Labor-leaning Sunday Territorian columnist Scott Stirling wrote last week about the challenges facing the CLP Opposition. However, they pale by comparison with the situation faced by the Henderson government.
Some are purely political problems in the wake of Labors recent close encounter with electoral oblivion. However, the really big challenges are fiscal and policy ones. The largest are in education and indigenous affairs, signalled by PM Kevin Rudd’s announcement this week of the next stage of his “Education Revolution”.
Although partly a calculated distraction from gathering economic storm clouds, Rudd shows every sign of being serious about forcing the States and Territories to publish data on comparative school performance, pay teachers on merit, and insist that welfare entitlements are tied to school attendance. Each element poses problems for the NT Labor government.
Paul Henderson lost no time in claiming publicly that Territory parents already have access to detailed data on schools’ performance. All they had to do, he said, was phone their local school principal. Curious parents might want to try this and see how they go. I dont fancy their chances of obtaining meaningful comparative information.
One suspects that the chaotic implementation of the government’s middle schooling policy will produce some embarrassing results when Rudd forces the NT government to make comparative school performance data freely available.
According to Australian Education Union secretary Adam Lampe, many middle school teachers are being required to take classes in subjects in which they have no training or expertise whatever, while timetabling practices in some schools make basic middle schooling principles impossible to implement.
However, the big issue for Labor is student attendance in remote indigenous schools. If Rudd’s plan to link welfare entitlements to school attendance achieves its objective, Treasurer Delia Lawrie will need to find large sums of money to fund extra classrooms, many extra teachers and remote housing for them to live in.
The former CLP government staffed remote schools on average student attendance rather than actual numbers of school age children. Low attendances meant they could divert some federal funding to pork-barreling the electorally critical northern suburbs of Darwin. Clare Martin happily embraced the same policy, until the Little Children are Sacred report and then the Howard Intervention embarrassed her government into belated expenditure increases.
Those increases together with planned borrowing for the Darwin Waterfront project have resulted in stalling of significant reductions in net state debt achieved in the first years of the Martin government. The Territory still has net debt running at a shade over 10% of GDP, twice the level of any other state or territory except NSW.
Improving school attendance in remote communities is vital because welfare dependence and the idleness, boredom and frustration it produces are key causes of horrific levels of alcohol-fuelled violence. Education, skills training and jobs are the only solutions in the long run. But for the Henderson government dramatic improvements in remote school attendance will impose significant short-term budgetary pressure.
Whether just tying welfare payments to school attendance will actually achieve improvements in the latter is another question. Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt found that the recent Halls Creek trial of such a system achieved no measurable improvement. Maybe more sophisticated strategies are needed in addition to the blunt instrument of withdrawing welfare payments.
However, the picture on indigenous education isn’t all bleak. The Accelerated Literacy (AL) program is currently undergoing extensive field trials largely under CDU auspices. Involving 10,000 children mostly in remote indigenous schools, it is showing impressive preliminary results. Initially devised by ANU Professor Brian Gray while teaching at an Alice Springs school in the late 1980s, AL is allowing indigenous kids to catch up with mainstream literacy levels at 1.7 Individual Reading Levels per year.
Current research suggests that attendance is not the only key to improving indigenous literacy. Teacher performance is even more critical. There are some excellent and committed teachers in our remote schools, but there are also quite a few confused, unmotivated ones who fail to engage their students or create a love of learning.
Research by ANU academics Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan has shown that average literacy and numeracy levels of teachers themselves have fallen by 13% over the last 20 years. As they observe: “It’s hard to see how you can become a smart country without smart teachers.”
That’s where the Rudd government’s intended national policy of improving teacher quality comes in, partly through mandating higher performance-based pay for excellent teachers moving to disadvantaged areas. Chief Minister Henderson may feel free to embrace Rudd’s demands despite inevitable teachers union hostility. NT Labor owes the teachers no favours after the AEU orchestrated anti-government demonstrations during the recent election campaign.
It won’t be easy to persuade many excellent, experienced teachers to relocate their families to remote indigenous communities for four years. Conditions in most communities are confronting and often depressing to put it mildly. It might even be necessary to offer innovative teaming arrangements where urban-based teachers staff remote schools in 3 week rotation on a “fly in-fly out” basis rather like highly qualified mine workers. That would be expensive and certainly require additional federal funding support, but innovative approaches like that may well prove essential to achieving Kevin Rudd’s objective.
Nevertheless, it’s good news for the Territory that these issues are finally being taken seriously at a national level. Aboriginal Territorians comprise 30% of our population and own 50% of the land, and unlocking their largely wasted “human capital” is central to the NT’s future social and economic prosperity.