Two years on from the Palaszczuk intervention, it’s time for a report on Aurukun school

Opinion Article

2018 May, 26

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, two years ago you wanted the Aurukun school on Cape York to be “just like any Queensland school”. Is it now the kind of school you wanted? Perhaps you should return to see how it is faring since your government’s abrupt takeover on May 27, 2016. 

We understand your colleague Kate Jones is no longer education minister, but now the Commonwealth Games are over, did she think school attendance would be worse than under the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy? Does she wonder how the kids are going under the department’s management? 

What about you, Jim Watterston, the director-general who led the May 2016 takeover because, as you told me: “We know how to run schools.” You have since walked away to lead the education faculty at the University of Melbourne, after it became clear it wasn’t panning out at Queensland’s most disadvantaged school. You have cause for reflection on this second anniversary. 

Mayor Derek Walpo, you wanted the department to take over the school, despite objections of many parents and grandparents in your community. Are you happy with the “mainstream education” you wanted them to receive? 

Two years ago tomorrow, Palaszczuk and Jones flew to Aurukun to meet Walpo. On a Saturday night a fortnight before, the school principal’s vehicle was attacked by youths outside the school grounds, causing teachers to leave the community pending a security assessment.

For the next two weeks media reports focused on street fighting, rampaging youth and serious security problems for community members and expatriates alike, not least the teachers. The law-and-order problems made news around the country. The violence had been escalating for years. Conflict emerged and didn’t seem to be quelled as in the past. It was the worst in a long time. 

Following the meeting with Walpo, the Premier and minister emerged to a press conference that would change the entire narrative. Palaszczuk said: “We all know how important education is and it is, indeed, my priority to ensure all children receive a good quality education. I don’t care where they live in Queensland, every single child deserves the best education.” 

Jones said: “The mayor’s saying to me he’d like the state government to consider the school being run by the Education Department.” According to them, the problem was the school and its pedagogy. 

When powerful political leaders are determined to create a new narrative, they can do so at will. This Palaszczuk and Jones did by making the school the problem, rather than the lawlessness. The brightest spot in the community — the school and the children learning in it and the teachers working hard to teach them — was scapegoated for the community’s problems and the state government’s neglect of safety and security in Aurukun. 

It is now two years later and we need to ask: what happened with Aurukun school since the Queensland Education Department took over? 

There has been no review conducted so there is no official knowledge. A review was promised, but nothing has happened. 

I can speak only of matters I have some knowledge of. Law and order in the community is much improved. There is now concerted policing, vital to the community. 

Attendance at Aurukun has always been a struggle. The elders from the Family Responsibilities Commission led a step change in attendance since the Cape York Welfare Reform began in 2008; the improvement in the official published school attendance rate at Aurukun was from 46 per cent in the first term of 2008 to 71 per cent in 2012. Through the years the struggle to maintain and lift attendance continued, and was by no means solved. 

I do not fault the current administrators for the parlous attendance. I am worried, however, it is now worse than it was. School attendance has gone backwards under the department’s management. Although official published data has not been made available, the FRC tells us that the attendance rate is low and has declined by 4 per cent in the first term of 2018 compared with last year. 

This decline is despite the school’s facilities and funding receiving a massive boost since the takeover. There are now three school buses, when there was none when the academy was involved. New teachers’ accommodation and facilities were built, and this is all for the good. 

Aurukun is now the best-resourced school of its size in the whole of Queensland. It has two deputy principals, and the department is more conscientious in ensuring teaching numbers are maintained than previously. 

The principal recruited from Brisbane is the highest paid for a school of this size in the state. He was one of many who volunteered to save Aurukun’s children when publicity surrounding the school reverberated across the country. 

I checked his old school’s website. I wanted to know whether he would be committed to the Direct Instruction program, which the academy used since 2010. To my dismay, the curriculum documents told me the new principal seemed to come from the opposite end of the pedagogical spectrum. I wondered whether the department had recruited someone whose past school leadership seemed to be at odds with DI. I still don’t know. 

