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Kirsten Storry's paper on the problems with Aboriginal education received a write-up was discussed by her in an opinion-piece in the Australian 31 August 2006. She is described as a 'policy analyst' for the Centre for Independent Studies. For her, problems with "literacy levels" equals problems with literacy in English - Indigenous languages are not on her radar. Hence the complexity of teaching second language students to read and write in a second language does not feature in her account. Remember when outsourcing was supposed to save government departments heaps of money, and also to improve efficiency of IT systems? Well, that's Storry's solution to Aboriginal education..

Storry does one good thing - she points out that we need more reporting on what the figures on literacy levels in Aboriginal communities are, and on what does and doesn't work in improving Aboriginal literacy levels in English. However, there are some alarming gaps in her report. She asserts that the Government schools have failed, but does not give the impression of having talked about this failure with teachers and educationists in the state school systems - many of whom have very interesting ideas about what needs to be done.

Instead, a large part of her solution assumes that, magically, private sector schools will be willing to take up the role of state schools, and will somehow succeed where the state schools have failed. How would the children be funded to attend these schools? Again, magically, charities and companies are supposed to sponsor kids. (There's no comment on where the profits would come from to allow the private sector to run these schools, or on the moral issue of why the Government should be let off the hook of funding education in remote areas). Nor does she comment on the loss of the resources and knowledge that have been built up in a big education system such as the NT Education Department. She talks approvingly about volunteers and private sponsorship for creating books. But what about the excellent books that have been created in publicly funded Literature Production Centres in the NT?

Her solution of private sector involvement isn't in itself innovative - Catholic Education has been involved for generations in providing education for Aborigines. The NT state secondary school Yirara College was handed over to the Lutherans in 1993. Alice Springs has Yeperenye school, which is independent and closer to the charter schools she advocates. There's been plenty of time to see if they are in fact doing significantly better than the state schools. Storry is silent about this. She gives no evidence as to why we might expect such private schools to succeed better than the present remote schools. And there's no discussion of the experiment that has been tried in the NT state schools of giving school principals more autonomy, power and higher wages, which seems in line with what she proposes, but which, anecdotally, has led in some cases to a destructive turnover of programs, uncertainty in curriculum, and the loss of effective use of Indigenous languages in school, as each new Principal tries to differentiate him/herself from his/her predecessors.

So, despite the air-time given to Storry's report, there doesn't seem to be much actual research involved - just a trawl through reports, newspapers and websites. She's right that we need innovative approaches to teaching Indigenous kids to read and write. But we need evidence that the innovations are likely to work, before wasting yet another generation on yet another failed education attempt. Changes in policy need to be based on solid understanding of why students aren't learning to read and write, not on the belief that privatisation is always better.


Hear, hear!

Hi Jane,

Thank you for your comments. I read them with interest and it was good to hear a very different perspective. This is clearly something you have given some thought to and feel passionate about. I hope my comments shed further light on my paper.

For the record, I am a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies - that's my job title. I run the Indigenous Affairs Research Program. The piece in the Australian was actually an opinion piece that I wrote, not a write up by the newspaper. (There were write-ups in the Age, AFR, Canberra Times, among others, but not the Australian.)

Before I go on, I noticed that you did not discuss the points in my paper about the need to target community literacy more generally, or the possibility of expanding the School of the Air. I'd be keen to hear your comments.

Yes, I did consider whether to discuss indigenous languages and decided against it. As I have said elsewhere, if children in remote communities are going to kick the cycle of low educational achievement, poverty, poor health, and unemployment, English literacy is the way that they will do it. Children need choices but, without English, they do not have the choice of mainstream employment.

I do not discuss funding in a lot of detail in the paper but have commented on it in the media. Governments already provide some of the funding for private schools - I do not see any reason why the funding given to government schools in remote communities could not be reallocated to private schools if they take over the management of these schools. There are private sector organisations (to which I have spoken) which are interested in funding indigenous education. In fact, some private schools in Sydney are already drawing on private funding for boarding scholarships for indigenous children to attend them.

You mentioned the "moral issue why the Government should be let off the hook of funding education in remote areas". I am concerned about outcomes and, if governments are not providing education that enables children to read and write, then I am interested in seeing those outcomes. I don't see private sector involvement as letting the government off the hook. I see a difference between government funding and provision of education, and I don't think government provision is working in remote communities. I don't argue that they should not fund education.

