Strangers in their own country

DAY ONE: We are expecting Charlotte and Margaret to begin a ten week educational marathon. To what extent can they catch up? I met Charlotte’s mother, three years ago, when she was making a rare visit to Sydney from a very remote community –let us call it Wangupeni – that is on a beautiful stretch of the East Arnhem Land coast, but 200 kilometres from the nearest Woolworths supermarket, hospital, police station and high school. Last year Charlotte’s parents sent her to an Indigenous boarding school in Melbourne. She had been attending the Wangupeni school for nine years – whenever it was open –but in Melbourne she was unable to keep up in class. Teased by the other girls she became so miserable that she had to return home.

Now Charlotte’s mother and father were very worried about her future. Photographs showed a smiling, pretty, well developed girl of 16. Could I help? My European cousin’s 15-year-old twins had come to us when they had barely been able to speak a word of English. They are now finishing their PhDs at Sydney University. Why not? But following experience with the twins, I thought the transition from a very remote community in East Arnhem Land to a Sydney harbourside suburb – Newbay – would be much easier if Charlotte had a friend to share the experience, so her 15-year-old cousin Margaret is coming as well.

Now the beds in the spare room are made up with new sheets, rose patterned pillow slips and warm blankets. There are new towels in the bathroom the girls are to share. At 17 barely older than her two pupils, Josephine, who is to tutor the two girls, is settling in. She has experience of remedial teaching in country Queensland where she has just finished high school.

A Sydney Rotary Club that has been working in the Wangupeni community is providing support. Charlotte’s parents, both urgently in need of medical attention, are bringing the girls to Sydney. They are being cared for by Rotary families who will also be mentors for the two girls throughout their stay.

There’s a hubbub at the front door. The girls are very tired after their long journey so that speaking a few words of English is a major effort. Margaret has almost no experience outside Wangupeni and is desperately shy, but we become acquainted over a light meal. Afterwards Margaret falls asleep instantly, but Charlotte, though also very tired, is too excited to get to sleep so I sit on her bed and hug her till she too drops off.


            The first week is a chaos of medical and dental appointments interspersed with dinners with mentors and visits from parents to help Charlotte and Margaret to adjust to Sydney. The girls have chest infections marked by painful coughs that require an immediate visit to the doctor for a full range of blood tests. The chest infections quickly succumb to antibiotics and the blood tests are clear. The girls merely need rubella boosters. Charlotte has discomfort with emerging wisdom teeth, but requires no other dental attention. A visit to the dentist is also arranged for Margaret. Wangupeni has only ever had one dentists’ visit, arranged by Rotary, when 29 patients were seen three months ago.

The girls’ latest model new mobile telephones prove to be a lifeline to parents and friends at home. They can see them as well as talk to them. ‘Recharging’ becomes critical with pocket money set at $30 a week. The girls are true children of welfare. In Wangupeni there are no jobs. Art is the only source of earned income. Charlotte and Margaret have no experience of the casual, part-time jobs that for my children connected earnings with expenditures in their teens. Budgeting lessons are going to be crucial to catching-up.

Somehow, despite the chaos, school starts. We knew that the girls’ schooling had been far below mainstream standards. The community had been trying to get full time English speaking teachers for years for its 60 or so school age children because its own Indigenous head teacher and teaching aides were losing their English literacy and maths skills. Seagulls – teachers who flew in perhaps once, sometimes twice a week, but sometimes not at all, supplemented the Indigenous teachers. When the Seagulls did fly in, it was usually at 10 o’clock, just before the children went home for an hour’s morning tea break. The Seagulls left after lunch, between two and three o’clock. Encouraged by Rotary support for the community, last May the school building was repaired and painted and an English speaking teacher started to camp on the school veranda two nights a week in most weeks for three days’ teaching. With the Indigenous teacher and teaching aides, and one or two additional Seagulls, the school operated two classes – one of five to 12 year olds and one of 13 to 18 year olds – most days of the week. Charlotte and Margaret had sat side by side in the senior class.

