The Australian applauds the work of journo Sarah Ferguson who did the Four Corners report on Monday night about education on the Tiwi islands. Apparently, this shows a new style of “direct journalism” on indigenous affairs which doesn’t hesitate to tread on egg shells anymore.

I am all for an honest look at life in indigenous communities, but Sarah Ferguson’s report was entirely one-sided and she wilfully ignored the positive aspects of education on the Tiwi islands.

The bilingual primary school at Nguiu has an indigenous principal at the helm, a dedicated team of qualified indigenous staff and committed non-indigenous teachers (many who have been there for several years). The primary school has about 150 kids coming to school everyday. But you wouldn’t know this from watching the hour-long report on Four Corners.

The report focussed on Kimberley, a girl in Year 5. It suggested that her achievements were “miraculous”. The reality is that there are many other children like Kimberley who are doing well at school because they are regular attenders. They are literate in both Tiwi and English. The bilingual program can not be blamed for poor literacy in children who have not attended school.

At the primary school 20% to 30% of Year 7 students achieve the national benchmarks for English every year. This is a better result than most other remote indigenous community schools, even those schools which teach only English.

One in four kids at the primary school are achieving literacy in both Tiwi and English. Surely, it would have been worthwhile to look at what are the ingredients for these successes? That would have given viewers a chance to see what works and an idea of what needs to be done to improve the rates of success. But that would have provided hope and that is clearly not what the reporter wanted.

Instead, Sarah Ferguson suggested that bilingual education was (partly) to blame for poor literacy levels of teenagers, and incorrectly stated that children do not get any English at the primary school until Year 4.

In fact, children receive an intensive oral English program from Transition upwards, taught by a dedicated non-indigenous teacher. When Tiwi children start school, they generally not speak much English. Therefore, the school begins by teaching children to speak and understand English before embarking on writing in English. At the same time, the children learn to read and write in Tiwi (which is the language they understand) so they become literate in their first language first and follow with literacy in English.

However, the most unforgivable aspect of the Four Corners report was this. Sarah Ferguson filmed a class taught by an indigenous teacher at the primary school. There were about 25 children in the class, all engaged and learning. This Tiwi teacher has been teaching for about 15 years, she is qualified and a talented teacher. Sarah Ferguson said at the time that it was clear that she was an excellent teacher. And yet, she chose to air Professor Helen Hughes’ comment that indigenous teachers “can’t teach” but did not show any of the footage she shot of the Tiwi teacher in action or make any comments based on what she saw.

The Australian praises Sarah Ferguson for asking questions of “aborigines themselves”. However, she chose to devote a significant amount of time to the white principal of the secondary school at Nguiu who has been there 6 months and is struggling to get kids in to classrooms, but did not air any part of the interview with the indigenous principal of the primary school who has been there 20 years and is getting good attendance and results.

There is no doubt about the fact that this report was designed to shock Australians with a story about the pitiful state of education in a remote community. Any footage to the contrary was conveniently and unethically left out.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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