The First Tree – Examining the Indigenous education landscape

There is no reason for Indigenous children to miss out on education that other Australian children take as a given. It’s not up to “someone” to do “something”. It’s up to us.

Speech by to the Indigenous Education & Transitions conference by Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

25 November 2014

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The challenges in Indigenous education in Australia are vast. And when a problem seems very complex there is a tendency to assume you need a complex solution to deal with it.

You don’t.

Firstly, I don’t regard the challenges of Indigenous education as particularly complex. Big? Yes. But, complex? No.

The problems are actually very simple. Too many Indigenous children don’t go to school. And when they do attend, too many of them aren’t learning anything.

Secondly, I believe the best solutions – to any problem – are simple solutions persistently applied.

Earlier this year I talked about this in my blog and illustrated it with a story of a conversation I once had with my father.

Some years ago he and I were driving with some of my kids in the Northern Rivers district where my father grew up. We drove past a huge paddock on one of the farms. My father told the kids he remembered when the paddock was covered in trees and that in the 1920s a Russian couple who owned the land cleared all of the trees by hand to create a paddock for their farm.

Absent mindedly, I asked my father how they managed to remove all those trees and clear the paddock. He looked at me like I was daft and he answered: “They cut down the first tree”.

The problems affecting Indigenous people and communities in Australia are huge, complex and interconnected and seemingly in every aspect of life, not just education. Solving them can seem like trying to find the way out of a labyrinth.

Some people despair that it’s all too hard and focus on something else entirely. They ignore the problem. Others call for “someone” (usually government) to do “something” (usually provide more money and unspecified “resources”). But after 40 years of this approach we have not yet seen a material change.

I prefer the Russian couple’s approach. Cut down the first tree. And then the next. And then the next. Until the forest is cleared. Because if you can’t even cut down one tree, you have no hope of clearing the whole forest.

My biggest priority this year has been to get all Indigenous kids going to school every school day. I am regularly mocked on Twitter for this, as if I’m unaware of the other complex problems facing Indigenous people. “Is that all?” “Don’t you have something more than that?”

Of course there’s more. But if we can’t even manage to get our kids to school then we have no hope of solving any of the other problems.

Imagine what our Indigenous communities would be like if every Indigenous child started going to school every day and finished school. Imagine the difference after 2 years, 5 years, 10 years.

Rather than thinking about how to clear the forest and being daunted by the scale of the task, start by cutting down some trees. And just keep going.

Most of the organisations that I am personally involved with over take this “First Tree” approach. They implement simple solutions, start small and persist.

One of those is the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation who you’ll hear from at this conference. AIEF funds the education costs for marginalised Indigenous students to enable them to attend leading schools and universities. It also supports them to transition through all stages of education and into employment.

I am very proud to be the Chairman of AIEF. I’ve been involved in AIEF since the earliest days when it began out of the Indigenous scholarships program at St Josephs College in Hunters Hill. My sons were at St Josephs and I was involved in a project to provide Indigenous scholarships at the school.

Andrew Penfold, a St Josephs old boy with a background in law and investment banking, offered to help and he designed the St Joseph’s College Indigenous Fund. Andrew spent 5 years working full time as a volunteer to establish that Fund and raised $7 million. The Fund supports around 40 Indigenous boys in perpetuity to attend St Josephs.

Andrew then looked at how he could implement the same approach on a national basis, building on the St Joseph’s model and the experience implementing it. He established a plan for a fund – the Australian Indigenous Education Fund – that could support Indigenous students to attend schools across the country.

AIEF began in 2007 with a handful of students. Today it has a scholarships fund of more than $90 million with a target of $140 million. Over the course of its 20 year business plan, AIEF will enable 7000 marginalised Indigenous students to receive the best education Australia can offer.

Just imagine the impact of 7000 Indigenous children receiving a first rate education. 7000 Indigenous children progressing through school and ultimately into the workforce over 20 years. 7000 children who might otherwise have not finished school. 7000 children who might otherwise have not progressed into further education or the workforce. 7000 children who – when they do enter the workforce – will do so with greater skills and opportunities for advancement than they would otherwise have had.

AIEF has clear, measurable objectives. We know what success looks like. Most importantly its outcomes are transparent. Every year AIEF publishes detailed data that shows how its students are going, whether they are progressing to the next level and their educational performance. And those outcomes are excellent.

Another organisation you’ll hear from at this conference is the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience – or AIME. This is an organisation I have a lot of time for.

