Punitive school attendance plan centrepiece of second Intervention

The federal government has moved to extend most major NT Intervention powers for 10 years beyond their July 2012 expiry, with new laws introduced into parliament in November. The Stronger Futures legislation, and associated amendments to the Social Security Act, have been labelled a “second Intervention”.

One of the main new measures is a plan to harden already punitive policies around school attendance. Under the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM), trialled in six NT communities since 2009, welfare payments of parents whose children don’t attend school can be suspended for 13 weeks.

While there has not been a detailed assessment of the SEAM trial, school attendance rates overall have dropped since the Intervention began. The axing of bilingual programs in many schools has contributed to this decline.

Paddy Gibson spoke to Nadine Williams, central Australian organiser with the Australian Education Union, about the new school attendance measures for the radio program The Thin Black Line on 2SER. Part of the interview is below.

Along with the Intervention there’s been some other major changes that have had an impact on education programs in Aboriginal communities like the dismantling of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), the closure of community councils and the cutback to bilingual education. What has happened since 2007 to schools in Aboriginal communities in the NT?
The communities that are listed in the government announcement about tougher Income Management measures—most were strong bilingual schools. They are now struggling to maintain any bilingual programs against a massive barrage of ridiculous curriculum interference and removal of staffing positions.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of the rollout of federal government legislation including the Intervention is the loss of employment for Indigenous people in schools.

We know that 200-300 who were supported on CDEP funding through work of 30 hours a week or less are no longer working. At the same time we’ve had the loss of governance and control through school councils.

These issues have all been compounded with the Intervention and the further humiliation and trying to tell people how to live. This loss of control and loss of a stake in local schools has been extremely distressing for people. By far the majority care deeply about their child’s education.

Can you explain what the reforms are the government is proposing with this “second Intervention”?
The reforms that were announced in the Stronger futures in the Northern Territory package include something called FAST [Families and Schools Together], a training package for parents at schools which have been identified as having very low attendance rates.

They have workshops run for them about parenting skills and how they can be involved in their children’s education. Trying to educate people is laudable but what is being actually asked for by Indigenous parents? Many people I speak to, who are parents of school age children, say we want to have a voice.

School councils [have been removed] in almost all schools. The reason people are not engaging in the schools where their kids go is that they feel they are outsiders since the end of where every aboriginal parent, elder and grandparent actually had decision making power.

The problem with the whole roll out is it’s patronising, suggesting parents have no idea how to look after their children.

From next year if a child misses ten or more days in a school term, after a compliance notice has been sent to the parents who receive welfare benefits, their payments will be suspended. They plan to send Centrelink staff to people’s homes if they’re breached to make sure their children go to school.

The original Intervention legislation said if 90 per cent attendance wasn’t achieved it would result in suspension of payments. There are also fines that can be served on parents for their children’s non-attendance of up to $2000. If they do not pay that fine they would go to jail for non-payment.

There is one very big hitch to this: schools are responsible for sending all of the enrolment and attendance data to Centrelink.

Already there are people who have had their payments suspended and have attacked, either verbally or physically, education department principals. I am very concerned that if efforts are made to put these compliance statements in place, [there will be] an increase in aggression and anger towards the school staff including the principals of small schools in remote places. That is not going to help anyone get to school.

Aboriginal people are very aware of the judgements being made about them [all as a group], that they don’t send their children to school. Education and respect has got to be both ways. But they see absolutely no respect for their own system of education that has lasted many more thousands of years than our system.


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