This week the Federal Government's program to get Indigenous kids to school began in Gunbalanya. This town has a modified school term to better accommodate seasonal movements of residents and school goes back in the first week of January.
Truancy officers are being despatched to communities with the worst school attendance rates and they will work with attendance officers employed from the local community. In Gunbalanya 16 local residents have been employed to assist in getting every child in the community to school every day.
The program had a great start with 91% attendance which was estimated as all children in community at the time. The school has had a lot of new enrollments.
Mentors are engaged to help with kids who refuse to go to school. A mentor works with the student one on one and spends the day with them.
We will know how successful the initiative is as we see the weekly attendance data through the school year. These sorts of initiatives require ongoing commitment and vigilance. What we want to see is school attendance becoming a habit and part of the normal routine of the community - like it is in most other communities in Australia.
But it appears that not everyone is looking at this as a positive development. Peter Clisby, Northern Territory Secretary of the Australian Education Union told ABC radio that the attempts to get kids to school in Gunbalanya don't address the "major issue". He said:
"And the major issue is the relevance of our school system, our education system to traditional Indigenous people and also the commitment by traditional communities to acquiring that education."
Make no mistake - what Peter Clisby is saying is that traditional Indigenous people and the modern mainstream education system are not suited to each other and that traditional Indigenous communities aren't interested in their children being educated in school.
I am disappointed that a person in such a senior Union and education position would make such a bigoted and ignorant comment.
The universal public education of children is one of the greatest social developments in history. All over the world - in every continent and in both modern and traditional cultures - kids go to school.The UN and international aid agencies have schooling as a major priority for developing nations.
Are we to believe that Indigenous people are the only group of humans on the planet who aren't able to be educated and attend school like everyone else? That there is something inherently different about Indigenous people that afflicts no other group of people in the world that makes Indigenous schooling and education a futile exercise?
Peter Clisby should go take a look at the school in Yilpara - a community of about 150 people in East Arnhem Land. Yilpara is in the Yolgnu homelands and a home to the Madarrpa clan. There aren't many Indigenous communities in Australia more traditional than Yilpara.
Madarrpa clan elder Djambawa Marawili AM, who sits on the Indigenous Advisory Council, spent years agitating for a proper school in Yilpara. Previously the community had a "Homeland Learning Centre" which was not staffed by qualified teachers and where the students didn't learn to read or write or basic numeracy.
A proper school in Yilpara has now been in operation for over 4 years with 2 full time teachers who live in Yilpara. It's a normal school teaching a mainstream curriculum, as well as incorporating cultural and community elements. It has 100% attendance and the full support of the community. The children know that going to school is what is expected of them by their parents and elders.
The determination to get every Indigenous child to school every day has the full support of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council who held a lengthy discussion on school attendance with Senator Scullion and the Prime Minister at its first meeting in December and has assisted in the design of the program now being rolled out.
No member of the Council, which is made up of mostly Indigenous people - many of whom come from or have spent considerable time in remote communities - has any concern about the suitability of traditional Indigenous people for normal schooling.
The poor school attendance rates of Indigenous kids is a national disgrace. We need to act to address it and take radical action.
The Australian Education Union should spend less time acting as an opposition spokesman and naysayer and devote more time and energy to supporting Indigenous education and ensuring that all Indigenous children go to school every day.