National Indigenous Education Forum Darwin

National Indigenous Education

2017 October, 19

National Indigenous Education Forum Darwin

Thank you very much for this invitation to address your conference. I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and bring greetings from Cape York.


I don't want to cast a pall over the conference but I'm in one of those moods. I'm in my seventeenth year in this game. Prior to that, I was devoted to land rights and justice and I hung around the ridges of the education scene, hoping that the privileges that I enjoyed as a young boy growing up in the mission in Hope Vale could be enjoyed by the next generation of children. And I got more and more disenchanted with what was happening with education in the 80's and 90's.


I stayed too long out of the scene. I’m not a teacher. I claim no teaching expertise or ability. I am not a great pedagogical inventor. I have no idea about that. The great pedagogues of the world, I admire, I read about, I learned about, I try to understand their arguments, but I'm not one of them. The only expertise I have is politics, and systems, and cultures, and ideologies, and the business of how people from the very bottom of society might rise up in the world. Because that’s been our condition.


I think about our people down at the bottom of the pyramid. And it’s not even just the baseline of the pyramid. It’s the gutter beneath the pyramid. I’m glad to hear Selena’s achievements of Year 12 certification. But of course, the hidden challenge with all of that is that most of those kids have been in QCE certificates, not OP scores. I've got an OP score. All of my ability to speak to power comes from a very high OP score. So, I can become a lawyer. I can study history. I can speak three languages of my own people. And enjoy the best of both worlds. So, I'm sceptical about the QCE business. Too many of the indigenous kids, they’ll go to Office Works, print out a mighty fine glossy certificate saying that you hung around the school when somebody's giving you the requisite points and here it is. Of all of the children who endure our school suspension in Queensland, some extraordinary feedback, more than half of them are indigenous. They're preparing our children for jail. What's the precursor to juvenile detention? Send them home from school. What’s the greatest correlation between people in prison and their status?  It's illiteracy.


So, let's talk today about self-determination. Let’s talk about wise self-determination in indigenous education. Let’s talk about informed self-determination. Let’s talk about a responsibility-based self-determination, where we take responsibility for our own futures. The time has come to call time. Because if we believe this thing is going to turn around in the next 17 years, we're kidding ourselves.


So, very quickly, let me show a couple of videos. I’m not going to talk about my work in Cape York and what we do. I think some of my colleagues will do that in a workshop this afternoon, which I urge you to attend, but just very quickly I want to tell you about our enterprise in Cape York.


So, we take music seriously. And we have a stage band. In our schools, we prioritise the importance of music teachers. Our children will learn a whole range of instruments in our instrumental music programme.


Music's very important. It’s one of my three great priorities for our school. We bend over backwards to make sure that we can recruit. It's very difficult to recruit music teachers to remote areas. It's not just triangles and banging on a drum or anything. We make sure that we have a band in the school that children aspire to be part of and so on.


The next thing I want to show is.... We have a big priority on ancestral language.


Watch video


Selena mentioned that time is the issue, not putting enough time in the program. We have an extended school day from 8:30 to 4:00, primarily because of the competition doing what we're trying to teach in western literacy, numeracy and science and having adequate time, attention, resources for our ancestral and cultural program.


So, what we've embarked on in the last seven years is a stretching of the school day to try and get the best of both worlds going and put the necessary hours in for an effective ancestral program, building the resources and the teaching capability. In Hope Vale, the challenge is to revive and strengthen a language that is in decline.  And the children are leading it. The children in that community are leading the whole mission from the school.


In a community like Aurukun, the challenge is simply to turn very good oral speakers of the language into literate writers of their own language. The challenge is different in the two contexts and we've got to supply an oral rebuilding program, then going onto literacy. But in other contexts, our focus has been to move into literacy - a literacy that my grandfather had, for God's sake, literate in English and our Guugu Yimithirr language. That's what the Mission taught him. All our old people were literate in Guugu Yimithirr. They were writing letters to the Queensland Government in our own language in 1897. They could read the Bible. They were more literate than children today, which is why I am so appalled at the current situation and what has gone on in recent decades, when I know my grandfather was literate. Not only he went to school in Grade 3 or whatever they offered in the mission with a slate. But he could read better than his great-grandchildren can.