The DI program, which was the foundation of our academy, was abandoned. Some teachers continued it of their own choice. A handful of teachers in the school were highly expert in DI and could have kept it going. But they have now left. 

The principal decided to adopt a bilingual approach to the early years, with Wik Mungkan the language of instruction up to Year 3, and English after that. I disagreed with this approach in the academy, preferring to follow a parallel-language program that provided ancestral language education as well as English from kindergarten. We had data to show how well these pre-prep kids at Aurukun were faring after we introduced K-level DI. Only 20 minutes a day, and the kids were on par for reading in Year 1. If I had a dollar for every visitor who told me how far behind their own children of equivalent age were compared to many of these children … but DI is now dead at Aurukun school. 

Essentially Aurukun is a 50 per cent school. Half the kids attend and half are absent. Many of those who attend do so regularly. Their parents send them to school as often as possible. Many of the absentees are absent regularly. One of the challenges for a highly sequenced learning program such as DI and the organisation of students into ability groupings rather than year levels is that low attenders tend to drag high attenders back because teachers have to attend to those kids who have missed out on prior learning. 

Aurukun’s expert young teachers developed a two-stream program allowing high attenders to move ahead while making sure the low attenders also were supported. The 2015 data was so exciting because the new model showed for the first time our high attenders were learning one year’s worth of schooling in one year. But what really told us the model was right was that lower attenders also were making better progress than in previous years. 

The two streams — Foundation and Accelerated — were abandoned, destroying the school’s most effective innovation. 

By Easter 2016, the academy coach sent around data showing high-attending prep kids at Aurukun were on track for reading, along with their colleagues at Coen and Hope Vale. By the end of the following month the Aurukun campus of the academy was dead. 

The academy’s extended school day, which ended at 4pm rather than 2.30, was abandoned. The extra hours enabled culture and club extra-curricular programs to be offered. One of the extra-curricular programs was the music program, developed with jazz virtuoso James Morrison and the Queensland Music Festival. Aurukun kids learned to play trumpet, trombone, saxophone, drums, guitars and pianos in a stage band, performing at jazz and school music festivals, and the opening of an envelope. It was truly the pride and joy of the school. 

The stage band is now defunct in Aurukun after seven years. There is talk it may be revived, but I know the department is not good at this stuff. It doesn’t appear to have ambitions for the children or want to go the extra mile for them. 

Last year’s National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy results showed Aurukun at the bottom of the Queensland system. I understand as well as anyone NAPLAN could never properly reflect the overall school performance. The attendance deficit and sheer burdens carried by the students mean it is unfair to hold the school’s management accountable for the poor overall results. I’m not concerned about the school’s aggregate performance; rather, I am concerned with the performance of individual students. Are they showing the kind of academic growth they should be, given many of them are otherwise healthy and attending regularly? These children are entitled to learn and progress. Is the school serving them? 

The new principal will leave at the end of this year to retire. Aurukun is his last stint. I don’t think his replacement will change my pessimism about the school’s fate. So-called leaders of education such as Watterston, in my opinion, didn’t get the teaching right. The keystone to any successful school is effective instruction and for schools such as Aurukun DI is effective. 

The Coen and Hope Vale campuses of the academy are progressing well. Coen is the highest attended indigenous school in Queensland. Coen is the only indigenous school in Queensland whose attendance rates range in close vicinity to the state average of around 91 per cent, and my old alma mater Hopevale is around 75 per cent. Their respective stage bands are in full song and the culture and language programs are going from strength to strength. My old school is producing children who are literate in English and our mother tongue. 

Jones and Watterston walked away from the broken pieces of something precious. Every year that passes while we forget what is going on in Queensland’s most disadvantaged school is - intolerable. Jones told the media: “The education of our children is our No 1 priority. I say that as the education minister and as a mother.” What does she have to say to the mothers of Aurukun now? Would she be happy for her children at Ashgrove to trade places with the kids at Aurukun? 

On the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, I can’t forget the kids at Aurukun. The Premier should look honestly at the situation and pick up the pieces.

Two years on from the Palaszczuk intervention, it’s time for a report on Aurukun school