I was not aware of the Literature Production Centres. If you could direct me to information about them or someone to speak to, that would be great.

My paper was not intended to be a fieldwork research report. The intention was to look at what we already know about literacy levels. I did speak to people in the field but they were generally not keen for me to use their name.

You may have noticed that I discussed the South Australian initiative called Partnerships 21. This is fairly equivalent to the examples which you gave in the Northern Territory. There was only so much I could discuss in the paper. I would be interested about finding out more about the Northern Territory initiatives, and will follow it up. If you could direct me to the best people to talk to, I'd really appreciate it.

I don't believe that privatisation is always better (private schools and privatisation are not the same thing in any case). But I entirely agree with you that we can't afford to waste another generation.

I will be continuing to write on education as part of my research program and have in mind to write a paper on what is working in indigenous education. If you know of examples of bilingual education getting great results, or any other examples of great educational initiatives in the Northern Territory, I would gladly speak to the people involved and write about them. Also, if I missed commenting on anything you wrote and you feel I should address it, please feel free to email me.

Kind regards

Comments on comments:

-- Apologies for misusing the term 'write-up'.

--Yes I agree that community literacy in English does need to be targeted. There have been initiatives - in the NT Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and TAFE have run programs over the years, and so have linguists associated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. In the 1980s around Tennant Creek I saw middle-aged people struggle very hard to try to read and write English - travelling a couple of hours each week in order to attend literacy classes. But the triple whammy of the time-consuming demands of survival in poor living conditions, not having a mastery of spoken English, and not having grown up in households of readers and writers, meant that they didn't succeed. However, research underway by Inge Kral and Samantha Disbray shows that nowadays there is much more use of reading and writing in remote Indigenous communities in the NT than I imagined.

-- There also have been attempts to expand School of the Air - the handsome equipment and resources provided by the Government to isolated children are an obvious attraction, and it may be a solution for some specialised subjects. However, School of the Air relies heavily on a very small staff-student ratio and on there being fairly well-educated parents who work with 2 or 3 children in a well-equipped room. It's not clear how the model would work in communities with crappy overcrowded housing and semi-literate parents, or whether it would work well with a higher staff-student ratio.

-- On English literacy. In areas where children do not speak standard English as their first language, the first hurdle is teaching them standard English. It is much harder to gain the concept of reading and writing if you have to learn these through a foreign language first. That's why I emphasise the importance of solutions that recognise that the children's first language is not standard English.

-- On bilingual education. Any model of education can be stuffed up by the teachers and the resources, and there are plenty of examples of failed bilingual programs - as there are of failed monolingual programs. Bilingual education is resource intensive, and requires both well-trained ESL teachers and well-trained Indigenous teachers, and massive development of curriculum materials in local languages (for example, helping Indigenous teachers think about arithmetical concepts in Indigenous languages). But the spin-off is that the effort spent training Indigenous teachers results in higher community literacy, more role-models for children, and a much more stable teaching staff. For references, see Robert Hoogenraad, 2001. "Critical reflections on the history of bilingual education in Central Australia" In J. Simpson, D. Nash, M. Laughren, P. Austin and B. Alpher (eds.) Forty years on, (pp. 123-150). Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

-- Private sector organisations are involved in Indigenous education already - not only Yeperenye and the Catholic Education system I mentioned, but also the Aboriginal Independent Community schools . An obvious problem is whether the private systems can build up the resources and long-term memory of what works and doesn't, that exists in the state sector. But above all what we lack is good comparative evidence on the success of the different models - how do the results compare between private schools and public schools? And of course what's important here is looking not just at the average, but at the extremes, and especially at the best examples. (An interesting alternative model is one that some Warlpiri people from Ali Curung adopted - sending their children to board with people they know in Adelaide and attend local state schools).

-- On private sector involvement. Carmel O'Shannessy just alerted me to an excellent partnership - the Warlpiri Education and Training Trust. This was set up:

"for traditional landowners to direct a portion of their negotiated payments from the mine – to be used to improve educational outcomes in Warlpiri communities with respect to education and training. The WETT Advisory Committee brings together the CLC, Newmont, the Northern Territory and Commonwealth education and training departments, and community members. This committee serves as a collaborative forum with the potential to coordinate education across the region. With significant funds to back up agreed initiatives, we hope over time to improve educational outcomes and build the capacity for communities to manage their own affairs."

