Walgett Community High and Moree East Public are the schools that bureaucracies forgot, in physically deplorable condition and battling the pathogen of low expectations from all quarters.
By NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli’s own admission, the schools have been failed from the top by hulking institutions run from Sydney that swept them out of sight, confining them to standards that would be deemed unacceptable in any Australian city.
“I think it is fair to say we have treated Aboriginal people like rubbish,” Mr Piccoli told state parliament last week.
He took that extraordinarily frank statement further this week in an interview with The Australian, describing the “disgusting” condition of several NSW schools with large numbers of indigenous students in remote towns such as Walgett, Moree, Wilcannia and Brewarrina.
“They’re a long way away, out of sight and out of mind, and as such I think historically we have applied a different standard to them,” Mr Piccoli said.
“We are happy to let standards slip when Aboriginal communities and people are involved, where we wouldn’t otherwise let those standards slip.”
That neglect filters through to students such as Luveina Murphy and Deborah Dodd at Walgett High, who find the lack of attention palpable.
Neither knows what they want to do when they leave school, except that both intend to finish Year 12, despite the statistics.
“But I know that that is really hard to do,” said Luveina, who is in Year 9.
“Some of my friends just stopped going to school. They don’t care and nobody outside of Walgett cares about the school. Like, maybe they know something we don’t.”
If there were ever any doubt decisions from within the system were disproportionately affecting Aboriginal students, the community of Moree in the NSW northwest sets the record straight.
It is a town divided: by a river and by resources.
At Moree Public School in the town’s west, one-third of students are indigenous and its manicured hedges and up-to-date infrastructure are a world away from Moree East Public, just a kilometre down the road and with an almost entirely indigenous student body.
There, students Tyrese Fernando, 8, and Zachary Baker-Barlow, 7, are too young and brimming with optimism to fully understand that their school has been pulled into a downward slide behind the apparently favoured Moree Public.
Paula Duncan, who helps care for her grandson Tyrese, said there was no doubt inequity was writ large in the school.
“There are some real tough little kids who come from some tough families at this place,” she said.
“It’s a good school trying to do good things but it can only push so far if there’s no help coming.”
Both Walgett, a town of 2300, and the larger centre of Moree are communities buffeted by broader cultural forces such as alcohol, drugs, crime and domestic violence, which rock families before children even make it to the schools. The kids have been failed by a cascading series of decisions and circumstances, sometimes by parents who were themselves left out in the cold.
Moree Aboriginal woman Lucinda, who did not want to use her last name, lives in the boarded-up section of town where homes are routinely set on fire, drugs are bought and sold and kids as young as eight run into trouble with police.
“The kids around here, they learn what they live, you know,” she said.
“This area is getting to be like (inner-Sydney) Redfern was more than a decade ago. How are they gonna learn and value an education when they can’t even stay safe at home?”
Students at Walgett High describe conditions there as “disgusting”, “depressing”, “uncomfortable” and “awful”.
Year 9 student Gloria Winters wants to be a midwife and her friend Peter Stewart, 16, wants to be an architect. But their voices fade into the soft whisper of the unsure when asked whether they think they have the support needed to each do what they want.
“I don’t know, I don’t know how,” Gloria said.
Peter is just as uncertain about his future.
“I said I wanted to be an architect, not that I would,” he said.
Mr Piccoli told The Weekend Australian yesterday the failure to maintain the schools was a systemic problem.
“I certainly bear responsibility like everybody else within the system of supporting schools,” he said. “While I was in opposition, I didn’t do enough about it.”
Mr Piccoli said that, while some of these schools would receive extra funding under the Gonski model that starts next year, many already received large amounts of money.
“Money isn’t necessarily the problem at these schools. Money always helps but really the issue is getting the right staff,” he said.
“There’s a lot of new and inexperienced teachers, who are great in tough schools, but if there are too many it can be difficult.”
NSW Department of Education data shows that despite the poor state of repair of the schools inspected by Mr Piccoli, there has been no lack of money spent on them. The MySchool website shows that $2.7 million had been spent on capital works at Walgett in the last three years. Also, its recurrent spending per student of $37,000 a year is more than three times the average in NSW.
A spokesman for the Education Department said the department was changing its asset management practices, and that the school’s remote location meant repairs were slower than in the city.
New solutions are being forged on the ground, too.
Moree East Public has a new principal, Aboriginal woman Muriel Kelly.
“When I arrived I checked on the enrolments for kindy and we only had one so I asked how we got the parents through and we had tables set up inside the schools with forms for the transition,” she said.
“But I decided to get some of the community officers and we went and doorknocked parents to tell them about kindergarten and, well, we raised the parents’ expectations which I didn’t feel the school had.”
She ended up with 28 enrolments on the back of that exercise.Source: The Australian – Children ‘out of sight and out of mind’
- Australia: New rules target bad teachers (craighill.net)
- NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli describes some remote schools as ‘appalling’ and ‘disgusting’ (abc.net.au)
- Mayor responds to Walgett high comments (abc.net.au)
- NSW Minister Adrian Piccoli’s seat to be abolished (abc.net.au)
- Enrol in less popular schools, says Piccoli (smh.com.au)
- Fun in the Sun at Bourke Primary School with Walgett DE, Wanaaring, Enngonia and Weilmoringle PS. (brewongle.wordpress.com)
- Australian education minister admits Aboriginal children ‘treated like rubbish’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Charlie Perkins – leader of the people (theindigenousidentityproject.wordpress.com)
- SPOTLIGHT ON… Indigenous Australian authors: 10 Must Read Books about Indigenous Australia (jaimeebrooker.wordpress.com)
- Five questions to Damian Griffis: this week on IndigenousX (theguardian.com)