Charter for a brighter future

Opinion Article

2009 November, 28

There are two things everyone agrees on when it comes to the plight of indigenous Australians. First,  that along with everything else that needs to be done, education is central: the children will be the  better future. Second, that indigenous education is a shameful failure.  

Let me qualify these two points. Developments in health, housing and employment are also critical,  and they affect educational progress. Education will not succeed alone, but it is ultimately the ticket to  social justice.  

Also, Maria Lane, the Aboriginal researcher from South Australia, points to the important progress  being made by the lower and not-so-lower Aboriginal middle classes. Year 12 completions have risen  and university participation by children from those Aboriginal families comprising what Lane calls the open society population is a real success story. The failure is occurring in what Lane calls the  embedded population, that is families living in the passive welfare world.  

This latter population includes all discrete Aboriginal communities in regional and rural Australia. It  includes all of the Aboriginal communities in Cape York Peninsula and those remote communities  where traditional languages and cultures are still strong. In these places education is an utter and  recurring failure.  

And no, I won’t qualify the last statement. To those who say that there are green shoots and glimmers  of success and examples of hope, I’m sorry I can’t take my focus off the glass 90 per cent empty, rather  than being thankful for the glass 10 per cent full.  

Because I know what that 90 per cent empty translates into when those beautiful children who miss out  on the social justice ticket become adults. Jail. Ill-health. Early death.  

Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard has made education for disadvantaged children a particular  focus of the government’s educational reform agenda. She has allocated significant funds under the  national partnerships for indigenous education, which is being offered to state and territory education departments on the condition they institute real reforms.

For two decades I have witnessed the cycle of public revelations of failure, followed by the  announcement of new policy frameworks and budgetary allocations. More experienced Aboriginal  leaders have witnessed this Groundhog Day for three or four decades now. But these cyclical policy  commitments have never led to sustained solutions.  

The truth is that the public education system has failed Aboriginal children. It is failing children in  remote communities in particular.  

There are two approaches to public education reform for the benefit of disadvantaged children. The  first is for public education systems to be reformed so reform principles are embedded in the way these  systems deliver education. In my view the key reform that enables (or if it is not done right, disables)  all the other necessary reform elements is devolution of the governance of schools. There is no way  that reforms will be implemented by a centralised system. That is why measures taken in Victoria to  devolve school governance and, in Western Australia, the Barnett government’s proposal to establish  independent state schools are promising. The second approach is to pursue school reform outside of  the public system. The charter school movement in North America is 20 years old. Starting in  Minnesota in 1991, more than 40 states have legislated to enable charter schools to be established.  Charter schools receive public education funds, but their governance and management are independent  of the system.  

A proportion of charter schools has proven that the achievement gap between African American  students and white students can be closed. Children from the ghettos are being given a chance of social  and economic parity through effective education.

Charter schools will be resisted in Australia by teacher unions. But as long as the situation with public  education of disadvantaged people continues without solution, the case for charter schools will grow.  

My view is that the first approach – reforming the public system from within, by devolving and  decentralising governance – is possible. However, as long as those who preside over public education  systems resist devolution and continue to insist on their right to operate failing schools, faith in public  education reform will diminish.  

It is already seriously eroded in the eyes of Aboriginal parents and community leaders, who are asking  why their children continue to lag so far behind their mainstream peers.  

In September, I put a proposal to Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and federal Indigenous Affairs  Minister Jenny Macklin, to establish an independently governed Cape York Aboriginal Australian  Academy within the public school system that would provide a kindergarten to year 7 education  covering mainstream and indigenous cultural and language education. The academy plan is the  culmination of my thinking about education reform over a long period, and has been universally  acknowledged as innovative and based on best-practice reforms. It reflects the high ambitions I have  for the children of remote communities.  

In the Cape York communities of Coen and Aurukun we have the opportunity to match the progress  made by the parents and the children in areas such as school attendance (the attendance for Coen at  times reaches 96 per cent, higher than the Queensland average; and Aurukun is going from strength to  strength with 70 per cent in the past term), with the kind of education the children deserve.  

The development of the academy plan has consumed my work over the past year. I am now awaiting  the decision of the Queensland cabinet so that the academy can start in January 2010. Much work has  been completed and all of the elements needed to make this reform are ready to be mobilised. All we  now need is the go-ahead.

My proposition to Bligh and to Macklin was to give us the opportunity to develop an academy that  fulfils the ideals of public education, particularly the ideal that public education can be the road to social justice for Aboriginal children.

Charter for a brighter future