Good on Newmont. Lucky for the Warlpiri that they have royalties to do this with, and lucky for them that the Central Land Council had the resources to set up the trust for them. Most communities don't have royalties, and in future there won't be big enough Land Councils to have the resources to make such agreements - thanks to the passing of the Aboriginal Lands Rights (NT) Amendment Bill (2006).

Thanks Jane. I'll have a look at it all.

I thought the article and paper by Kirsten Storry were quite reasonable. But ……

I do think that, like most, she fails to address the issue of local grassroots involvement in the delivery of education. Where ever that happens, and depending on the level and support of local paraprofessionals, the results are very good. Utopia Schools is an excellent example, Willowra another both in (both in NT Central Australia).

The issue on assessing the effectiveness of any initiative are more difficult than she seems to realise though: while the effectiveness of a good program/good teaching are quickly realised in very early childhood, they take years to trickle through to senior years: good teaching to a barely literate 10year old does not translate into better literacy in a great hurry!!
ie, addressing the foundations is the real issue, starting (as Storry suggests) in very early childhood and through the community, but it will not translate into results in years 3/5/7/9 magically and instantly.

Her critique of MAP testing is good, specially the need to disaggregate the results, but she seems unaware of the weaknesses: not only that students whose first language is not Standard Australian English are tested with an instrument designed for English speakers, but also that its administration guarantees cheating by some schools/teachers keen to look good.

She also does not really say how you get rid of the poor teachers: they overload bush schools just now; so do poor principals. And she doesn't mention mobility and not really poor attendance either. But then, they are typically seen as the cause of the problems, rather than as symptoms.

A proper study is called for, driven by those at the coal face of Aboriginal bush (and town) education. Hopefully with organisations like CLC, Congress, Tangentyerre.

Oh, and I'm on the WETT Advisory Committee: there is a real tension there, between not funding what the State should fund, but needing to fix the fundamentals - literacy, literacy in any language, first or English. Give us literacy in any language and we can rapidly give you literacy in any other, provided the student speaks it!!

And getting literate communities? It took something like a thousand years plus for literacy in Anglo-Saxon and Latin (King Alfred the Great was exceptional for his times in thatn he could write in both) to be turned in to almost "universal" literacy in English in England. So I reckon Aboriginal communities where a quarter of the population can read and write is doing pretty well: or have I missed something? Were the English just exceptionally slow and stupid?

Not by any means an expert on modern literacy programmes, but I think historical comparisons in this field need to be handled VERY carefully. Literacy was a very different thing in the ancient world, in fact until the advent of printing. And it's only been since the nineteenth century that we've even aspired to mass literacy, anywhere. The relevant comparison, it seems to me, is of illiterate (often racially-distinct) under-classes in societies where there is high literacy among the elite. How does NT literacy compare with Arizona, or Guatemala, Alaska or Araucania? King Alfred was a great man, but his problems were different, to say the least, and then there was the Norman Conquest, and the Black Death, and the Reformation, ... Maybe if you're looking for a magic bullet, you should be looking at Soviet Russia - not usually seen as a model society, especially in dealing with indigenous societies, but they did boost literacy from teens to >90% all over in just 40 years (say to 1959).

Hi Folks- I am the instigator of the SWIRL program mentioned in the "Tackling Literacy.." document. (Except my surname doesn't have a "Mc" at the start!) [ JHS: here's a link to SWIRL 2000]
SWIRL began as a response to -in 1996- a lack of real stories about and by Aboriginal kids in remote communities. It is a holiday program for kids, but a literacy project for our uni students - we have found that children in communities where we have been become fully engaged in the literacy events our students help construct. Our project is for approximately one month each year, and generally double the number of children attend the SWIRL program, in their school holiday times, than attend mainstream school. We also attempt where possible to publish community stories in the local language as well as English. While we fully agree that a deep understanding of the English language is crucial for full participation in Australian society, we also strongle believe that includes traditional language literacy FIRST, and continuing. Erasing the importance of the children's first (and sometimes 2nd, and 3rd!) language denies them an important part of their history, and diminishes their self concept. Many of our books are also constructed in PowerPoint, which allows the addition of the children's voices, and heads them into the technological literacy area, which is also a new "literacy", opening up many future paths. Our uni students go to remote communities to learn. In so doing, they show great respect for local children, their cultures, and customs, and are then legitimately able to share their own.
I also think that teachers in remote schools are a bit hard done by in the article. Work in those communities is difficult, isolating and thankless. The average stay for most teachers around the Alice Springs region is reported to be 7 months or less (nurses stay three months or less!).
I do not believe the figures are valid for the remote children's test results. The OECD report (2003 from memory - available on the web)showed that remote Aboriginal children were basically the developed-world's worst at literacy - but the report failed to mention they were the only group tested in a foreign language! How would the French kids have gone if tested in Swahili, or the American kids if tested in Motu? Probably worse than the Warlpiri speakers tested in English! The teachers of remote Aboriginal kids are generally phenomenal!
The NT DEET is also trying new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and the Federal government is also very supportive. Surely lots to still do - and many people doing some great stuff! One major unexpected outcome of the SWIRL program is that 35 past participants have returned to the NT to teach when they graduated - 16 are still there. The average stay for ex-SWIRLers is 3 times that of other recruits - 2 years or more!

