7.30 Report with Kerry O'Brien


2009 October, 1

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Sometimes controversial North Queensland Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson is back in the news, this time with a focus on education and a long reflective essay entitled "Radical Hope", urging a serious lift in the quality of bicultural education and a longer school day.

Buoyed by statistics released in the Queensland Parliament this week showing a significant increase in school attendance in four Cape York communities, including one of Indigenous Australia's most troubled, Noel Pearson is looking to an American school model championed by President Barack Obama for part of indigenous Australia's education solution.

The Pearson treatise to be published next week in the Quarterly Essay is an ambitious attempt to take the indigenous education debate to a highest level, as governments struggle to improve the most basic outcomes of literacy and numeracy.

I spoke with Noel Pearson earlier tonight. He was in the ABC's Cairns office.

Noel Pearson, your essay focuses on the huge challenge of providing a quality education for indigenous children in mainstream, while at the same time trying to preserve a dying indigenous culture. Can you define the nature of that combined challenge in remote Aboriginal communities?

NOEL PEARSON, CAPE YORK INSTITUTE: Well, the challenge is for Aboriginal Australian children to live in two words - their own world, and the mainstream global world of Australia, and enjoy the best of both. Now at the moment, they are not enjoying the best of both.

In fact, our trajectory in remote Australia is one of eventual cultural pauperisation, and in my view, if we are to avoid that fate we have to fix education up.

Education is the fundamental challenge, so that we can secure a future for Aboriginal children where they are able to enjoy the fruits of participating in the Australian mainstream whilst keeping their culture, heritage and their traditional languages.

And I believe that we have failed in that challenge so far, there are only isolated examples of truly bicultural Aboriginal people who succeed in both worlds, and in my view we have to turn these isolated examples into a kind of general result for the ordinary Aboriginal child.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You say that education is riven with ideological debate, more than any other policy area, a key battleground between left and right.

Are you saying that that ideological debate has retarded or confused the issue of education, the kind of ideal education you are talking about, for Indigenous Australians?

NOEL PEARSON: I have spent 10 years just sitting on the ridges of education policy generally, indigenous education and mainstream education policy, and I've observed these debates over the past decade.

And for example, the idea that education for Aboriginal people should be culturally appropriate - now the problem with that concept, I soon came to discover, was that culturally appropriate education seemed to suggest that an Aboriginal Wik child or a Yolngu child shouldn't study Shakespeare, for example, because Shakespeare may not be culturally appropriate.

And in my view, some of this poor thinking that had developed in education philosophy and in education policy had to be critically analysed and a lot of it abandoned because cultural appropriateness eventually came to be quite an anti-intellectual and socially confining concept for Aboriginal children.

In my view we should be producing Aboriginal children who may choose to be experts in Russian literature, or in classical music. You know, the Aboriginal children have an entitlement to the best of the world's culture, and at the same time they can keep their own culture and languages as well.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The proposition that you have put up, I think, to the Queensland Government and to the Federal Government is one for a structure in and out of classroom that combines both the worlds that you talk about. Now what is the basis of that format?

NOEL PEARSON: I've had a very productive meeting with the Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and with the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin, because I put a proposal to both of the governments to develop an educational approach for primary school children in discreet Aboriginal communities in Cape York, which combined an unrelenting emphasis on Western education, as well as that which we call class, but as well as that a complementary learning domain in culture, that enables traditional languages to be learned and transmitted to new generations, and also an equal commitment to what we call club. That is: music, art, sport, at a very high level. We want to also plug the middle class advantage that our kids miss out on, and that is what the experts call concerted cultivation by the parents, afterhours cultivation by the parents.

But in order for us to do that Kerry, we'll need an extended day. So our proposal proposes to start school at eight and finish at five.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That's a big ask for communities.

NOEL PEARSON: And there will be these three learning domains.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That is a big a big ask in ... well it's a big ask for any child in primary class, but a particularly big ask in communities where you struggle simply to get the kids into the classroom on a regular basis.

NOEL PEARSON: I could never propose something like this until we fixed up some of the basic parameters that are necessary before you can fix what we call the supply side of education, the teaching supply side of education. Before I could propose anything credible in the teaching supply space, we had to fix up the learning demand aspect. That is, you need the kid in the chair. Present in the classroom.

So school attendance has been the first part of our focus over the past 10 years, and particularly in these recent years we have now got welfare reforms in place that are seeing increased school attendance and, you know, it was never going to be possible for me to turn around and ask what kind of education is this school providing, when we didn't even have the kid in the classroom in the first place. We had to fix up the school attendance, the school readiness and so on, and welfare reform was required for that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What models in the United States do you think could appropriately be adapted to Australia? What can we learn from systems in other countries?

NOEL PEARSON: Well the model that we are looking at is what Barack Obama calls the "No Excuses Schools". These are a set of public schools and charter schools that have a philosophy of no excuses. They believe that cultural background, socioeconomic disadvantage, poverty, these are not educational destiny, they do not prescribe a destiny.

Rather, a school can transcend those circumstances and the philosophy that these schools push is that schools should be the point of transformation. It should lift children out of their socioeconomic disadvantage, and provide for them a prospect that they would otherwise not have, that their parents never had.

And the challenge for public education for indigenous Australians, and might I say, for lower-class Australians generally - the challenge is for Australian governments to get serious about creating no excuses schools, that is, schools that never surrender to the idea that socioeconomic disadvantage is destiny.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Noel Pearson thanks very much for talking with us.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you very much Kerry.

7.30 Report with Kerry O'Brien