AIME also has a very clear objective – to support Indigenous students to progress through high school and into University, employment or further education at the same rate as other Australian students. It does this primarily through pairing University students with Indigenous high school students in the same area. The Uni students mentor the high school students with AIME providing support.

AIME started out with 25 students and 25 mentors. Today it has 3,500 high school students and 1,250 mentors across Australia. Its target is 10,000 Indigenous high school students by 2018.

AIME also has clear objectives and transparent outcomes, every year publishing an annual report with the empirical data of the progression rates for AIME students as compared to other Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The data shows that AIME students have progression rates substantially above other Indigenous students and those rates are at or approaching (and in some cases exceeding) the progression rates for non-Indigenous students.

Again, imagine the impact of 3,500 Indigenous students finishing school who might otherwise have dropped out. 3,500 Indigenous students transitioning into further education or the workforce who might otherwise have gone on the dole. Imagine the impact if it’s 10,000 students.

AIEF and AIME are example of the “First Tree” approach. Simple solutions, persistently applied. One tree at a time. And in time they will clear a whole forest.

The other factor that makes these programs a success is accountability. Each program has clear objectives and measures its achievements against those objectives. They publish the data on how their programs are going so everyone can see it. And each organisation takes accountability for delivering on its promise.

They are accountable for the progression rates of their students. I’ve never heard AIEF or AIME blaming the government or socio-economic disadvantage or poverty or anything else as an excuse for students not progressing in their programs.

We can only build a sustainable future for Indigenous students – for any students – if people take accountability.

This means parents taking accountability for sending their kids to school every day. No excuses. No negotiation.

It means principals and teachers taking accountability for ensuring that students are learning what they are supposed to be learning, reporting honestly on school attendance and performance and testing students on a regular basis to confirm progress. No waving kids through primary school when they haven’t even mastered Kindergarten.

It means governments taking accountability for ensuring schools are properly resourced and fit for purpose; that there are enough teachers and resources for every child that should be attending school, not just for the lower proportion who do.

It also means governments doing regular and thorough audits of the schools, knowing exactly the extent of the deficiencies and ensuring they are rectified.

Here is a story that illustrates what I’m talking about.

A little over 10 years ago, the American state of Arizona identified what it described as a huge problem in its education system – the lack of educational success of Latinos.

At the time Latinos were rapidly becoming the majority in public schools. Latino students had low achievement and low graduation rates. They also experienced the problems often seen when education is failing – low socio-economic demographics, poverty, English as a second language and so on.

Arizona recognised that education is the key to prosperity, not just for individuals, but for the State as a whole. Arizona had concluded that if it could not successfully turn around Latino education it would fall behind as a state. A key Report on the problem actually concluded that Arizona would not make a successful transition to the 21st century economy if it couldn’t turn around Latino education.

There were all sorts of theories and strongly held opinions as to why Latino education was failing and how to fix it. The “Beat the Odds” Report summarised the consensus position as follows

“Everybody agrees education is essential for the future of Arizona.

Everybody agrees many schools in Arizona just don’t work for Latino children.

Everybody agrees this problem needs to be fixed – now!

Nobody agrees on how to do it.”

The balance of opinion favoured more parental involvement, more funding, better teachers, higher pay, lower class sizes, and so on. In other words, most people assumed more money would fix the problems.

Arizona refused to accept the idea that it was inevitable students in these low socio-economic schools would fail. Despite the poor performance of many schools in low socio-economic communities, there were also a number of schools that “beat the odds” – they achieved consistently high results and/or steady gains with the same level of community disadvantage.

So Arizona did something unusual. It approached a leading business consultant and researcher, Jim Collins. Collins is the author of the book Good to Great, which documents extensive research into hundreds of companies to identify what makes great organisations different. Arizona commissioned Collins to research why some schools with large Latino populations were performing well in adverse circumstances by comparing them to other public schools facing similar circumstances who weren’t.

The results surprised them.

The research found that factors outside a school principal’s control—such as class size, the length of school day, the amount of funding, and the degree of parental involvement—did not systematically distinguish the higher performing from the comparison schools.

The Beat-the-Odds Schools focused on what they could control and took accountability for a clear bottom line of academic performance based on three core principles:

  1. Don’t even think about playing a blame game when students aren’t learning. Have the strength to look at the problem and take responsibility.
  2. Don’t think the solution is “out there.” If students aren’t learning, the school needs to change.
  3. No one is allowed to lag behind. If every student in every classroom isn’t learning, the school isn’t doing its job.

