Last Friday Helen and Mark Hughes put their names on an Australian opinion piece entitled Authorities must not wag school.

In short, the arguments that the Hugheses make are that federal, state and territory governments abandon their responsibilities to students — particularly remote Aboriginal students — by the stealthy foreshortening of school terms and by funding, or otherwise supporting, what they call “community festivals” in remote townships.

Helen Hughes is a well-known commentator with interesting views on matters indigenous and who has recently turned her attention to remote Aboriginal education in the NT.

And not without some controversy. As reported by the National Indigenous Times in April 2008, Professor Hughes wrote an opinion piece that drew on examples from one small north-east Arnhem Land homeland drawing the following very general analysis from a very meagre dataset:

“There are about 10,000 of these illiterate non-numerate teenagers who have been going to school … What is the government of the NT going to do about these 10,000 children?”

But (then) NT deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour has dismissed her findings and said the claims are “absolutely insulting and offensive”.

“I just find it astounding that she bases a report and a generalisation across the Northern Territory Aboriginal communities based on one small homeland centre that she has visited,” she said. Scrymgour said Hughes had left out “some fundamental pieces of information” and denied the government was providing misleading figures on education standards in the bush.

Nadine Williams, NT president of the Australian Education Union, said Hughes needed to “stop generalising”.

“It would be helpful if Helen Hughes had ever been to some of the places she’s talking about,” she said.

Anyway, it now seems that Hughes and her research assistants are at it again.

In their opinion piece of last Friday, the Hugheses say that, due to the NT Education Department’s training requirements:

Homeland Learning Centres lose eight weeks — almost 25% of the school year — while their staff attend courses for the first and last weeks of each term.

Taking that statement on face value, you would think that in each of the hundreds of small homeland schools across the NT students spend two months of each school year sitting in classrooms without teachers.

It is true that at the top and tail of each term that a bunch of teachers — from homeland and “mainstream” schools — go off for professional development training. But not all teachers go for that training. Some go several times a year, some perhaps once or twice. And relief teachers are provided to fill the gaps.

How do I know this?

I asked a couple of the teachers here at Yirrkala.

The second line of attack that the Hugheses make — on remote community festivals — suffers the same problem of a few facts cruelling an appalling story of apparent bureaucratic waste and neglect of the best interest of remote students.

The Hugheses say that:

The limited school year is further eroded by cultural festivals and sports events regularly scheduled during school hours. The Commonwealth government is a serious offender with its Community Festivals for Education Engagement program. Under this program, 13 indigenous festivals are being held this year … all are held during term time rather than during school holidays … As in previous years, the successful Garma Festival ran this year during the school term in August. Many children lost up to two weeks’ schooling.

Being in Yirrkala, just down the road from the Garma festival site at Gulkula, I was curious about the reference to the “many children” that apparently lost up to a fortnight of valuable schooling because of their attendance at Garma.

I did what any sensible author would do — went to the source.

Alan James is the CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which runs the Garma Festival. He told me that in relation to the claims by the Hugheses that kids lost a swag of their school year because they went to Garma was news to him:

I’ve got no idea where they got those figures from — and they don’t say either. Garma formally starts at 4pm on Friday afternoon. The forums all finish by 4pm Monday afternoon — resulting in one school day “lost” — at the most. And Garma is not a part of the federal government’s “Community Festivals for Education Engagement” program.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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