One of the schools I most admire is in controversy this week. The school makes my top 10 list not because of its academic achievement (at which it far from excels) or sporting and cultural achievement (at which it excels), but because it is a beacon of hope at the very bottom tier of Australian schools, which are predominantly indigenous.
After discovering the fledgling college, I told an education conference in 2004: “I am a recent and convinced friend and supporter of Djarragun College, an independent school supported by the Anglican Church, located south of Cairns in the sugarcane fields near Edmonton and Gordonvale.
“I have immense enthusiasm and belief in this school and its progress over the past four years. I consider Djarragun to be one of the most positive and persuasive things in indigenous education that I have witnessed. Djarragun is a primary and secondary school and has 400 students, all of whom are either Torres Strait Islander or Aboriginal. There are about 60 students boarding on the campus and a considerable unfulfilled demand for further places.
“This school challenges all of my prejudices against ‘ghetto’ schools. Prior to visiting I had a negative conception of Djarragun, where the scale of the challenges facing an all-indigenous school would weigh the school down. I thought it would not be a place I would send kids with academic potential. I think I was mistaken . . . You want to get optimistic about indigenous education: I suggest you go and see Djarragun.”
Hundreds have visited Djarragun on my advice or on their own initiative over the years since I became its No 1 ticketholder. The school has strong supporters in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and in the Cairns community, and has inspired many corporate and philanthropic sponsors.
I keep hearing the same thing: you can feel something special when you walk around this school. I once wrote the relationship between great teachers and their students is a kind of love. This I have witnessed in great abundance at Djarragun.
Last year the principal went on sabbatical, and during her time away things started slipping. Problems with staff and students started to escalate. I am not privy to whatever happened but attending the end-of-year celebration last year, the school did not seem to have its usual ebullience.
This week allegations surfaced concerning the management and the treatment of staff and children. The college board had already commissioned a lawyer to investigate the complaints and will soon receive a report.
Without judging one way or the other, the complaints of former staff reflect the nature of power held by the principal to hire and fire staff. Djarragun is an independent school and the principal has wider powers to deal with non-performing staff than is the case in the public system.
Educational policy debate in Australia is seeking for public schools the kind of autonomy that private schools such as Djarragun have.
But when a principal takes action on non-performing staff, disputes come with the territory.
On the day the controversy hit, researchers from the Centre for Independent Studies, Helen Hughes and Mark Hughes, highlighted the importance of good teaching while referring to Djarragun with approval (“Protecting bad teachers produces chronic failure”, The Australian, March 9).
I will make two observations about the rough water Djarragun has hit, and they relate to its status as what is called in educational jargon a “sink school”. Sink schools sit at the very bottom of the educational food chain: for children who are not wanted or not able to survive in schools higher up the ladder.
If refused admission or expelled from higher schools, the sink school is your last resort. Your next destination is oblivion.
If expulsion is the ultimate mechanism of behavioural standard-setting, sink schools do not have this mechanism. This is why I so admire Djarragun. It has built a castle of high expectations at the bottom of the sink.
A year and a half ago, Djarragun embarked on a fateful venture when it took over a failed training centre at Wangetti, halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas. Wangetti had long been a troubled place to which teenagers were sent to receive some semblance of education and training. These young people are the starkest victims of the educational failure and social dysfunction in remote communities. In taking on Wangetti, Djarragun took on a huge challenge.
My second observation concerns academic achievement. Sink schools find it hard to show academic progress, because they receive children who are behind their peers in more advantaged schools. Djarragun’s feeder schools are among the worst schools in the country.
Higher performing students bypass Djarragun and are able to attend mainstream boarding schools under programs such as the one run by the Cape York Institute. Furthermore there is always the temptation for better performing students to leave a sink school and move to more advantaged schools.
In October last year, school leaders from Djarragun visited Aurukun, where the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy that I chair has introduced the American educational program called Direct Instruction.
Direct Instruction is entirely consistent with the recent McKinsey report How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, which describes how a group of school systems across the world has made the journey from poor to fair.
Seeing the results in Aurukun, Djarragun resolved to adopt Direct Instruction across its school this year.
It is eight weeks into the new program, which I am confident will produce the academic outcomes it wants for its students.
Though Djarragun is a private school, it does not charge school fees and is entirely dependent on public funding. If indeed Djarragun is a “road to nowhere”, as alleged by a former staff member complaining about the school this week, then the taxpayers of Australia should know about it. I don’t believe that it is.
Within five years, I believe, with its new instructional program, Djarragun College will not only be renowned for its cultural and sporting prowess but for its academic success as well.