I'm much taken by the Soviet comparison - although I do remember hearing in the 1970s that Chukchi speakers found the available literature in Chukchi (newspaper reports of worthy events) quite uninspiring.....

Lawry Mahon's stories don't sound at all like 'girl meets tractor' - maybe more 'we went hunting'? Do they include romances - the kind that Cliff Goddard found Pitjantjatjara kids writing in the 1980s? - as in his great paper: Goddard, C. 1994. The Pitjantjatjara story-writing contest, 1988. In J. Henderson and D. Hartman (eds.) Aboriginal languages in education, (pp. 316-323). Alice Springs: IAD Press.

Heaps of lively and engaging stories were produced in the past by the Literature Production Centres funded through the NT Education Department Bilingual program - you can see a list for Warlpiri at David Nash's Warlpiri Vernacular Literature page. Some are available at AIATSIS Library, and some from the ASEDA electronic archive at AIATSIS.

On another of Storry's topics - there is also a DEST project clearinghouse, apparently under reconstruction. But a general clearing-house is a good idea.

BTW I got to the DEST site from trying to track down a broken link to:
Jean Clayton (1999). Desert schools: An investigation of English language and literacy among young aboriginal people in seven communities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 101-112. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/clayton.html

And then there's the Collins Report. So many ideas..

Nicholas Ostler, you misunderstand my point: I'm not saying that the development of literacy in England/Europe is comparable to the development of literate communities in Aboriginal Central Australia, just that nobody seems to think about how many generations it might take for literacy to develop a local function and become established.

Given that most (all??) of the trained Aboriginal teachers in remote Central Australia (most now in their 50s and 60s) were the first in their family to have any effective literacy, that is a real and relevant question I think.

Well, Robert, you have the advantage of me in terms of actual experience with Aboriginal literacy classes and the people who teach them, and I defer to you on that. I agree that literacy can take many generations to get established in a new society. I just wonder if post-colonial Aboriginal communities of NT are 'new societies' in the relevant sense (as Anglo-Saxon England certainly was), rather than loci for assimilation/ re-education imposed by the Australian Govt - as they certainly would have been conceived until recently.

Hi Nicholas. Are Aboriginal communities in northern/remote Australia new societies? Well, that depends on how you define a society, but they are certainly not old communities, and there is a tendency here recently to refer to them as "settlements" for that reason. The "community" is much broader than the settlement, and in fact people frequently move between settlements, typically within the same or adjacent language 'regions". But the idea of allegiance to a settlement or community is an emerging idea (with football being one of the strongest drivers!). Allegiance is much stronger to the interlocking families one belongs to. In fact, the recent feuding in many settlements is between extended families, who in the past would have solved the problem by breaking away or moving away from the small group that foraged together (see Fred Myers Pintupi Country Pintupi Self).

As for Anglo-Saxon England being a new society, that makes a huge (and I believe unjustified) assumption of Anglo-Saxons swarming across England displacing the Celts, but the genetic evidence militates against this view (except for a few "bridgeheads" on the east coast). There were certainly rapid social changes, but I think not nearly as rapid and severe as those in Aboriginal Australia. And the two cultures and socio-economic organisation were also much closer to each other.

And there were the massacres, dispossesions, rationing drawing people off their country, becoming "wards of the State", ……

And there is no magic bullet, in my view. Just some educators peddling their own branded variety of good practice and getting paid handsomely by Education systems that want to believe in silver bullets.

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