SUNS 71 & 72 : ‘INDIGENOUS EDUCATION RISING’ and ‘SCHOOLS PREOCCUPIED WITH MONEY’

SUNS 71 AND 72

These columns were published in the Suns newspapers ( Darwin/Palmerston/ Litchfield) on December 2 and December 2014. These are the unedited versions.
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SUN 71 INDIGENOUS EDUCATION ON THE UP

Last Friday (November 28) one of the best ever conferences on Indigenous Education was held at the Darwin Convention Centre. It had to do with Indigenous Leadership in schools and the contribution being made to education by Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Staff. Over 200 people, the majority being Indigenous Australians attended the conference. Fifty organisations, mostly school representatives from government and private schools were involved. While those attending were from all over Australia, there was a strong focus on Northern Territory schools and NT educational outcomes.

The conference was organised by the Centre for School Leadership at Charles Darwin University and the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Education. Conference highlights included demonstrations of indigenous cultural learning by students from Wagaman Primary and Sanderson Middle Schools. The conference put to bed some myths that have been part of societal thinking for a long time.

The commonly held belief is that nothing happens and no progress is being made in rural and remote schools. Indigenous education is equated with truancy issues and programs constantly thwarted by chronic teacher turnover. There are over 100 remote schools in the NT and by no means do they all deserve the ‘too hard’ tag. For instance, Elliot School 750 kilometres south of Darwin has close to 90% school attendance. The principal has been at the school for 4 years and all classroom teachers from this year will be staying on in 2015. The conference confirmed that other remote schools are improving in these areas.

Several presenters attested that Indigenous educational success and progress in our remote and urban schools depends on relationships between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal staff. If they work ‘together as one’ students respond positively to learning opportunities. Of course care and empathy needs to be inclusive of students. Successful schools also engage with community.

Those successful and progressive schools identified during the conference have high standards and expectations. They engage with and support students toward positive personal attainment. Importantly, there is no disconnection between staff and students.

More than NAP

Our educational system tends to accept that the National Assessment Program (NAP) is the only yardstick by which educational success can be measured. That is because the Federal Government says so. Friday’s conference confirmed that there is much more to building student confidence and competence than NAP alone. Care and commitment go far deeper than preparing students for formal testing. Had senior departmental people and politicans attended the conference, they would have found this to be the case.

In the NT, 44% of our students are indigenous. More and more of them attend urban schools and they are the backbone of rural and remote schools. The conference confirmed Indigenous education is working and delivering outcomes, largely because of relationships building between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous staff. Relations between staff, students and community are also helping to build positive educational results. The conference was one of substance and uplift. We ought to watch with interest for further growth, development and educational fulfilment in this area.
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SUN 72 MONEY DOMINATING SCHOOL’S THINKING

With the onset of global budgeting for NT schools from 2015, money or lack of it seems to have become the number one preoccupation for school principals and administrators. This is somewhat paradoxical. In the final week of term four, school leaders should be rejoicing in the accomplishment of students and celebrating the year that has been. Instead, many seem to be focussed on coming to terms with the impact of global budgeting.

This new funding model has created a lot of angst and uncertainty among some school principals and councils. They are having difficulty reconciling the rhetoric about global budgeting with what seems to be the way it will actually impact upon school operations. Everything from program curtailment to staffing cuts seem to be looming.

On the face of it, global budgeting should be straightforward. A simple change of one allocation method to another should not create the negative reaction being generated. The concern seems to be that schools are being asked to maintain and even grow programs from a shrinking financial base. This is raising many questions and creating problems.

Training and understanding

I believe one of the issues is the change to budget accountability that has taken place within the education system. This began with devolution of management responsibility to schools in the late 1980’s and has continued since that time. In the beginning the school’s business was managed for the school, These days schools have become businesses. What used to be centralised functions have been outsourced to schools.

This has to do in part with accountability handed to schools and in part with the desires of principals and councils to take responsibility for decision making and money management. Global budgeting extends an outsourcing process that has been transitioning to schools for many years.

Managing money has become a complex and time consuming occupation. Schools have become businesses and this occupies the principal’s time. Matters of educational leadership are increasingly delegated to senior staff members. Principals and School Finance Managers are often under-trained for work in this field and battle to keep up with changing funding models. School leaders who trained to be educators are finding that bookkeeping is their major function. Many school finance managers have minimal training in this operational field. However, financial planning and full economic management is absorbing the time of both principal and finance manager. I suspect too, that the Department’s finance officers and those in schools are ‘learning together’, meaning that system help is evolving rather than being offered with full confidence. There may well be more confusion before clarity prevails because advisory staff have to learn about the new system.

Maybe it is worth looking at a model practised in Indonesia. Some schools have administrative as well as professional staffing streams. Issues of financial and budgetary management are separated from curriculum and teaching. The finance administrator and principal roles are separated, enabling both to concentrate of their specific areas of responsibility. This sharing of leadership and management may have drawbacks but it means that the principal’s focus is not totally consumed by monetary concerns.

Our system is now placing huge emphasis on business acumen and financial accountability. That has the potential to distract from educational leadership and classroom attention. Maybe the time will come when the business of schools dictates that those in charge are number crunching administrators rather than educational leaders.

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