Ok, the next one. This is the business that I'm most passionate about. This is young Elaine from Coen School in central Cape York. She's incredible. She was, at the time this iPhone video was taken, a prep student.


Watch video


Ok, she's been three months at the prep and, like everybody else in her cohort, she's got the beginnings of decoding. And my last video is Elaine at three months later.


Watch video


These are the text messages I get most excited about, when teachers and principals send me demonstrations of their actual achievement? That year, in fact, was the first year we had all of our prep kids on the way to reading by Year 1. It was Easter time. That was what we were so excited about. For the first time now, every child that had attended Coen, Hope Vale and Aurukun was on track for reading by Year 1. And so, it was Easter 2016 and then a month later, Jim Watterston from the Queensland Education Department destroyed the Aurukun School, when the entire attending cohort was on track for reading by Year 1. And, of course, what has happened in the last year is that the program has been deconstructed and they have some kind of a vague commitment to bilingual education and they don't start direct instruction until Year 3 or 4.


Anyway, I want to talk about self-determination. But I've been thinking about our biggest problem. What is our biggest problem in indigenous education? So, let's talk about attendance. Of course, attendance is a disaster in too many schools and we've got to fix it. It is a major impediment, a major problem for us to tackle. I'm going to tell you it is not our biggest problem. Attendance is so crucial. No kid can learn without it, but it is not our biggest problem. What's our biggest potential problem? You can say it's the poor levels of engagement by parents and community members in the education of their children. Of course, that's a big challenge. Of course, we've got to fix the levels of engagement of parents and community leaders and others. And the challenges are very large in some communities. In too many communities, the challenges of engagement are large, but disengagement, I tell you, is not our biggest problem.


What about our children with special needs, cognitive disabilities, in utero, underdevelopment? Our children in our schools have horrendous levels of special needs, previously undiagnosed, ignored and never resourced. It's a massive problem. 30% of our kids are at the lowest percentile and another 40% are borderline. But I'm going to tell you that that is not our biggest problem either - the lack of diagnosis, the lack of support, the lack of resources. So special needs, cognitive damage, all those things, I don't think it's our biggest problem. What about the lack of indigenous inclusion and curriculum and perspectives and knowledge? It's a huge problem. We've got to address it. We've got to bridge the cultural language and identity gap in our education. Of course, we've got to address that. It is a massive problem, a massive challenge but I'm going to tell you now, it is not our biggest problem.


You know what our biggest problem is? It is the children who turn up every week. Fed, pushed out the door by their mother with lunch money, had a good night's sleep, above 90% attendance. Every school in the country that's indigenous has children like that, not just one or two. Scores and scores of kids whose parents do the right thing and send them to school. Support it. Why I say that's our biggest problem is because they come out from the end of that schooling achieving very little. That's the problem. That's the biggest problem. Don't talk to me about those hard cases. What about the easy cases where the kid's in the seat, furnished with motherly and parental love. What are we doing with them? We all know kids like that who turn up. In fact, in my first endeavours in education before I summoned up the courage, I let that situation persist for too long. Children with above 90% attendance and very low achievement levels. I let that immoral situation go on for too long. How unjust that everybody should do their part of the bill deal and still get a shit education.


Selena's right. There are too many bad quality teachers. I differ with her in one respect. It's not the teacher. It's the teaching. It's the ineffective teaching. If there's a title of my address today, it is this: it is the pedagogy, stupid. The biggest problem we have is, in fact, shared with other Australian children. It's just more egregious because our kids need effective pedagogy more than most. They need effective teaching more than most. But you add the water of effective teaching to a child from a remote community and the thing just blossoms.


Don't talk to me about the day when somehow the universities that are responsible for initial teacher education somehow get their act together and start supplying the teachers we need in the most disadvantaged schools in the country in 10, 20, 30 years’ time through the measures that they all talk about. Initial teacher education reform. It is a dead letter. It'll never yield the results we need. The horizon's too long and good luck trying to change Charles Darwin's mind, or any other faculty around the country. Good luck with that.


