Canberra has accused the Northern Territory government of short-changing students in the bush by diverting federal funds intended for remote education.
Visiting Arnhem Land on Tuesday, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said he was concerned the Gunner government wasn’t doing enough to address dismal attendance rates, which fall as low as 30 per cent in some schools.
“The Northern Territory government may well now have a policy, that whilst the Commonwealth pay them on the basis of enrolment … they’re actually paying the schools on the basis of attendance,” he said.
“I’ll be speaking to the chief minister about … where the money has actually gone.”
Senator Scullion says the Territory receives a significantly higher bulk of GST cash than the rest of the country based on disadvantage and remoteness or what he calls “the poverty index”.
He called for greater funding transparency to allow the public to make better decisions at the ballot box and ensure the NT government doesn’t forget the bush.
“And frankly, they have,” Senator Scullion said.
Almost half of NT students live in remote or very remote locations, with many speaking English as a second language and performance rates are woefully below national standards.
Senator Scullion played truancy officer in Gunbalanya on Tuesday morning, roundly up sleepy children for class as part of the Remote School Attendance Strategy.
Local community members in 78 remote schools across the nation support 14,500 students to attend school under the scheme.
At the end of semester one last year, about half of RSAS schools had higher attendance when compared with the same time in 2013.
Gunbalanya School co-principal Sue Trimble says the approach is making a difference, stating the current 58 per cent attendance rate has improved by 13 per cent since 2016.
“It’s not just beating down the door to get kids to school, it’s about selling a good message and a purpose,” she said.
The school, near the edge of Kakadu National Park, becomes completely isolated by monsoonal rains during the wet season and flexible term dates have helped attendance.
Senator Scullion says they drop because of increased mobility in the dry season, dysfunctional households, overcrowding and unemployment.
“The biggest factor is the deterioration of cultural authority,” he said.
“Without an education, people don’t have much of a chance. These children need the same opportunity as everyone else.”