Although Charlotte and Margaret were shy, particularly when it came to speaking English, Josephine and I had little trouble in communicating with them. Josephine particularly was quick to understand and be understood. We noticed that the girls used many English words in speaking to each other in their own language, and our attempts to understand their language showed many English words in every day use. They included ‘fork’ and ‘spoon’ (but not knife), colours, numbers, non-Indigenous animals and anything mechanical. Money was rupiah. The girls’ language clearly differed more in construction and pronunciation than vocabulary.

Although the girls had recently tested, together with all the other students at Wangupeni, at no higher than first year of formal schooling literacy, we were astonished by the limited number of words, poor spelling and the indiscriminate sprinkling of capital letters in the few sentences they were able to write to describe their journey to Sydney. Reading was worse. It was only with a great deal of assistance that the girls could read the Cat in the Hat. Understandably, at fifteen and sixteen, they did not find it an inspiring text. Their capacity to add numbers petered out in the ‘teens’. Subtraction was even more difficult. They knew no multiplication tables. They had no mental arithmetic capacity. A week’s worksheet that they brought from Wangupeni represented perhaps half an hour’s real effort. We saw that we would have to move to mental arithmetic number drills and hundreds of arithmetic examples each day.

I had been aware that the Wangupeni school only operated for two to two and a half hours on the days when it was ‘in.’ They wandered home for an hour at recess time and again for an hour, hour and a half at lunch time when school often finished. In the younger class, they ran about the classroom. Toddlers wandered in and out of the classroom so that the noise could become deafening. Above all, Charlotte and Margaret exuded boredom with years of repetitive, automaton lessons. I wondered how in a community that until last year did not even have television, teachers could make school so ineffectual.

The Northern Territory Department of Education has been well aware of the deficiencies of its remote Indigenous schools. Every year it publishes appalling Year 3, 5 and 7 literacy and numeracy benchmark passes of 20 per cent or so for Indigenous students in remote schools. These results are optimistic. The Wangupeni children have never been examined. Why have radio, television, DVDs and colourful instruction books – tailored to each age group as in mainstream schools – not been provided for these Indigenous children? There is no doubt that in some communities parents neglect sending their children to school, but overall, poor school attendance can not be blamed on parents. Children are bored out of their minds by the teaching provided.

We break lessons to go grocery shopping. The girls can not read a street sign such as ‘CAUTION, VEHICLES ENTERING’ across a hidden driveway or even ‘NO LEFT TURN’. ‘BREAD, CAKES AND COFFEE’ were only read with help. The girls are naturally embarrassed to be the only people on the street unable to read signs, so we quickly move to the CHOCOLATE SHOP where I promise to take them for a treat when they can read all the Newbay shop signs. It is soon evident that shopping for sweets, chips, trinkets, cosmetics, clothes, and electronic gadgets is a passion that could take up all their time in Sydney.

Returning to school in the afternoon, their writing is very neat and clear. They have been copying words and numbers from the blackboard and in ‘Early Childhood’ and ‘Primary’ language workbooks for years. These were based on large laminated ‘text books’ – the same for the class of children aged 5 to 12 and for children aged 13 to 18. The current text – The World That We Want – is available in an attractive child sized edition, but Aboriginal children are evidently not entitled to their own copy of a school text. The World That We Want is a well produced, informative booklet about marine life for 5 to 9 year olds that would be useful as one of many supplementary books for junior primary school children. We also look at Wombat Divine, the 2005 fourth term text for all children, and its supporting language workbooks. Josephine recalls reading it in kindergarten in Queensland as one of many stories. I could not see how any non-English speaking child could learn to read from the workbooks they are issued. How could such a wide age range be taught the same material? How could children of disparate ages not be bored after five lessons on the letter and sound ‘h’? Charlotte and Margaret know phrases, and even passages, from The World That We Want by heart, but they cannot read the text. After identifying an initial letter they have been taught to guess a word, perhaps 30 times, but not to read it. They are at early primary levels in spite of regular school attendance because they have been very badly taught. Teachers apparently do not understand, or perhaps do not want to admit, why the children are not learning. So lack of progress is ascribed to ‘Aboriginality’ and schooling content is dumbed down to the alleged ‘slowness’ of Aboriginal children.

