When schoolteacher April drives past one of the local private schools in Alice Springs, what sticks out are the green, manicured lawns. When she looks out of the window at one of the public secondary schools where she teaches, she sees a brown, weed-choked oval.
“It’s like a metaphor for public education in this town,” says April, who has asked that her real name not be published. “It’s parched, it’s neglected.”
In the decade since the Gonski review into the funding of Australia’s education system, state government funding to public schools in the Northern Territory – where 39% of the student population is Indigenous – has fallen by 7.75% in real terms. In Western Australia, it has fallen by 5.6%.
“It doesn’t reflect the area of need,” says Tracy Woodroffe, a Warumungu Luritja woman and an education expert at Charles Darwin University.
“If we’re having standardised assessment, which is what Naplan is, that reports students in more remote areas are performing less [well] than students in urban areas … where is the accountability in catering, then, for students who have the most need?”
“Education is a right, so surely students are entitled to the best education that we can provide for them, and not just because they have enough money to pay for it.”
April is at pains to stress that the town’s public schools offer benefits that cannot be measured by funding levels or Naplan results.
“Our kids have the experience of attending a multicultural school, and mixing and learning with lots of different people,” she says. “For those that do go on to university, they do very well because they’re able to self-manage and function in flexible and diverse environments.”
Teachers in the public system go above and beyond to enable students to reach their potential with the available resources, she says. But that effort cannot entirely compensate for the basic inequity of the system.
Schools divided along race lines
In their book Waiting for Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor point to Alice Springs as a glaring example of how funding divides schools by class and race, at the expense of Indigenous students in particular.
At the public middle school in Alice Springs, 62% of the 347 enrolled students are Indigenous and 53% speak a language other than English at home. Only 5% of students are in the top quarter of socio-education advantage, and 58% are in the bottom quarter. Socio-education advantage categorises the educational advantage a student brings to their studies based on socioeconomic status and parents’ education.
At one of the town’s private schools, which performed well above the public middle school on 2022 Naplan scores for students in year 7 and 8, the demographics are quite different.
At the private school, 80% of the 547 students are non-Indigenous and 16% speak a language other English at home. Almost a third of students are in the top quarter of socio-education advantage, and 15% are in the bottom.
The public school receives $31,834 for every student in government funding, compared with $26,848 at the private school, which also gets $9,382 for every student from parent contributions and fees.
But Greenwell says a core recommendation of the Gonski report was to provide additional funding for each Indigenous student, and for schools in regional and remote locations to try to prevent students with a low socio-educational advantage being concentrated in the public education system.
“Are we doing that? No, we’re not,” he says.
Nor has the government put in place policies to make private schools more accessible to people who cannot afford fees, he says – 83% of Indigenous student enrolments are in public schools, compared with 65% of non-Indigenous enrolments, according to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (Acara).
A system that ‘reinforces inequality’
The division in Alice Springs is a microcosm of the country. In 158 of the 200 most educationally disadvantaged schools in Australia, the student population is more than 50% Indigenous; in more than half of those 200 schools, the figure is above 90%.
Australia’s schools are the second most segregated along socioeconomic lines in the OECD, with 51% of students who experience socioeconomic disadvantage attending schools with students from a similar background.
According to OECD analysis, students experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage who attend schools with advantaged students on average perform the equivalent of three extra years of schooling in science tests.
Over the past 20 years, April says, the schools in Alice Springs have increasingly self-segregated as private schools have expanded their facilities and reputation.
“They’re able to attract more middle-class families and then it becomes self-perpetuating – other families will choose what looks like stability and opportunity for their kids,” she says.
Another teacher who worked at an Alice Springs public school until last year, speaking on the condition of anonymity, calls it an “apartheid-style” system.
“It’s a system for the haves and a system for the have-nots,” he says. “And that’s only going to reinforce inequality.”
‘Engagement isn’t just attendance’
Woodroffe says the funding inequity is exacerbated because Indigenous students are stuck in a system that doesn’t meaningfully engage with them.
Teaching and assessment is in standard English, the third or fourth language for many students, and only 2% of teachers are from a First Nations background.
“Over time, children within a school get a reputation – it’s ‘oh, they don’t come to school, they’re not good learners, they can’t speak good English’”, she says.
Woodroffe says efforts to engage students are often misguided plans instigated by non-Indigenous people.
She recalls one instance where children in remote areas were collected from their homes and brought to school to try to improve attendance rates.
“It’s the wrong point of view because engagement isn’t just attendance. It’s social, it’s emotional, and it’s intellectual engagement, as well as physically being there,” she says.
The president of the Northern Territory’s education union, Michelle Ayres, says the problems of disadvantaged schools are made worse because the Territory government, which was contacted for comment, funds its public schools based on attendance rates, rather than on enrolments.
“This completely ignores the fact that it takes more money to engage kids who aren’t attending, not less,” she says. “So in every sense of the word it is an inequitable funding model, because it takes money away from those who need it the most.”
Some are taking it upon themselves to fix the “huge gap” in culturally relevant and accessible education for first peoples.
Cara Peek remembers entering the classroom in Broome as an eight-year-old. Until then, she had been at a public school in Melbourne – not the fanciest place by any means, but still a world away from remote WA.
“I was a year or two ahead of classes,” she says. “I was blown away. As a child, I was cognisant of the quality of education my cousins weren’t getting in comparison to me.”
Frustration at the system prompted the Yawuru Bunuba woman to co-found Saltwater Country, an Indigenous-led program that aims to improve outcomes for students across remote parts of WA through workshops led by Indigenous educators.
But her efforts are also being stymied by funding shortfalls. Saltwater Country loses a bid for a government grant the day she speaks to Guardian Australia.
“I am so sick of hearing people talking about the Indigenous problem in education,” she says. “Put your money where your mouth is. Check cultural bias and think about why you aren’t funding us – we need substantive funding to Indigenous-owned and controlled organisations delivering for Indigenous people.”
For Peek, the stakes are high – and personal.
“I come from a community with the highest child suicide rate in the world,” she says.
“This is literally life or death. We want kids to think about what their dreams are, not what has to be done to put food on the table.”
This is part three of a series exploring how successive governments have failed to make Australia’s education funding fairer. Next: what can be done to redress the balance?
This article was amended on 19 July 2023 to correct the spelling of the author Tom Greenwell’s name.
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