas in Cape York, school attendance ranged from 30 per cent to 60 per cent, while in his home town of Hopevale, in north Queensland, the rate was about 85 per cent.

``Many indigenous communities have grandmothers who can read the Bible and grandchildren who cannot read the newspaper,'' he said.

``It seems to me there are some ready solutions to school attendance. What it needs is muscle and commitment and momentum from indigenous leaders at the national and community levels and from leaders of government and the bureaucracy and the schools.

``Why can't we get a national momentum going here? Something like the gap in literacy and numeracy can be closed in short order, particularly with primary school kids if you get the right programs. This is core business of schools: to competently teach literacy and numeracy.

``The fact that you (the Rudd Government) have gone for such a half-arsed goal like halving it in 10 years betrays the fact you have no intention of actually pursuing a set of strategies that are going to make any dent in this thing at all.

``I would go toe to toe with Gillard and Macklin and show them half-arsed targets are just a groundhog day of Aboriginal policy.''

Despite the recommendations and targets adopted following the 1991 royal commission on deaths in custody to keep indigenous people out of jail, their numbers had risen from 1800 to almost 5000.

New Australian National University research based on more than 20 years of census data has found that indigenous people in the Kimberley suffer the worst disadvantage in the nation.