The girls have seen many violent films on DVDs, they watched the Fox channel with their families but they do not listen to English narration or dialogue. They could not remember any of the plots of the films they have seen. A partial exception was the ‘Ten Canoes’ shown one evening by visiting missionaries. We try watching television without success.

But writing, reading and arithmetic do not turn out be Charlotte’s and Margaret’s principal learning difficulties. Years of sitting in undisciplined classes that made no attempt to tailor learning to age and level of learning and that had no progression of learning, had numbed their minds. They are overwhelmed by a world of signs and print of which they can make no sense and that they have not been led to want to understand. Most of the time it appears that they do not care whether they understand or not: the task seems so far beyond their grasp. In a bookshop they reject the idea of buying a book of Storm Boy because they know it has been made into a film. They tell us they do not need to learn to read books because there is always a film. After years of Wangupeni schooling, Charlotte and Margaret have the concentration span of pre-schoolers. How can they ever relate to a normal high school, a job? Yet, optimistically, Charlotte wants to be a teacher and Margaret wants to work in an office.

I buy a map of the world. Charlotte and Margaret find Australia, know some States and the Northern Territory and can find Darwin, Cairns and Sydney. They do not know what ‘capital of Australia means’ or what and where it is. We find pictures of Parliament House in Canberra. The girls do not know any other country, continent or ocean. They have no idea of what these words mean. We go to Africa where all our ancestors originated. We trace the migration routes to Asia and hence to Australia, find the other continents and some other countries. The girls know of the equator but no other geography. They have not heard of Captain Cook. They thought a left over election poster of Kevin Rudd on a lamp post in Newbay was a picture of George Bush. When we put the shopping away, I explain that we put meat in the bottom of the refrigerator because it is the coldest part. They have not been taught even the most elementary science.

The Wangupeni school was given half a dozen computers. They were locked away most of the time. The girls enjoy playing solitaire. We trail cables round the house so that we have two computers set up with Internet access and hotmail email addresses. Every day we practice using emails and becoming familiar with Google. We use DVDs as learning supplements. Josephine finds a maths game she can play with Charlotte and Margaret, each of the three girls competing at her own maths level. We get multiplication tables on DVDs. Internet access to songs is a hit with ‘Rap’ bands being the hot favourites. Whenever the girls have moments of leisure, ‘rap’ music – Bow Wow, 50 Cent, Nelly and R. Kelly, B2K – escapes from their room. Josephine, on her way to business studies at university, complains that the lyrics are demeaning to women and identify success, always miraculously achieved, with material possessions.

We go to a local café for a snack. The mentors take Charlotte and Margaret out for a restaurant meal. The girls are wonderful guests, appreciative of very meal, but they are unable to read menus. This does not mean the amusing difficulty of deciphering mysterious foods in exotic places, but being unable to read what is on offer in a food hall. They head for the familiar ‘KFC’ bucket or the Golden Arches where they can read ‘chips’ and other items though not the recently introduced health foods.

It is evident that Charlotte and Margaret have been extremely well brought up in loving families. They like to have fun, they can be boisterous, often laugh raucously, and they are warm and responsive. Swimming proves to be a favourite pastime. They are courteous and appreciative of the courtesies of others. On our walks, at the railway station, on the ferry, they are visibly embarrassed when well meaning strangers (who would not dream of accosting them if they were not Aboriginal) ask them where they come from. They reply politely. I am not so patient. I see the same people pass Asian Australians without comment. What must it be like to be constantly reminded that you are Aboriginal? I tremble for our girls’ vulnerability.



Having settled an intensive schooling program, we expand our horizons.

