A remote NT community where Aboriginal children still aren’t going to school highlights the failure to "close the gap”. By Clare Martin.

Minding the Indigenous education gap

St Francis Xavier school’s inclusion support teacher Catherine Taylor (centre) and assistant teacher Loretta Marranya (right) with year 1 and 2 children from Nauiyu.
St Francis Xavier school’s inclusion support teacher Catherine Taylor (centre) and assistant teacher Loretta Marranya (right) with year 1 and 2 children from Nauiyu.
Credit: Cynthia Page

The small community of Nauiyu sits on the banks of the mighty Daly River, 230 kilometres south-west of Darwin. Its history is as a Catholic mission and its traditional owners are the Malak-Malak people. There are two schools – one Catholic, one government – and a population of about 500 people.

Over many years, Nauiyu earned a well-deserved reputation as an Indigenous showpiece. Its leadership was strong, the community well maintained, houses regularly refurbished. Adults were in employment and children mostly at school. Visitors were welcome for fishing and festivals. Nauiyu was a community with much pride.

Based on that strong reputation, I imagine that if any community is on track to meet national Closing the Gap targets in education, it will be one of the two schools in Nauiyu, especially since neither has been pinpointed by the federal government’s Remote School Attendance Strategy that started last year.

I choose St Francis Xavier School and go to the My School website. The most up-to-date figures are from 2013 and they are a shock. Not only was attendance at 65 per cent but the literacy and numeracy results were so poor that they were below the reporting threshold. Against national NAPLAN benchmarks, the 60 students enrolled at St Francis Xavier are failing badly.

I decide to drive out to the Daly to find out what is happening. My first visit is to Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, Indigenous educator, artist, community leader and principal of St Francis Xavier School for 13 years up until 2007. Keeping her community strong and educating Indigenous children has been her life’s passion, one for which she’s been awarded an Order of Australia.

From the start of our conversation, Miriam-Rose makes it very clear that we cannot talk about school attendance in isolation. School and community are inextricably linked at Nauiyu. If the community isn’t functioning well, that is reflected in the school and its performance.

Speaking with much sadness, and publicly for the first time, she tells me: “This community is slowly, sadly becoming dysfunctional. There’s nothing here. Everything has been taken off us and given to outside people.”

The decline started seven years ago with two events: the Howard/Rudd/Gillard governments’ intervention and the Northern Territory government’s major changes to local government. At that time, the stated intention of both governments was to make communities stronger, safer and better functioning – through more jobs, more enterprises, new houses and less welfare dependency.

Yet for Nauiyu over the past seven years, the very opposite has occurred. Local jobs have all but disappeared, especially in housing maintenance. No new houses have been built. The community’s enterprises – the store, the fuel outlet and job services – are being run by outsiders. Welfare dependency has grown. The local council no longer exists and, six months ago, the Nauiyu Nambiyu Aboriginal Corporation was placed in administration.

Miriam-Rose’s bitter disappointment in both governments is palpable.

Back in 2007, the federal government had her strong support for its intervention in the Territory’s Aboriginal communities and she was enthusiastic about joining retired magistrate Sue Gordon’s oversight committee of the many tough measures it was implementing.

“Thought it would really change things,” she says now. “But it didn’t go the way I thought it would. Nothing has really come out of it and when it finally ended, the majority of things that happened was just people flying in and out, cars driving in and out. The community couldn’t remember when we’d seen so many cars or planes landing.”

When I ask, Miriam-Rose can’t find one good outcome from all the intervention measures and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent.

But her criticism is equally for the Territory government and its changes to local government: implementing large shires instead of individual community councils.

“A lot of things didn’t go very well for us in the past, but we would make decisions about how to fix those things,” says Miriam-Rose. “We’re not given that opportunity anymore. Someone else is making the decisions for us. It’s from top down.”

At this stage I don’t know whether to tell this senior Nauiyu woman that it was the government I led in 2007 that was responsible for removing some of her local decision-making. I do and it causes an awkward silence between us. Despite my best intentions seven years before, the changes introduced ended up damaging this small community.

After a pause, I move our conversation to education and schooling, but Miriam-Rose has made her point well. How can a school be expected to flourish when all around it the community is slowly failing? How can parents feel enthusiastic about regular attendance at school for their children when the local jobs have gone?

The decline in St Francis Xavier School – in school attendances and in literacy and numeracy results – clearly matches the decline taking place in the community, but 2014 was a particularly low point. Last year there were tensions and turnover in the teaching staff, a struggling leadership and a breakdown of the all-important connection between the school and the families of Nauiyu.

This year is a vital turnaround time for this small remote school. Its students simply can’t continue to fail in basic literacy and numeracy. There’s no question, given the demoralisation of this once dynamic community, that it’s a significant challenge, but St Francis Xavier’s new principal says she is ready to take it on.

Lee Ann Hally is a very experienced teacher, but has never before been a principal. She was headhunted by Miriam-Rose; the pair go back 30 years to when they worked together as young teachers in Darwin. It’s been a strong friendship ever since and has given Lee Ann an affectionate and enduring connection to the Nauiyu community.

This new principal is very conscious of how difficult her task is – getting kids to school, succeeding in NAPLAN tests, establishing a stable and confident teaching staff and winning the community’s trust.

Lee Ann is confident that despite recent poor attendance figures she can change that.

And the 90 per cent attendance target set by Closing the Gap?

“Yes, I can get 90 per cent and I think that’s my relationship with the community,” she tells me. “Already now there are so many more parents saying they’ll send their kids to school this year because we have new staff that are different and they will engage with the kids. I made a really big effort to get experienced staff, many of whom know the community already.”

And add to those staff four impressive Indigenous trainee teachers.

Although full of ideas and energy about St Francis Xavier School, Lee Ann Hally is not unrealistic about her challenge. She’s all too aware that tackling poor literacy and numeracy will take time.

“It’s slowly, slowly,” she says. “I’ve learnt that if you do things at Daly River you’ve got to appreciate every small, little positive thing that happens. Has to be small steps. That’s the plan.”

But also a crucial part of that plan is Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann and bringing into the school her educational expertise. While Lee Ann, with Apple’s help, has young students learning on iPads in the classroom, Miriam-Rose is building parent engagement in education through culture.

“It started off at my house. Behind is a park area, and we just sit there and the kids come to us with their teachers and sit and do painting or they dance or watch their elders prepare how to cook a turtle or magpie geese or weave. Do dyes, or we might do a corroboree. The ladies paint up our kids, the men teach them to dance.”

The school year at Nauiyu has started well. Attendance in the first week was 87 per cent. Keeping it at that level will be the challenge for families that know all too well that education no longer leads to work in their community. As Miriam-Rose says, the few jobs that are left have gone to outsiders.

As I drive out of the community along the Daly River Road, I reflect that it was the actions and policies of two governments that took the heart out of this once resilient community. It is time the governments put it back.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Minding the gap".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Clare Martin is a Darwin-based journalist and a former chief minister of the Northern Territory.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.