This piece was written for the Suns and published on November 6 2016. It is based on the NT, but has wide ranging applicability.

During the last decade, building and construction programs have significantly upgraded Australian and Northern Territory schools. Previously, capital works money was scarce. Many established schools, both urban and remote had to make do.

The Rudd Government’s ‘Building the Education Revolution’ (BER) program reversed this trend. A $16.2 billion cash splash lead to frenzied construction of school halls, libraries, science blocks and classroom spaces. Within the NT, there was an unparalleled school building boom. The opening of completed school facilities by politicans became a weekly event.

Then came Gonski. The NT did not sign up to the Gonski reforms (of 2011) but still received big dollars from this initiative. Not signing, meant that government and the Education Department were freed from restrictions about the use of this money. Rather than being spent on programs in classrooms, it was used to further capital works. The new Henbury and Bellamack Special Schools and Acacia Hills Special School upgrades came from Gonski funds.

The sale of TIO and the leasing of Darwin Port provided the CLP Government with funds for further infrastructural development. Many schools benefited from a substantial infusion of money for major works on buildings, grounds and surrounds.

Last Saturday through the NT News (Gift time for schools: Green light for minor new works programs) the government announced that all schools can begin applying for $300,000 allocations, to be rolled out over four years from next July. The money is for renovation and construction programs.

There is plenty of money for buildings and facilities at schools. However, support for in class programs and teaching initiatives is in far shorter supply. Educational outcomes are measured by student successes, not by the quality of facilities in which learning is taking place. In a way, it is paradoxical that while school structures are receiving such focus, Australian and Territory educational outcomes are failing.

Since 2000, every major report comparing Australian and Territory students with their overseas peers shows them to be slipping further and further behind the world in key competencies. The latest comparisons show many of our students are heading for new lows in tested areas. (Kids are slipping through the gaps, NT News, December 1)

There needs to be an urgent change in priorities. Its time for spending on structures to become spending on teaching and learning programs. It is in the area of student learning outcomes that NT Education has a major systemic weakness.

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