To supplement their pocket money I find jobs they can do round the house to earn money at $12 an hour. Thinking of Margaret’s wish to become an office worker, I drag out a pile of neglected newspapers that have been set aside for ‘cuttings’ to be clipped, dated and sorted in chronological order. The girls are not used to using scissors, just as the Rotarians found that the girls’ brothers and cousins were not used to handling hammers, screwdrivers or any other tools and could not read tape measures. Worse, the girls can not read enough of the newspaper titles and columns to know where a topic starts and ends. I have to draw the outline of each cutting to make this office task work. We make a game of filing the cuttings by date.

The girls choose a spotted material to make simple tops because I promised Charlotte’s mother that I would teach the girls to sew. My granddaughter scoffs: ‘Who in this day and age sews clothes!’ But I had promised. We hit the first snag when I ask them to divide the material in half so that we can cut out one top. The girls do not know how to use a tape measure and do not know what ‘half’ means. We put measurements and fractions on the school agenda. We pin the pattern to the material, but the girls’ inexperience in handling scissors means that cutting around the pattern becomes a major exercise needing much help. We pin the pieces and the girls are all set to machine them together. But doubting their machine skills, I say we have to tack the pieces first. They baulk. It turns out they can not do running stitch by hand – perhaps have never held a needle, thread and material. Who does their mending? Perhaps grandmother, who, Mission taught, has a sewing machine. I think we had better practice some machine stitching. A few minutes later the bobbin is terminally tangled. Why did I think that I could teach the girls sewing in an evening or two? I remember the six months it took my primary school self to make a pair of navy blue bloomers under the stern eye of a Scots sewing mistress. It took another six years before I could sew a dress for my ‘formal’. Just as they and their community are constantly being set up to fail, I am doing the same with my unrealistic expectations. The bobbin defeats us. The only solution I can see is a few nights of sewing for me when they are asleep.

The sewing project arose out of the Wangupeni’s women’s expressed desire to earn more money than they can from the attractive, but low paying, jewellery they make from shells for distant tourist shops. Sewing clothes and silk screening fabrics have been proposed. Without workshop space that will keep out dust in the ‘dry’ and damp in the ‘wet’, without dressmaking and commercial art skills, without basic literacy and numeracy, I think this is day-dreaming. The tangled bobbin is still not fixed. I wonder how sewing machines could be maintained in the East Arnhem climate? Who would service them? Yet another itinerant ‘Seagull’? Schemes for Indigenous ‘entrepreneurship’ are forever being dangled in front of remote communities to compete with skilled workers whose wages are a dollar a day. I recall hearing that a desert community made a successful commercial arrangement to have rug designs made up in India. How could income from a sewing project compete with welfare? Sewing and silk screening in Wangupeni’s circumstances is yet another well meant proposal that would set the community up to fail. Yet Wangupeni is so well situated that with mainstream economic development it could become one of the prosperous seaside communities of the Australian coastline.

We turn to painting boxes and discs for Christmas and other thank you presents for the Rotary families that are taking Charlotte and Margaret to galleries and museums, and more enjoyably for teenagers, sailing, and who will be their hosts on Christmas Day and for New Year’s Eve. Although the girls have not had art classes and appear to have almost no experience with brushes and paints beyond kindergarten level colouring in their workbooks, they take to this like ducks to water. They produce a range of colourful sets of coasters and nick-nack boxes, some with geometric designs and some with traditional trees and animals. I am particularly taken with a bush turkey with a wicked look in its eye. After several evenings’ work all these are lacquered and wrapped ready for the festive season.

Charlotte and Margaret help with meals. Setting the table and emptying the dishwasher have become their jobs. We make the family Christmas cake. Their lack of skill in using scissors is again evident in lining the cake tin. The girls cannot read the recipe but I go through it carefully so that hopefully they can see that once they can read they can cook anything they like. They are not convinced. I organise the overnight soaking of the dried fruit and find the scale and measures we need to assemble the ingredients. They get on with the laborious mixing. I can see the girls thinking: “why is this crazy woman going to all this unnecessary work when she can buy a perfectly good Christmas cake in the shop?” But we persevere and they enjoy putting the finishing touch of putting almonds around the top. A few days later their mentors take them home for an afternoon’s baking of Christmas cookies and miniature puddings. Two more crazy women taking time and effort to produce themselves what could so easily be bought in shops, but the girls patiently use measures, stir, bake and put the finished products in gift boxes. Because of the exposure to recipe reading and measures, we persist, going on to make muffins for morning teas.

