Samantha Maiden - December 29, 2008
JULIA Gillard has pledged to pump $2.3 billion into improving indigenous education, confessing she was "hit in the guts" by theextent of illiteracy among remote students.
Promising to slash red tape and allow educators more flexibility to pursue policies that work instead of endless pilot programs "that never end up making a system-wide change", the Acting Prime Minister said yesterday she was determined to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students.
Ms Gillard said addressing disadvantage was a higher priority for the Rudd Government than an indigenous bill of rights, as proposed by Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson.
"There is a big gap in life expectancy, in educational attainment, between indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians," she said.
"That is our focus, not a bill of rights, but practical action to close the gap."
New accountability measures will force educators to reveal the true extent of literacy and numeracy failure in remote communities and she stressed English must be the dominant teaching medium, not indigenous languages.
The Coalition challenged Ms Gillard, who is also the Education Minister, to ensure the states enforced the existing law on truancy, imposing fines in remote areas where up to 40 per cent of students did not regularly attend school.
The National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy tests held this year showed on average one in three indigenous eight-year-olds failed to meet minimum standards in reading.
But almost 80 per cent of Year 3 indigenous students in metropolitan areas met the standard, dropping to just 30 per cent of students in remote areas.
In an interview with The Australian yesterday, Ms Gillard said the Government's total education spending under Council of Australian Governments reforms, the recent schools assistance legislation and other indigenous measures would top $2.3 billion over the next four years.
"When I saw state breakdowns and the figures for the Northern Territory, I was shocked," the Education Minister said.
"I suppose you know in your head it is bad but, when you see figures like that, it really is something that hits you in the guts and we've got to make a difference to it."
Ms Gillard said policy-makers in the past had not only failed to empower educators to get on with the job but also to hold them accountable.
"For the first time we are not going to micromanage programs from Canberra; that's been done in the past and often it has ... ended up in small scale pilots which never grew into major national changes," she said.
"We are allowing both non-government and government schools to use the money more flexibly but in an accountability target that means they have to give us the data about how indigenous students are going.
"They have to break that data down showing results for indigenous students. They will be held accountable for the results and we will get the data to measure progress."
In the wake of controversy in the Top End over Northern Territory Education Minister Marion Scrymgour's backdown over ensuring the bulk of classes are in in English rather than traditional languages, Ms Gillard also backed further reforms.
"Every child has to come out of schooling able to read and write English," Ms Gillard said. "It's the language of work, it's the language of higher learning in this country.
"Indigenous kids are only going to be able to get a fair access to education, to the world of work and the best this nation has to offer if they learn English at school."
Opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Tony Abbott said the basic problem was that even the official figures in remote Northern Territory schools suggested only 60 per cent regularly attended.
"The problem is the states don't apply the truancy rules," Mr Abbott said yesterday.
"Since 2000, I don't think there's been a single truancy prosecution. I am far from convinced that taking welfare payments of parents is a good idea. I think they should be fined in the normal way. They should be continuously fined until they get the message."