This week’s report on school attendance paints another bleak picture for Aboriginal education in remote parts of the Northern Territory.

School attendance, which already sat at a low base, is worsening. That’s on top of unacceptably low rates of students meeting standardised testing benchmarks, which makes the NT the worst-performing Council of Australian Governments member. Yet the NT government is responding in ways that raise serious doubts about whether it is acting to improve the situation.

Earlier this year, when the former federal Labor government was working hard to roll out the Gonski recommendations to the states and territories, no amount of coaxing could get NT Chief Minister Adam Giles and the NT government on board. The NT government declared Gonski would require it to spend money it didn’t have. Not even an extra $75 million could convince the NT, which claimed the Gonski model was unfair because, in rebalancing school funding, the main beneficiaries would be remote schools — i.e. predominantly Aboriginal students. Giles’ press release bleated:

“Canberra is trying to hoodwink us into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools.”

Now the NT government has started to put its cuts to the Education Department on the table, which could exacerbate an already bad situation when it comes to remote Aboriginal students.

At a rally in Darwin last month, Dr M Yunupingu’s widow, Yalmay, a qualified teacher with over 30 years’ experience, presented a bark painting to the NT government, symbolising the importance of education. But the government hasn’t budged and will cut positions; on Monday the ABC reported that 71 positions will be cut and “will include class support roles, such as English-Second-Language teachers and behavioural support staff”. Further reports on the ground are that the department’s linguists have been left off organisational charts, the “English as an Additional Language” unit has been decimated and ESL and indigenous language support positions in north-east Arnhem Land are gone (despite NT Education Minister Peter Chandler claiming that part of the restructuring is about regionalisation).

It should be of grave concern that the NT government thinks that ESL specialists are superfluous and is putting them on the chopping block. Such educational support is absolutely crucial to the NT, which has the nation’s highest proportion of residents who don’t speak English at home. Linguists, ESL teachers and other specialised educational professionals who support non-English-speaking students have been a key part of the NT’s education system since the 1970s when bilingual education was rolled out, allowing, for the first time, Aboriginal kids to read, write and learn in the same language they think in: their mother tongue.

But it’s not nostalgia for the era when bilingual education was strong that makes it worrying that ESL support staff and linguist positions are being cut. There are few local indigenous teachers fronting classrooms, speaking the same way their students do. The vast majority of classroom teachers, despite doing fantastic work to deliver the curriculum they are given, are at an immediate disadvantage by knowing very little of the languages their students bring into the classroom each day.

This is where specialised staff are crucial, and there are already too few of them.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.