Christmas festivities start with a visit to Bondi Beach where Charlotte and Margaret enjoy seeing dancers and singers celebrating Chanukah. Going to films is not a great success because of the girls’ limited English. When they watch films in the evening on the computer in their room, they turn the sound down so as not to be disturbed by the English voices. I protest that that is not learning English. We compromise by all watching the news with the sound up every evening. Billy Elliot, the musical, turns out to be a much greater success though my daughter-in-law who has shepherded the excursion thinks that the plot, with its miners’ posters of protest, was too difficult. But, again, the dances were enjoyed. Then we are into Christmas day with its traditional visit to church and extended family dinner and in no time it is New Year’s Eve and the fireworks on the Bridge viewed from a Rotarian’s wonderfully located house. This is a resounding success, reinforcing a geography lesson about longitudes and time differences that the girls finally grasp when a phone call demonstrates that New Year comes later in Wangupeni than in Sydney. 


Several weeks of again having teenagers in the house is taking its toll with wet towels on the bathroom floor, lights not switched off and clothes strewn around the bedroom. I urge Charlotte and Margaret to use the cupboards and hanging space in the wardrobe built into one wall of their bedroom. No doubt my scolding sounds like that of their mothers. The clothes are picked up when I next go by. But instead of using wardrobe shelves and hanging space, they have folded their clothes into the shopping bags they use at home in the absence of wardrobes, cupboards and other storage space (or any other furniture) that their houses do not have because all rooms are crowded by mattresses. I am embarrassed. How can I get them used to what seem to me to be the barest necessities in Sydney when in three weeks’ time they will return to ‘Aboriginal housing’? Josephine hears Margaret say to Charlotte: “At least this way we will be packed ready for home”. We are aware that in spite of all efforts and treats, our girls miss their families and friends.

Wangupeni is a ‘dry’ (alcohol free) community. The girls tell us that strict dress codes are observed. For example, teenage girls do not walk around in bathing costumes. Social relations between boys and girls, men and women, are regulated. There is no violence. Language and traditions are treasured and taught to youngsters. Wangupeni artists have developed a style of art that is featured in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The community has been mined by anthropologists, linguists, film makers and others dependent on Indigenous culture for their livelihood. But until last June when the Commonwealth Government stopped the import of kava into four Aboriginal East Arnhem designated ‘kava districts’, the whole community was catatonic for two or three days every week. Each ‘registered’ kava drinker spent from $60 to more than $100 a week on kava, sharply reducing the amount of welfare money available for family groceries. ‘Kava nights’ affected school opening, reduced the supply of seafood, turtles and other protein sources and undermined efforts to grow vegetables and fruit. Red-eyed artists were not well enough to work so that there was little income in addition to welfare and sit-down-money (CDEP supplements). The loud ghetto-blaster music of kava nights has been replaced by a Saturday evening disco at the Women’s Centre where the Wangupeni band performs to everyone’s enjoyment. We hear the music as the girls talk to their friends on their mobiles on Saturday night. At home Charlotte plays keyboard and guitar.

With higher earnings, more passenger vehicles have appeared in Wangupeni to break down its isolation, at least during the ‘dry’. A return trip to the supermarket by air charter costs about $1300 for seven passengers or $800 for a 4WD bush ‘taxi’. Diesel and petrol deliveries, though still sporadic, have increased. But fuel is stored in 44 gallon drums in a twenty foot container behind the community shop. The plywood floor is saturated with fuel spills, there is no permanent ventilation and when local temperatures are high, the odour inside the container in unbearable. With the number of smokers in the community the danger of explosion is very considerable. The only way to fill a vehicle is by sucking fuel from a drum into a hose. This would be hazardous to health in any community. In Wangupeni endemic chest infections make the mouthful of petrol and petrol fumes lethal. Not surprisingly, once petrol is flowing, as many jerry cans as possible are filled, with petrol spillage round the store and with increasing storage hazard near crowded houses. This safety and health hazard would not be tolerated in any non-Indigenous community. The homeland association responsible for Wangupeni found money to construct a plastic playground (sic), but has not been able to fund secure fuel storage or a pump!