Jim Collins wrote about the Beat the Odds report in his book Great by Choice. And I’d like to read you an extract of what he wrote:

“In 1997, Alice Byrne Elementary School in Yuma, Arizona, performed no better than a similar comparison school and substantially below state averages in third-grade reading. Principal Juli Tate Peach refused to capitulate to difficult circumstances. Yes, many of the kids came from poor Latino families. Yes, the school had a limited budget. Yes, the teachers felt stretched to do more with less. Peach and her teachers nonetheless overcame these obstacles and gradually increased student reading performance about 20 percentage points, to beat the state averages. Meanwhile, Alice Byrne’s comparison school, facing similar circumstances, demonstrated no substantial improvement in third-grade reading. Why?

Juli Tate Peach brought fanatic discipline to one focused goal: individual student achievement in basic skills like reading. She led the school to measure progress not just at the end of the year but also throughout the year, working with her teachers to track performance, taking corrective action along the way. She created a collaborative culture of teachers and administrators poring over the data and sharing ideas for how to help each child perform better. They embraced a never-ending cycle of instruction, assessment, intervention, kid by kid, in a relentless [and persistent pursuit] of learning throughout the year. Improving results increased confidence and motivation, which then reinforced discipline, which then drove better results, which then increased confidence and motivation, which then reinforced discipline, up and up and up.

The principals at the Arizona beat-the-odds schools understood that grasping for the next “silver bullet” reform—lurching from one program to the next, this year’s fad to next year’s fad—destroys motivation and erodes confidence. The critical step lay not in finding the perfect program or in waiting for national education reform, but in taking action; picking a good program; instilling the fanatic discipline to make relentless, iterative progress; and staying with the program long enough to generate sustained results. They gained confidence by the very fact of increasing achievement. If you beat the odds, you then gain confidence that you can beat the odds again, which then builds confidence that you can beat the odds again, and again, and again.”

What distinguished the Beat-the-Odds Schools from the failing schools was discipline and accountability.

When you are accountable for something it means it’s up to you to ensure it happens properly. If it doesn’t happen it’s your failure. If it does happen it’s your achievement.

When I look at Indigenous education in Australia I don’t see discipline and accountability. I see excuses and finger pointing – by parents, teachers, principals and governments. There always seems to be some reason why people can’t do what they need to do.

When I say that parents must send their kids to school and that not sending your kids to school is child abuse, I am hit with a torrent of excuses and am accused of being unfair. But ensuring your child goes to school is one of the most basic parental responsibilities. No one else can do it.

When it comes to Indigenous affairs, states and territories too often look to the Commonwealth government to take accountability. But the education of primary and secondary students is a state and territory responsibility. State and territory governments make the decisions. They allocate the resources. They hire the teachers.

So why was it the Commonwealth government running the Remote Schools Attendance Strategy? Aren’t states and territories responsible for school attendance and dealing with truancy? They have large education departments – what are they doing about Indigenous school attendance?

The answer is not much. In fact, when the Remote Schools Attendance Strategy was put in place at the beginning of this year Northern Territory teachers actually went on strike, citing the larger class sizes resulting from increased school attendance as one of the justifications for their strike action.

This is not the way to build a sustainable future for Indigenous students. And it’s impossible to manage student disengagement if the parents, teachers and governments are all disengaged themselves.

Contrast the approach of Christine Cawsey AM, the principal of Rooty Hill High School. You’re going to hear from Rooty Hill High School later today. The school is in a low socio-economic area of Western Sydney with nearly half its students from Non English Speaking Backgrounds and about 5% Indigenous. When Principal Cawsey joined Rooty Hill High in 1997 she was surprised to encounter teachers who thought kids from Western Sydney weren’t cut out for University and should be focusing on trades.

She would not accept that attitude. She implemented a strategy based on high expectations and collaborated and engage with staff and the community to implement it. Rooty Hill High School today has above average attendance and NAPLAN results close to or better than statistically similar schools, with steady improvement.

In 1998 the school conducted a “culture review”. Writing for “Values in Education” published by the Australian College of Educators Principal Cawsey wrote:

“In examining the culture for this ‘Culture Project’, it became obvious that when outsiders visited the school, they were most likely to notice and comment on the artefacts of the school – its property, the uniforms, the manners of students, the way the foyer looked, the prospectus and the behaviour of staff at the front office. As a result, students, parents and staff began to work on these areas. It is significant that parents and students provided most of the leadership in these changes and that their skills were well suited to managing a variety of projects at this level. Parents and students designed a new uniform that was successfully introduced in 1999. The parents designed a new foyer that was more welcoming and ‘professional’. The school introduced 75-minute lessons to increase learning time, reduce the amount of movement and give students a break after each lesson. Students continued to be the public face of the school, both in the school community and in the wider community. These are the ‘little’ things but they are the things people notice first, so it was a case of ‘first things first’.”

