Educational underachievement is a wastage of life and potential.
Successive waves of governments have tried to address this issue. I have spent seven years in Cape York trying to reorient policy thinking, but every day is Ground Hog Day. In Queensland we have had ‘Partners for Success’, and now ‘Bound for Success’. I envisage another cycle of reform announcements in four to five years’ time.
I think of the Black Deaths in Custody report - a massive report with more than 300 recommendations. Its principal insight has gone almost unnoticed. Aboriginal people do not die in custody more than non-Indigenous people. It’s just that there are so many more, such a larger proportion of them in jail. That’s why death rates are high. At the time of the report there were about 1800 Indigenous people in jail. Now after 15 years of policy there are 5,000 in custody. Five years ago the Queensland Government said its target was to decrease the number in custody by 50 percent by 2012. We are half way there and there has been a 70 percent increase in numbers in jail. The evaluation of this process says ‘keep plugging away’. It doesn’t even attempt to say what’s working or what’s not.
I am extremely prejudiced and sceptical about policy that claims to be the ‘blueprint’.
The gulf between policies that are right and those that are wrong is often very thin. The ways in which the same policy is administered can also make huge differences in outcomes. If you don’t get implementation right whole policy can degenerate.
The tendency to think in polar opposites binds us to unintended consequences. Take the issue of restoring social order in distressed communities. There is a fine line between vigilant restoration and what is clearly ‘broken windows’ policy. Privileges accrue to advantaged classes in their neighborhoods. In Cairns, for example, no one would put up with a stereo blaring out at 1am. Why is it tolerated in disadvantaged neighborhoods? They need restoration of social order in order to have functional communities. This perpetuation of refusal to restore social order undermines education and health policy.
There is another fine line between vigilant policing and police violence and harassment. Zero tolerance, for example, can easily degenerate into something unacceptable. Even finely calibrated policy can slide into deleterious negative consequences. We live in dynamic times – positive initiatives at one time can become wrong at another. I give you legal aid as an example. It was progressive when it first came out - crucial, important and just. But what has happened when wrong doers are defended as victims, and the victims themselves are placed in a situation of guilt? There are terrible effects on maintenance of social order.
Another example is sending kids away to boarding schools. This might sound like deleterious policy, but it is a part of our solution to poor educational outcomes. We started by sending two kids away from the Cape to Brisbane Grammar. They were swept along with the expectations that apply to all the other students, and now we are seeking to ensure that many if not all of our kids have those opportunities.
There are critical differences between the use of boarding schools and residential policies of the past. Now jealous mothers are backing their children for a better shot at life by sending their kids away for these opportunities. Too often we don’t search for real solutions. We have to be continually vigilant that policy doesn’t have unintended consequences.
What’s the purpose of education? I like Amartya Sen’s formulation: ‘People choose lives they have reason to value’.
We need to arm children with real capability to choose through rigorous education. Some will choose mobility. That mobility need not mean losing identity. I am talking about a concept of mobility that is bi-cultural and multilingual. We have to build a capability to live in both worlds.
It is absolutely critical to hammer out the purpose of education. There is so much confusion about cultural and social relevance in the strong ideological currents that run in this country. I believe cultural appropriateness as it is mostly defined is rubbish - all about sensitivity and respect, but not about fair dinkum worthwhile achievement. Why shouldn’t an Indigenous child in Cape York pursue high level maths or be fascinated with Russian literature?
This is another example of a right idea applied badly. We get fixated by ideas that end up as anti-intellectual in the long run and which become an alibi for low expectations and less grand ambition. There is a huge intellectual limitation we are seeking absolutely to lift – for example, nonsense about whether a poet’s literature is Aboriginal or not. Indigenous people in the future should not be constrained in any way. It’s up to them to choose, and they have to have the capacity to do so.
Educational demand is about students who are hungry to learn, parents who are jealous about their children’s education, and community values that support educational success.
How do we develop demand? The key is an approach to family that doesn’t perpetuate passive welfare. It has four essential ingredients.
First, manage money. You can show low-income families the power that can come from owning a fridge, having curtains, lunch money, proper mattresses and so on. There are ways of achieving this.
Second, support children’s education. Among other ways, power comes to families from children who are being clothed and fed. Once money is managed you can buy your Vitabrits and your Vegemite, and you start having the ingredients for children fronting up to school every day.
Third, engage the family in the health of each family member. There is not a lack of health services in Australia; there is a need to engage families in follow-up on treatment and their responsibilities as diligent parents. There is too much focus on service side. Medicine is easily available; what we need to do is to sort out engagement with those services and to get the best from them. We can get on top of health problems.
Fourth, home. We need safe, happy homes that people own and are proud of. The financial situation is such that governments need to provide enabling support, but instead governments have provided funding to respond to secondary problems.
We now have a structural issue. There is now a service industry for taking responsibility for matters that should be the responsibility of families. In Australia we are moving very decisively to welfare. Government and NGO providers have displaced responsibilities; they work on passive welfare and passive service delivery. There is no sunset clause on intervention. The ‘interveners’ develop a permanent role and the ‘intervenees’ become passive and just take it. We are still deferring the day when Indigenous people take responsibility for their own futures.
The arguments used for this passive welfare paradigm are that Indigenous people have a right to these, and they don’t have the capacity to manage any other way. I say that 100 percent of the solution is in jealous parents taking back responsibility for what has been taken off them and to stop others taking charge of their problems.
There is a crisis. The government does need to step in. The first step should be to extinguish all secondary programs. Income support should move from being unconditional to conditional, respecting the obligation to children and to behaviour in relation to those children. Focus on and develop solid primary programs for income, education, health, housing. Develop financial literacy, be able to organize a budget that improves your own life and that of your children.
One of the problems is that we have shied away from because we don’t want to confront it are behaviour problems and wrong choices people make. This is partly ideological, that is whether we should, whether we are allowed, to look at and react to other people’s behaviour. I have no hesitation in saying that this behaviour is contributing to poverty, and that poverty and malnutrition are consequences of that behaviour. I want to arm people with idea that if they get act together, when people take charge of their own lives they can overcome even the most obdurate structural problem.
We are on the cusp of new regime of welfare in Cape York where we say welfare is not an entitlement - proper participation in a boom economy is a right. But rights are not delivered on a plate. They come with all the responsibilities that building a proper future for our children entails.