In Canberra on Tuesday, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough delivered a headland speech entitled Blueprint for Action in Indigenous Affairs. “Second rate standards and second rate services are no longer good enough for our first Australians”, he told the National Institute of Governance.

The meat and potatoes of Brough’s sermon was the importance of having high expectations “for” and “of” Indigenous people. In the matter of education, Brough observed that “in some remote communities Indigenous children today are less literate than their grandparents”.

He turned for his example to the remote community of Wadeye, some 400 kilometres to the south-west of Darwin. “In May 2006 in Wadeye” he told his audience, “of the 358 students enrolled, only 163 attended, and an additional 260 eligible students were not even enrolled.”

Tobias Ngardinitchi Nganbe, co-principal of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Thamarrurr Catholic School in Wadeye — the only school in a community of 2,500 people — tells a very different tale. In August this year, I met and interviewed Toby at the Garma cultural festival in East Arnhemland.

“We know it’s important that we send our kids to school,” he told me. “But the kids don’t come because of the lack of resources. For every dollar spent on a child’s education in Darwin, only 48 cents is spent on a child at Wadeye. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is still recognised as one of the mission schools. We are not recognised as part of the normal education system in the NT.”

The Wadeye community made a massive effort to get their kids to school at the start of 2005. More than 600 children turned up. But there were not enough teachers. Or desks. Or classrooms. On any given day, more than 100 students were without a desk. By years end, five out of six students had left and the school was averaging 200 students a day. The current school year followed the same pattern, with the kids initially turning up in droves, and the system letting them down.

While Brough presumes to lecture Aboriginal people about standards, Tobias Nganbe asks a simple question: “Why is the government so slow in responding to the educational needs of our children?”

Peter Fray

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