Principal Cawsey is an example of someone who took accountability for her school and for her students. And she held the teachers, students and school community accountable too. Rooty Hill High believes it has a “moral contract” to give each of its students the opportunity to do their best. Principal Cawsey didn’t wait for “someone” to “do something”. It was up to her, the teachers, the parents and the students to cut down that first tree.

Simple solutions, persistently applied. One tree at a time. Fittingly, the school’s motto is PERSIST.

* * *

It’s been about a year since the Prime Minister appointed me as his chief advisor on Indigenous issues and to chair the Indigenous Advisory Council, which is made up of 12 individuals from a range and depth of expertise and experience. The Council’s role is to advise the Federal Government on practical change that will improve the lives of Indigenous people.

Education has been a major focus of the Council and is one of three priority areas of the government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy – getting children to school, getting adults to work and making communities safer.

I have spoken a lot about Indigenous education this year. And I have given the Prime Minister a detailed set of recommendations which include a blueprint for Indigenous education. We’ll have an opportunity to discuss those ideas in the panel session coming up. There are 10 key recommendations and I am happy to share those with you now:

  1. Children must attend school and parents must send them.  If parents don’t then governments must ensure children attend.  They can do this any way the law allows. With a carrot or a stick or both.
    • Punitive action for non-attendance should be implemented as follows:
    • Commonwealth punitive action for truancy should first be directed at state and territory governments through fines in the form of reduced Commonwealth funding.
    • Enforcement action towards parents and students should first be remedial, such as compulsory holiday schooling or running schools on extended hours where students can catch up.
  2. Penalising parents – such as through welfare quarantining – should be a last resort. But if governments do make the threat they need to follow through and penalties should be across the board not just for Indigenous families.
  3. Every Indigenous child in remote areas should have access to a fully resourced primary school with full time teachers who live in the community.  In remote areas, one primary school should be designated to service all communities within, say, an hour’s drive with transport to and from school provided.
  4. Secondary students in remote areas should have access to a regional secondary school that offers weekly boarding facilities with one secondary boarding school servicing communities within, say, a 2 to 3 hour drive and transport to and from school on weekends provided.
  5. Schools must to be fit for purpose. We need comprehensive audits of Indigenous schools – of infrastructure, equipment, finances and records and staffing, resources and capabilities. State and territory government departments should then develop plans for resourcing schools to teach all children in the community and for focused remedial education for children who are behind.
  6. Disadvantaged schools need the best teachers with experience and appropriate skills as needed such as teaching English as a second language and/or remedial education. Teachers need to be willing to be part of the community too.
  7. Foster a partnership approach where remote schools – primary and secondary – partner with high performing schools or universities in major Australia cities, like Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.
  8. Invest in communications infrastructure that delivers mobile phone coverage and WiFi access within remote communities.
  9. The curriculum should teach Indigenous knowledge as part of thorough and rigorous courses taught by qualified educators with the appropriate expertise, not as add-ons to other subjects. The study of Indigenous kinship systems should be compulsory. Australian history subjects should include a study of the full history of this continent.
  10. 10. In communities where the traditional language is still spoken, the traditional language should be taught in school as well as English. In areas where the traditional language is not widely spoken, students should have the opportunity to study a traditional Indigenous language as an optional subject of study in secondary school.

Ultimately, Australia’s must have an education system that will equip all Australian children to compete and work in a global market place.

* * *

Over the course of this conference you will hear a lot of case studies, recommendations and solutions for closing the gap in Indigenous education. And whether it’s me or AIEF or AIME or Rooty Hill High or someone else, it’s important to remember one fundamental point.

Educating children is not a mystery. We’ve been doing it in this country for 150 years – in the cities, in the country and in remote areas. In the 1800s you’d struggle to find a more remote place on the earth than the Australian colonies, and yet they successfully introduced compulsory education.

There is no reason for Indigenous children to miss out on education that other Australian children take as a given.

The problem is clear. The solutions are known. The challenge is having the staying power to keep chipping away at the problem with what we know works until that problem ceases to exist.

To cut down one tree at a time, until we clear the whole forest.

It’s not up to “someone” to do “something”.

It’s up to us.


Link to the Beat the Odds Report:


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  1. Could not agree more. Having had the pleasure of working at Pormpuraaw PS on Cape York where these principles were applied and having seen the immediate success it produced and continues to produce, ‘the proof is in the pudding.’

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