Helen Hughes: A Tribute

Centre for Independent Studies

2013 December, 17

Helen Hughes: A Tribute

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Greg Lindsay, friends of the CIS, and members of the Hughes family. 


A magnificent honour is conferred upon me to speak in tribute to the late Professor Helen Hughes for her noble contribution to the cause of my people. It is a great privilege of my life to have known her in the last decade of her large and busy life as an economist, intellectual and humanitarian.


It was not especially perspicacious but nevertheless correct when I told Consilium a number of years ago that when the story of Indigenous policy is told, the role of the CIS’ Indigenous policy program, led by its redoubtable field marshall, Professor Hughes, in effecting tectonic shifts will be plain.


Professor Hughes brought a rigour and indomitable spirit to her work in the too often arid and dispiritingly stony fields of Indigenous affairs. She fortified and renewed those like me when we were weary and heavily laden. She was fearless and invigorating in her criticism, and passionate and relentless in her energy. Beneath that ferocious intellect lay a tender heart filled with empathy and compassion for the people to whom she would devote the last years of her life.


In the middle of 2012, during one of my darkest nights of the soul, I had cause to send the following message to Professor Hughes and her co-author son, Mark, following my reading of their CIS monograph on Indigenous education in the early hours of a June winter’s morning:


Dear Helen and Mark,


Checking the Internet (when I was just supposed to be getting up for an early morning glass of water) meant that I came across your piece in The Australian today, which led me to your latest monograph on the CIS website, which I have been reading these past hours.


Congratulations on this brilliant policy analysis. I think all of the work and insights you have garnered over the years on the subject of Indigenous education come together in this monograph. You have clarified the lines of argument in a way that is so helpful to me. Anyone truly serious about Indigenous education should take direction from your paper here.


When in my sickbed I came under exceptionally heavy fire from detractors, I received a message from our field marshall exhorting me to never be troubled by these people (her actual description denoting our diminutive brethren from Africa, I decline to repeat)—and it was a message of such salutary significance, at a time of most need, that I can never forget it. Oh, how I honour her memory and thank my God for her service to my mob.


She would not hesitate in chiding me if I failed to take the opportunity of this occasion to advance the cause to which she devoted herself these last years of her life: educating our future generations.


I spent my illness in 2012 thinking about school reform. I researched and read a mountain of literature. My room was plastered with drawings and notes. My main concern was how to tackle failing schools. I was not so interested in telling successful schools how to suck eggs, I wanted to think through how the bottom schools in the country might be turned around. There are up to 2,000 schools failing our children. That Indigenous schools help comprise this long and miserable tail is the source of my anxiety, though plainly Australian children of all backgrounds are being denied a future.


Let me outline the main reform principles upon which I alighted:


• embed sustainable school reform within a system reform context

• ensure that effective instruction is the keystone of whole school reform

• ensure high-performing school systems get three elements right:

-get the right people to become teachers

- develop teachers into effective instructors

- ensure the system delivers the best possible instruction for each student

• stage autonomy according to school performance

• introduce direct instruction in target schools

• offer extra-curricular programs in Indigenous schools

• move towards universal use of proven teaching materials

• develop instructional leaders to propagate sustainable school reform.


I am pleased a member of the Hughes family, Robyn, joined us this year as principal of Djarragun College in Cairns. She took leave from North Sydney Boys High School, one of this city’s smartest institutions of learning, to help us pick this school up off the dust. Robyn’s love for Djarragun has grown equal to mine these past 12 months, and I commend her, her husband, John, and their daughters, for the courage and tenacity they have shown on behalf of our children at Djarragun.


Let me finally express my abiding gratitude to Greg Lindsay for bringing me into the intellectual fellowship of the CIS - showing a faultless generosity - enabling me to know Professor Helen Hughes and coming to so respect and love this lady for her grace and dedication.