One evening we hear that wild pigs have got into Charlotte’s father’s garden and completely destroyed it. No pumpkins or paw-paws for months to come. How can it be replanted and protected to be safe from pigs? I ask whether controlling pigs (donkeys, dogs, and buffalo) is not the job of the Rangers headquartered in Wangupeni. The girls laugh and tell us that the Rangers’ job is driving around Wangupeni in their four wheel drives whenever they have fuel. We add a new word – hooning – to the girls’ English vocabulary. Dogs have not been sorted and microchipped as they have been in other communities and feral animals are only disposed of when the real Ranger, another ‘Seagull’ comes from time to time with a gun. I know that the literacy and numeracy skills of Charlotte’s and Margaret’s uniformed Ranger brothers, cousins and uncles are as limited as theirs. They cannot perform any tasks necessitating measurement, spraying noxious weeds with chemicals, or controlling feral animals. A literacy course is to be held for the Rangers in 2008. What is the time horizon for making the Rangers literate and numerate? Pessimist that I am, I assume at least a year of steady, intensive, full time application? I conclude that this is another project setting up Aborigines to fail. The reality is that they are to continue to be pretend Rangers, earning ‘ride–around’ money while the only real Rangers continue to be ‘Seagulls’.

Hooning takes us to asking if Charlotte and Margaret want to be able to drive like the young family members that come to visit us. This is a practical demonstration of the use of the reading skills they are so painfully acquiring. We find the Northern Territory driving license rules on the Internet so that Charlotte and Margaret can see what they would have to read to get a license. They are familiar with some road rules and recognise many road signs by their shape and colour. But because they can not read the words, they sometimes get them wrong! The girls are unable to read the driving booklet. How did the Wangupeni vehicle owners get their licenses? Does the Northern Territory conduct normal driving tests for Aborigines or does it issue them with ‘pretend’ licenses? Is this the reason for the remains of smashed vehicles lining Top End highways? For the cruel Indigenous road accident rate?

Charlotte’s mobile phone does not work. Josephine digs out the packaging in which the phone came, reads the warranty instruction, looks up the nearest Telstra phone outlet and checks its location on the Internet, and the three young women troop off to the train station to get the phone fixed. For Charlotte and Margaret, almost the same age, the obstacles to having the phone fixed would be insuperable. They would have to throw the phone away and buy a new one.

We refuse to be party to transferring money from welfare accounts for shopping in Sydney. We point out to the girls that they have to pay their fares home. We weaken and compromise by giving them $100 each for the New Year dress sales and treat them to a day at Luna Park to compensate for the galleries and museums they have dutifully visited.

We arrange work experience in a friendly office. With Josephine’s help the girls shelve library books, practising reading, alphabetical and numbers skills. Work experience enables us to deepen our discussions of job options. We stress that girls can choose any jobs they want, not only to be teachers, but, lawyers, pilots, computer ‘nerds’, designers or film makers like the young women who have been visiting our house. The girls are bored. What on earth are we talking about? But we go on trying to convey what it means to work, to have a career and, in turn, to educate your children.


Jubilation! Charlotte and Margaret have overcome their home sickness and want to go on learning. They are prepared to go on making the effort to ‘catch-up’ They have been tested again for literacy (easier than the first time because they now know what a test is they tell us) and ten weeks of tuition have enabled them to advance two years though they are still in the early years of primary literacy. We think that they have made even better progress in arithmetic. But now what?

