Labor’s Love Lost?

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago


Come on , be honest. What has actually happened is that Luvvies, Labor’s Loss. Rudd/Gillard have been very brave in bitchslapping the wretches back to the 1970s. Long may they stay there!

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Larrisa Behrendt is an “indigenous” academic, eh? How does this compare to a common graden variety “academic”? She is just as “indigenous as I am. Her ideas stand and fall on their merits, of which they invariably have zip.

13 years ago

My bet is that they’ll get essentially nowhere with trying to get good teachers into remote areas, and there are obvious reasons:

1) There is already a shortage of teachers in many subject areas, and that’s only going to become worse in the forseeable future. I’m also not sure what percentage of kids go to private schools in the NT, but if the government tries to boost wages in horrible areas (and hence steal teachers from good schools), all the middle class parents will just send their kids to private schools where they can pay those teachers a bit more so they don’t leave. In addition, if the scheme did work so well that most of the really good teachers left the normal school system (and that’s the the number we’re talking about), they’d get voted out — middle class voters are not exactly going to want pay someone to take the best teachers and leave the detritus left over for their own kids.

2) The teaching workforce is one accustomed to low pay but relatively long holidays, not high pay and poor conditions. If you want slightly higher pay and vastly poorer conditions (what are your kids and partner going to do in weird places with no jobs or good schools, for example?), why not just dig holes for the mining industry? You can have a look at the expatriate salaries in third world countries if you want see how much it would really cost to get the best people in these areas.

3) I very much doubt any model based on “fly-in-fly-out” is going to work. First it will cost a zillion dollars to implement, and second, it’s hardly approaching best practice. Can you imagine having going to school for three weeks straight, and then having two weeks off and then doing three weeks more, possibly with different teachers?

13 years ago


1) your scheme still takes away a teacher from city schools, since even if your scheme really worked, it means that you would now not have enough in the cities as for each effective staff member you stick in the country, you lose one form the city (perhaps there would be an overall benefit, but which middle-class city dwellers are going to put up with that?). You would also have some administrative costs, since schools would need to have two teachers part-time and not one. (say +10% — you can guestimate it if you want).

2) Your public city school now has to put with additional disruption (how long do you think it takes for teachers to get to know how each individual child is performing, for example? At least amongst my friends, it’s common for parents to
comment that at parent-teacher night their teacher obviously didn’t even know who their child was). Again, who is going to vote for worse conditions in their own schools? (see my point below)

3) Due to having two teachers rather than one, schools are going to have higher staff-turnover costs. This is a big deal when staff are already hard to find.

4) Even at $90,000 a year, do you have any predictions as to how many you would get? My bet is that $15,000 extra is not worth the effort for most people, since there are huge costs involved in doing this 3 weeks in 3 weeks out style work. Just calculate it through. After tax that’s about $8000, or $150 a week. Even just in purely monetary terms, I doubt thats worth it for most people, since you always spend extra with this sort of lifestyle (think food, transport, claw-back costs which the government will never pay for etc. — I assume here you are going to provide accomodation, yet another extra cost).

5) In non-monetary terms, think of the huge disruption it would cause to people’s lives (and considering the general characteristics of the teaching force, that’s massive — who in their right mind with kids, for example, would take that deal? Do you really want to be away from your wife and kids constantly for that sort of money — you’d be better off, for example, driving a Taxi one day a week?). I’d love to some sort of estimate here of how many excellent experienced teachers you would get with increasing amounts of money.

Also, I’m not sure why believe this:

“It IS best practice in both cases. Both classes of children (city and bush) would benefit from the differing but co-ordinated approaches of their team of two teachers over the term.”

Any evidence that two different teachers are better than one good one? If that was the case all the top schools with essentially unlimited funding would do it — but they don’t.

13 years ago

I don’t want to be depressing here Ken, so my positive suggestion is that you might like to consider the cost of keeping/training people born in those regions versus the cost of your current scheme.

13 years ago

“If we pay teachers significantly more than they currently receive … then you attract more potentially excellent teachers into the profession”

I agree with this, but only if more pay is including the extra needed to compensate for worse conditions which your suggestion would lead to. If you are just paying people more to work in poor conditions, then it is still a zero sum game.

“Teaching is a socially vital, personally rewarding … if we add back in the promise of excellent salaries for good performers …”

People have been saying this sort of thing years, but it hasn’t stopped shortages (no doubt to become worse). Real wages for teachers vs. other professions have been declining for ages, and you’d have to be a fool to think that the situation is going to turn around on a long-term basis. Who would believe a promise a government would make given the history of the matter?

“Some would take up the high-paying remote school rotational jobs, especially if serving in those roles was also linked to enhanced subsequent promotional opportunity as well as higher salaries at the time”..”performance pay”

Again, these all rely on the possibility that you are going to get more money into the system in the long term such that wages can be increased above the wages of other sectors in competition for young graduates. Perhaps you trust governments more than me, but I’ll bet you (my house if you want) that in the next decade this doesn’t happen. The main way more money will enter the system is via private schools, who of course will have no interest in participating in expensive schemes such as that you propose.

Since my first suggestion evidentally won’t work, here’s a second, which is both positive and negative: Why not get teachers from third world countries like we do with doctors? Since it is much cheaper to train teachers in those countries, we could compensate the donor countries via money in kind to their training systems if you were worried about stealing all the educated people.

13 years ago

A good post Ken. Education in remote Aboriginal communities is the most important issue facing the Territory. It has been for many, many years.

I don’t immediately have access to accurate, current figures but a couple of years ago it was costing approximately $160k to put a teacher into a remote community. Set this up against the (then) annual cost of one prisoner in a Territory prison – coincidentally $160k. You could add up the cost of additional health and other services and rack up a very substantial cost all with a strong connection to low education levels. That is before we start to count the cost of the lack of local Aboriginal people available for the jobs that are available in their communities.

In the scheme of things teachers and schools are actually a cheap solution to many other problems.

There is a need for innovative approaches to be taken to getting teachers out there. One strategy that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this thread is to make any promotion of a teacher contingent on successful time in a remote community. Another is to take a decision that no first year teacher will be put in a remote community. Place experienced teachers out there. Pay them well. Compete with the miners. If a truck driver is pulling $140,000 a year on Groote then pay the teachers better. Ensure that their partners and children are properly looked after. Give them whatever assistance is necessary. If it costs $250,000 to $300,000 to put them there do it.

And at the same time require that they do more than sit in class rooms. Get them out into the community. Find the kids and find ways of inspiring them to learn.