Spin doctors turn Cape success story into failure

Opinion Article

2012 November, 25

In a parallel universe we would have woken up on Saturday morning to read about a small remote community school called Coen. It is an all-indigenous campus of the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy. A four-part program at the Coen school is approaching its third year of pilot funding by the federal government, and being evaluated. 


The school runs an extended school day, from 8.30am to 4.30pm. The first program is called "community", aiming at student attendance and readiness for school. It is linked to the Families Responsibilities Commission, which places welfare reform obligations on parents. Other programs include student education trusts to cover schooling costs. At any one time each Coen student has anything up to $1000 voluntarily set aside by their family. A school nurse health service is part of a full-service school. 


The second program is "culture", and includes traditional cultural activities and fieldwork, plus an academic component in the classroom. Culture is not token, has dedicated teachers and involves community members as tutors. Pride in the heritage and cultures of the various language groups of Coen is manifest. 


The third program is "club", and provides music and sporting opportunities through partnerships with the AFL, Tennis Australia and the Queensland Music Festival directed by jazz virtuoso James Morrison. The Coen school band features trombone, saxophone and trumpet. The culture and club programs require the extended school day. It is not compulsory for the kids to attend past 2.30pm, but almost all of them stay until 4.30pm. 


The final program is "class" and consists entirely of direct instruction in literacy and numeracy. The normal teaching staff teach direct instruction and the program is supported by the Oregon based National Institute for Direct Instruction. The Americans supply coaches and work weekly with the principal and curriculum coach. Every week students undertake mastery tests and data-driven decisions are made by the team at Coen and in the US. 


Every child's progress is examined and every teacher is provided feedback. 


Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin supported me to establish the academy in 2010. She persuaded then education minister Julia Gillard to fund a three-year pilot for two schools. The other school was Aurukun. They set aside $7.7 million over three years, administered through the Queensland government. 


Direct instruction represents a minor cost. The majority of the budget employs the extra teachers for the club and culture extended school day. Direct instruction uses existing classroom teachers and aides. 


My alma mater at Hope Vale joined last year. Pleasingly, the academy has cost much less than anticipated. Last week the Queensland government confirmed sufficient funds for the 2013 school year. 


Rather than two schools operating three years, we will have three schools for four years out of the original allocation made by Gillard. 


But this was not the universe we woke up to on Saturday. Instead of funding assurance, The Weekend Australian's front page conveyed the opposite ("Pearson Cape schools lose funding"). The report was gloomy: "The future of Noel Pearson's education experiment in Cape York is uncertain, after it lost federal government funding beyond this year following disappointing results in the national literacy and numeracy tests." 


An anonymous spokesman was quoted: "A senior federal government source said direct instruction had been championed and imported into the Cape schools with the 'very clear and strong assumption that results will be automatically improved. This has been shown to be wrong and raises questions about the deployment of that method in these schools.' " 


Juxtaposed was a story about the fledgling Yuendumu Football Academy ("No school, no play hits mark for Warlpiri boys"), linking school attendance and AFL. 


Colourful stories about the AFL or the NRL or some other sporting partnership with indigenous schooling abound. But of the scores of reports every year, no mention is ever made of NAPLAN or academic performance.


I am all for such partnerships if they hook students into school attendance. After all, Mark, Glen and Gary Ella were my secondary school heroes. 


I wish the mob at Yuendumu the best, but neither the AFL nor the NRL is a panacea for indigenous education. It is what goes on in the classroom that counts. After you get kids in their seats, it is the quality and effectiveness of the instruction that you must get right. 


Buried in Saturday's story of alleged Cape York failure was this reference to NAPLAN results: "The only school to show dramatic improvement in the past five years is at Coen, a school of only about 50 students, where 100 per cent of students met the minimum standard in 10 out of the 15 areas." 


In our alternative universe this is the Olympic equivalent of winning a qualifying place in a heat. Not time to play the Australian anthem yet, but jeez, all the kids meeting the minimum standard across 10 of 15 categories in Years 3, 5 and 7 is surely something approaching a heroic feat. 


No other Queensland indigenous school comes near Coen's results (and frankly, nor do many mainstream schools). Schools in Cherbourg, Palm Island, Kowanyama, Weipa, Bamaga and Yarrabah all failed to achieve 100 per cent in any category. Only Mapoon (in one out of 15 categories) and Bloomfield (in two out of 15 categories) achieved 100 per cent national minimum standards. 


Frankly, I do not know any indigenous school in the country whose NAPLAN results are comparable to Coen's. Coen will no doubt ebb and flow, but in the next few years it will reach or be within 90 per cent of national minimum standards across all 15 categories. 


I know the issues associated with NAPLAN testing and reporting but the spin doctoring by opponents of the Cape York Academy that has turned such exciting progress into a miserable story of failure is an injustice to the kids and parents and teachers. Depressingly, those shopping the academy's NAPLAN results to media outlets include a former senior bureaucrat in indigenous education. 


In our alternative universe, if you were minister for education, genuine about indigenous education solutions, you would be interested in Coen and see past the spin and keep this thought in mind: from little things, big thing grow. Then you would find the time go and see for yourself.

Spin doctors turn Cape success story into failure