Closing the educational gap means that Indigenous Australians have to grasp the nettle

A quality called ‘self help’ needs to be part of the equation. Closing the gap on education and everything else is not going to happen until and unless Indigenous Australians and Indigenous Communities get behind their challenges and commit to improvement. Sitting back and waiting for this to somehow evolve will not work and is not working.

I believe self-help is happening in some instances but by no means in the majority of cases. There are reasons for why this is an ongoing issue. The matters are not going to be solved until such times as non- Aboriginal persons in authority stop appealing to indigenous people in term of asking ” have you got a problem I can own?”

A case in point is the issue of school attendance. No attendance = no school = no learning. So the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, senator Nigel Scullion, came up with the idea of employing Indigenous Truancy Officers in the NT and other parts of remote Australia to get children to school. The overall cost – well over $50 million.

There are ways in which school attendance can be managed, so that attendance is enhanced. Throughout my years as a school leader in remote area schools in both WA and the NT, attendance issues were managed in a way that minimised the problem. The matter was my responsibility and I worked to sell the need for regular attendance to the community. People came on board with my selling of the attendance message.

I smile inwardly – and with some sadness – when hearing of the ‘Nigel’s Army’ of truancy officers approach. That initiative costing close to $40,000,000 over two or three years has, in overall terms, made only a sight indentation on the attendance issue. I believe another $28 million or thereabouts has been promised to extend the program. There are reasons why this approach has not worked. Part of that has been the absence from duty of some truancy officers! I believe a solution exists but for it to work would require a U-turn in present policies.



Indigenous Education in the NT has been a matter of prime focus for many decades. While there have been some successes they have not been uniform or consistent. Initiatives, reforms, suggestions and new ideas come through in what seems to be an endless succession of reports. These reports go back to the 1960’s.

The most recent of these is the Wilson Review on Indigenous Education released in 2014 with a view to implementation from the beginning of 2015. However, some of the key recommendations in this review have, in times past, been initiated, developed the discarded. This means that many “new” ideas are not new but revisitations to what happened in earlier times.

The idea of newness comes about for several reasons.

* The rapid and constant turnover of teaching staff is a key factor in the provision of indigenous education. Teachers appointed to community schools often stay for months rather than years. There are exceptions but turnover and staff movement is generally the order of the day. This is very destabilising and does little to convince those living in communities of educational values and benefits.

* Very little is recorded to confirm what programs are in place. Too often incoming staff are confronted by a blank page. They start all over when it comes to progressing education because there is nothing to show what progress has been made. School policies, reports and documentation are generally scant. Sometimes records are non-existent.

* The question ‘education for what’ is very real. While the value of literacy and numeracy cannot be argued, students are discouraged because employment prospects within their communities are bleak.

* The concept of “reactive leadership” has become ingrained in indigenous education. Principals and school leaders wait for things to unfold and are not sufficiently a part of the developmental process. They lead from behind. This reluctance may be due in part to the politicisation of education. Principals are frightened to take initiatives in case they are reprimanded for over-zealousness, lack of consultation, or mistakes they might make.

These issues can cause distress. The fact that education so often advances no further than Genesis 1:1 is anathema. For things to be forever “in the beginning” is discouraging, raising community questions about the value and worth of education.

Direct Instruction teaching methods and a keen focus on eliminating truancy indicate that some progress is being made. Too often that motivation sputters and fades. Over time, remote education has followed a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ pattern of development. That irregularity will continue unless and until those with stake and interest in Indigenlous Education are in sync with each other.



Where to teach and reclaiming costs


The challenge for the Department of Education in our Northern Territory is readying teachers after training to undertake remote area teaching service. Very few teacher education graduates in the NT go to remote or very remote communities on appointment.

This is due in part to many pre-service teachers from interstate training by external mode. They intend to seek appointment in their home states. The other issue is that many of our local graduate teachers are mature age, with family or personal commitments that will keep them in Darwin, Palmerston and other major centres.

If interested about teaching in a remote community, it is advisable to try and organise a practice teaching round or two in a remote locality. Charles Darwin University has a policy of sending at least two people to aa community so they have the opportunity to talk, provide feedback to each other and generally share the experience.

It would be altogether wrong to go into a practice teaching round with romantic or “missionary” expectations or ambitions in mind. Undertaking a practice should be based on rational and logical pre-considerations. To consider indigenous students as a “special” group is often to under estimate them, their capacities for learning and their ability to make progress. Neither should they be regarded as unique in the context of being almost treated like special toys. They are people and need to be regarded as having the same expectations and abilities as anybody else.

If going into a community on practice teaching, it is a good idea to gain an understanding of the place by googling, reading, talking with people who may have been in that or similar communities in the past. Going in cold can be very unhelpful. Be aware of the facilities available within the community including accommodation, food, shopping, communications, and so on.

I believe it’s important if going into a community to maintain our cultural standards. In the past some teachers have let their standard slip in order to try and be like locals. They gain no respect but earn contempt if that happens.

Respect is a two way street. While it’s important to gain the respect of community members, it is also important to respect that community and not to belittle the people or place in your thinking or actions. In the same way as we talk with each other, including aboriginal people in conversation if working at their place is important. A lot is learned through conversation.

There is a place for our local graduates in remote area education in the Northern Territory. At the moment significant number of teachers who do bush service are recruited from interstate. That is because locals are not available to take up appointments. Our aboriginal population is very much a part and parcel of our Northern Territory. An ambition of our University and Education Department should be to train teachers for remote community. Lots of positives can be gained in life’s world from undertaking teaching service in these places.

If interested in training or on graduation in teaching in our remote communities, don’t let that ambition lapse. Follow it up. It could well be an appointment bringing you rich experience and personal satisfaction.



Teaching can be a cost heavy profession. Keeping receipts of expenditure related to costs can help when it comes to taxation time. I am not a tax professional. Googling or putting into your search engine ‘taxation deductions for teachers’ brings up the entry appearing below. It is good to be aware of what can be claimed because every bit helps when it comes to legitimate claims for taxation purposes.

Keeping documentation takes a little organisation. I keep an indexed notebook and glue receipts in against particular categories. Come taxation time, it is then a case of going through documentation and tallying expenditure against each deduction category.

I would never advocate dishonesty when claiming deductions. However, claiming legitimate work related expenditure can help with cost recovery.

What comes up when ‘taxation deductions for teachers’ is googled. (Australia)

“Teachers – claiming work-related expenses
About this guide
If you are an employee teacher, this information outlines some of the deductions you may be able to claim.
The work-related expenses include:
motor vehicle
clothing, including compulsory uniforms, protective clothing, laundry and dry-cleaning
other – such as phones, calculators, electronic organisers, computers and software, meals, and teaching aids
There may be other deductions you can claim that are not included in this publication. Refer to More information at the end of this guide for a list of resources.

When you sign your tax return, you are declaring that everything you have told us is true and you can support your claims with written evidence.
You are responsible for providing proof of your expenses, even if you use a registered tax agent.”

End of attention


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.


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.


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.