Our kids need better teaching from the existing teachers. We need the verb. Don't worry about the noun. We need effective teaching. That's our biggest problem and it's a problem that's universal. We share it with other schools, servicing poor white disadvantaged kids and immigrant kids, and middle-class kids. Middle class kids who could do so much better if the teaching was more effective. We have a very complacent ideologically-bound teaching and education profession. Who won’t even look at the arrogance in front of their noses. Sorry to say this. So blatantly rude to you all. It's a complacent and evidence-defying, closed eyes to the evidence. And, as I say, the biggest problem in indigenous education is, in fact, one we share with other schools and other students - the fact that too much of the teaching is ineffective. And whole lots of silly ideological arguments are raised up against the things that we could have done.


I want Elaine - she wants to be a doctor - I want Elaine to read Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Nelson Mandela, Charlie Perkins. And unless we furnish her with her moral entitlement to be able to read at speed and with great efficiency... If it is too hard to decode and read. You don't have fluency. You don't like books. But if you have the authenticity that comes from being taught very effectively from the beginning, then you'll grow up to be the person you choose to be. You don't need to teach young Aboriginal kids manners about how to be revolutionary or progressive or critical or creative. Furnish them first with the right to read and they'll be as revolutionary as they choose to be, as their social situation causes them to be. This teaching of manners by the middle-class left is just garbage.


We have to take our children's futures back. I'm talking to all the black fellas in this room because they're not going to do it. Kevin Gilbert said Because A White Man'll Never Do It. That was his book title. We have to take back the future of our children and until the day comes when black fellas realise that and we stop being co-opted, we stop being co-opted by those who control this thing, is the day when we will liberate ourselves and create a future for our children and our people.


The things that need to be done, the bureaucrats and system owners will never do. I've seen too many blueprints, Groundhog Day. Give me another poxy blueprint. I've seen slide down the other end of the hill. Not that long ago. I've seen four or five permutations, four or five groundhog days in indigenous education in Queensland, the new dawn. Bureaucrats and system owners will never deliver. The teaching profession won't. If we think the teachers are going to lead the revolution, or the school leaders, it's never going to happen. There are great teachers, great educators, great school leaders but they're not going to deliver the reform we need. They're not going to take responsibility for turning the ship around. Academics - ‘schmacademics’.


Just everybody in this scene has got to face up to the fact that none of what is prescribed is really going to yield the results we want. The unions - they're not going to deliver the change we need. In fact, unfortunately they will often be the opponents of what it is that we need to do. The Australian Education Union could not be more diabolically opposed to what needs to be done than they are. The unions are about protecting the industrial interests of its members. It's not about the students or people's futures. Regard for the children and the people in the communities they serve is secondary consideration to the industrial interests of its members. The unions won't lead the changes that are needed. Governments of whatever complexion are not going to lead this change. The turnaround in indigenous education will not happen by the conviction of governments. I've been too long around this scene to be persuaded otherwise. Both sides of the argument are as bad as each other and as dumb as each other.


Okay. So, that only leaves us. It leaves black fellas. It leaves black educators, black leaders. We've got to stop being co-opted. We can't be blacktrackers for these other stakeholders. Why do the unions control the way we think? Or the department? Or the politicians, and the political party? Or the academy that we're so anxious to be a member of? We've got to be independent in our thinking. This has got to be about the future of our children. We've got to be wise. We've got to take a responsibility approach. In other words, we’ve got to take power and we've got to be concerned about the evidence and concerned about the details. And the explicit instruction in literacy and numeracy is crucial. That is why I attend with such anxiety the details of what we teach kids in the school and how we do it. And how we work with people who are like-minded with us. It's the pedagogy, stupid.


You expose children from non-English speaking backgrounds to an exclusive instruction in literacy and numeracy. That is how kids like Elaine will have a future. We’re not the number one school in Queensland. We're not supposed to compile NAPLAN. Tables, league tables, but we do. You know the number one school in Queensland? It's a small country school. 54 kids. 54 kids. Farmers' children. Stable, good attendance, offering music, offering robotics, with explicit instruction. And where were they in 2013? Way down.


