From the forensic team on the Chamberlain case, to the UFO-spotting and croc-wrestling of the NT News, the Territory has a solid reputation for frontier fringery.

The allergy to evidence comes from the top down. Just yesterday, a story in The Australian pointed out that the plummeting attendance rates in some Northern Territory schools is linked to the virtual abolition of bilingual education. Predictable as this may seem, it took a statistical study (pdf) by our very own Greg Dickson to point it out.

Greg’s research in Batchelor Press’s Ngoonjook drew attention to the fact that enrolments dropped off in the Warlpiri language schools after the introduction of the ‘First Four Hours’ policy in 2008. What this policy means in practice is that classes are run in English for the first four hours of the day, leaving one hour for traditional languages in the afternoon – by which time students have either gone home or are too tired to concentrate. A key justification for the policy, put forward by the former education minister Marion Scrymgour, was that attendance at bilingual schools was lower than non-bilingual schools. But Brian Devlin of Charles Darwin University has argued vigorously that the figures Scrymgour used were dodgy to begin with, claiming that the statistics tabled in parliament excluded the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu school, and that the NAPLAN testing data was presented incorrectly.

Putting aside Devlin’s implication of parliamentary dishonesty, just how far did attendance drop in the Warlpiri schools that Dickson assessed? Here are the figures for Lajamanu, a school featured on an ABC Four Corners report in September last year:

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(For all figures, and the analysis, read the whole thing.)

As a face-saving gesture, both the Territory and Federal governments are launching all manner of madcap schemes to lure the kids back to school.  A crack team of ninjas from the NT Department of Education and Training will leave a trail of free sms messages and music downloads leading directly to the classroom door, while recalcitrant parents are held off with on-the-spot-fines and the suspension of welfare payments. The ingenious ‘smoke-them-out’ strategy includes a proposal to extend the school term by 10 weeks, on the logic that more school equals more opportunities to attend. In fact, just about everything is on the table, except bilingual education.

With nowhere to hide, the issue is exposing rifts in the Labor Party. Federal NT Senator Trish Crossin is known to be an open advocate of bilingual schooling. Will the policy will be a hot topic of debate at the NT Labor Party AGM on 20 November? And does this signal the beginning of the end for magic realist education policy in the NT? We at Fully (sic) will not be mourning its demise.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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