When the Northern Territory Department of Education realized that none of the children graduating from the remote Indigenous primary schools could handle mainstream secondary education in Darwin or Alice Springs, it extended remote Indigenous schools to secondary level year 10 and, more recently, to year 12. In Charlotte’s and Margaret’s case, this would mean flying to board for three days a week in a ‘secondary’ school in another East Arnhem remote community where a dedicated, hardworking local teacher runs a ‘regional Indigenous high school’ in addition to a primary school. This so called ‘high school’ teaches, perhaps, upper primary literacy and numeracy. The homelands ‘Programme Book’ for teachers, in ‘where do we want secondary students to get to in secondary mathematics’ announces: ‘recall or work out mentally, multiplication facts including 2 x, 5 x and 10 x.’ We should not have been teaching Charlotte and Margaret the 3 x and 4 x tables, let alone the 6 x to 9 x ones? There is no secondary school equipment for geography or any other natural science, history or any other humanities subject or art in this three days a week so called ‘secondary school’. A Rotary Club has provided dormitory accommodation for boys and girls. Charlotte has attended, but bitter about the futility of the experience, refuses to go back.

Charlotte and Margaret can not be asked to sit in a mainstream class of six or seven year olds in a real primary school. Equally, they cannot be set up to fail by being placed in the high school year 11 and 12 classes of their ages. TAFE introductory, ‘catch up’ Year 10 classes for youngsters who have dropped out of high school would be too difficult for them until they develop their learning skills and improve their English. Paradoxically, the best way for them to catch-up is likely to be to sit side by side with immigrants or foreign students coming to Australia to learn English. They would also greatly benefit from at least part-time jobs with caring mentors. They need, nurturing English speaking domestic situations that would continue to develop their experience of how most Australians live. How can this be arranged?

Our girls are not alone. There are at least 20 teenagers in their situation in Wangupeni. A remedial teacher is urgently needed for these youngsters. The community has applied to pool the $700 tutoring vouchers to which parents are entitled from the Commonwealth Department of Education if their children to do not pass Year 3, 5 and 7 benchmarks so that, with Rotary help, a remedial teacher can be found. The community is waiting for a response to its request.

There are another 40 primary school children in Wangupeni. The Northern Territory Department of Education adamantly refuses to co-operate with Rotary and a leading grammar school in assisting the community to recruit qualified and effective teachers to live and work in the community seven days a week. Once again, in February 2008 first term classes in Wangupeni start a week later than in real Northern Territory primary schools and will no doubt stop a week or two earlier. The Education Department insists that ‘Seagull’ schooling is to continue although, after years of school attendance, it left Charlotte and Margaret with the cognitive skills of pre-schoolers.

The Northern Territory Education Department website advertises ‘a fantastic lifestyle’ for teachers, but does not demand the skills essential to teaching English as a second language and mathematics. Many of its ‘Seagulls’ lack even modest teaching qualifications. The more than 50 ‘Learning Centres’ in small settlements like Wangupeni are not listed as schools by the Department. Some do not have enough desks for all the children in a community, many lack facilities such as ablution blocks and most do not have the teaching aids used in normal Australian primary schools. ‘Learning Centre’ children have not been included in benchmark testing. Another 15 ‘Community Education Centres’ are in larger Aboriginal settlements. They also lack school places, have sub-standard facilities and lack the teaching equipment of normal Australian schools. But the major deficiencies of ‘Learning Centres’ and ‘Community Education Centres’ are curriculums and teaching practices that do not teach effective literacy, numeracy and the other subjects of a primary curriculum. Not surprisingly, where possible, Aboriginal parents are driving and busing their children to non–Indigenous primary schools. The Northern Territory Department of Education is aware of these outcomes. Year after year it reports that only 20 per cent of remote Indigenous students pass its Year 3, 5 and 7 benchmark tests. Some of the ‘Community Education Centres’ claim to go to Year 10 and even Year 12, but most of their pupils do not reach Year 6 standards. Charlotte and Margaret are the victims of an apartheid education system.

Parting is sad. We have all been irritated, cheered, disappointed and surprised by turn, but the girls know that they have made progress. The packing is finished. The girls are bubbling over with the thought of going home for a holiday. Another hubbub at the door. The mentor families are here to take them to for one last week-end of city fun and then to the airport and home to Wangupeni.

(Names have been changed to protect identities.)

Originally published in the March, 2008, edition of Quadrant

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