We surveyed the list of the top 100 in NAPLAN in Queensland and a surprising number of them are small schools in rural areas and regional centres. These are the schools that are defying the best and most expensive private schools in Brisbane and I look at their websites and I see that they say on their website, "We have a commitment to explicit instruction." What needs to be done in indigenous education was already prescribed by the National Reading Enquiry reported in 2005. That's how old the prescription was. In 2005, the National Reading Enquiry said, "We have to have explicit instruction in literacy and numeracy."


And of all of the criticisms I have of Queensland, it is the one place where there has been a modicum of attempt to introduce explicit instruction state-wide. The districts and regions that are doing well are the regions that have encouraged the growth of explicit instruction of literacy and numeracy. Some of the best schools in the state are now schools that have the pedagogy right. They've got the teaching right. And our indigenous schools, in my view - we've got to attend to the attendance. We've got to attend to the cultural engagement. We've got to attend to all those other factors, egregious special needs and everything else. We've got to tackle recruitment. We've got to tackle retention of teachers and school leaders. But if we don't do the pedagogy thing, we can fix all those things up, but if we don't do the pedagogy thing, we won't make progress.


It's time to look at the evidence, Hattie’s evidence that the effectiveness of explicit and direct instruction is now what? Nine years old? Visible Learning was published in 2009 and, what? You want to change the conversation to 21st century schools, blah blah blah. Our kids can't even read and you want to talk about 21st century schools. And yet too much of the profession and academia and the system owners are stuck with their heads in the sand about the evidence.


So, when I say self-determination, I don't mean obscurant self-determination. You know, wilfully blind to the evidence. We have to be well-informed when we take charge. We need independent indigenous public schools. There. I've said it. We need independent indigenous public schools, not shunned off into independent school obscurity, community school obscurity. We need to be in the main game, funded as public schools, but we have to be independent. And we, the leaders of these communities, have got to take charge of them. I just don't see how - I'll be dead by the time we do the next cycle of this.


Let me close by saying, I thought it was important to take the opportunity to accept the invitation to speak to you. I'm ashamed that I took so long to insist that we take back control. I was too trusting. I was too lazy. I didn't want to have a fight. And every year, every year we don't do something, that is another generation gone. That's another generation heading off to juvenile detention and imprisonment, and it is a completely unbelievable rate at which children are absent from their families. We can do it. The top school in Queensland now turned it around in less than five years. Continuity of school leadership, expert teaching, small school, not deviating from the reform agenda they created.


There's at least one instance I know of where a school has really risen up the ranks and then collapsed because the next school leader comes along and unravels what her predecessor had achieved. Those are complete crimes, for completely ideological reasons. People are allergic. The best state school on the Gold Coast is an explicit and direct instruction school. And it offered it three years ago. Of course, those children don't have problems. They're on millionaire's row, middle class kids. You add the water of effective instruction and they go from the middle of the pack right up there, knocking on the door of the best private schools, three or four off the top. And they do that in three years. Do you think the Education Department went down there to see what's going on? The principal tells the school improvement people, "Hey, why don't you guys come down and pay a visit?" "Oh, we might do that next year." There's this obscurant denial, a kind of allergy, an allergic reaction that most educators have to explicit and direct instruction. And it seems so powerfully ingrained in people that you're either positive or negative, and people who have never been in a direct instruction classroom are committed enemies for the methodologies that work with our kids.


So, I urge all the indigenous leaders in education who are concerned about the future of our children that we've got to take charge of our children's futures. We have to wrench. We have to wrench our children's futures out of the hands of the people who hold them at the moment. And that means that we have got to advocate for our own jurisdiction in education. Leaving it to the unions, leaving it to the profession, leaving it to the department, leaving it to the government, will never yield the change. All of the changes they want of us are low expectations anyway. Get a certificate. We've invented a certificate to cure the gap rather than curing the gap of learning and achievement.


Thank you.