IN EDUCATING the children of remote Australia, the Northern Territory has been something of an innovator.
First to mind is the School of the Air, which started in 1948 as a radio network under the watchful eye of Reverend John Flynn, who established the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
The 'School' broadcast lessons to outback children, all taught to use the RFDS radio service.
Pioneering the education of remote Aboriginal children is another.
In 1973, the Territory introduced a system of bilingual education, or two-way schooling, based on the idea that children learn best in their mother tongue.
Only a year later, the scheme drew praise from the NT Department of Education as comprising "one of the most exciting educational events in the modern world.”
At its peak, the system operated in English and 19 Aboriginal languages at 29 very remote schools.
At the outset, some Aboriginal communities had themselves requested a bilingual form of teaching for their community school and in a particular language region.
The goals of the plan included to achieve competency in the specified Aboriginal language, as well as in English.
At its best, the project employed a great many Aboriginal teachers alongside non-Indigenous teachers.
Nonetheless, the Northern Territory now struggles to meet requisite national education benchmarks.
These are enshrined in the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy, or NAPLAN, which measures educational outcomes at Years Three, Five, Seven and Nine.
Such outcomes are poorer on average for Northern Territory students compared with their interstate counterparts, and significantly poorer again for Indigenous children.
Last year, the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which is conducted every four years, showed the NT results to be dire.
So what is going wrong?
Billions are poured into educating the Territory's young, only to achieve this enormous gap between them and students in other states.
And, according to the Australian Education Union, the situation is getting worse over time.
One factor pointed to repeatedly, is the role of bilingual education.
From its glory days of the 1970s, however, dedication to learning in the mother tongue has waned.
Now, of roughly 154 government-funded schools in the Northern Territory, only eight can said to operate a bilingual education program.
Indeed, some experts argue the era of bilingual schooling in the Territory is effectively over.
Even so, bilingual education remains one of the most hotly-debated issues in Territory education and beyond.
One side says bilingual is key to better outcomes for Indigenous children, the other that it is holding them back.
Meanwhile, there is little evidence on which to base decisions, let alone guide the debate.
But a recently published book may help to change all that.
Charles Darwin University linguist and senior research fellow Dr Samantha Disbray is one of the editors of a recently published book History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory (Springer 2017).
Dr Disbray believes too much has been expected of bilingual education, especially in a context like the Northern Territory where so many factors are simultaneously at play.
"The bilingual program could never have healed all of the ills that were ahead of it,” says Dr Disbray.
"If you look at the 154 schools (in the Territory), very, very few of them are secondary, or operate middle or secondary programs.
"And if you look at NAPLAN result, the result I have always found the most shocking is not the Grade Three reading or the Year Five maths; it's actually the level of participation in the Year Nine tests: (it) is incredibly low.
"If you look at how many students in bush communities have access - in their communities - to secondary school, it's extremely low.”
Commissioned by a previous Territory government under Adam Giles, the 2015 Wilson Review of Indigenous education in the NT examined the option of sending indigenous remote high school students to boarding schools in regional centres.
According to the Wilson Review, Year Three Indigenous students in very remote NT schools were two years behind Indigenous students in very remote schools in the rest of Australia.
By Year Nine, the gap was five years.
With more than 15,000 Indigenous students enrolled in the Northern Territory on 2015 figures, and more than half in remote and very remote locations, the breadth of the problem is clear.
"When the Wilson Review says forget trying to offer secondary in the bush, send them all to boarding school, it's not because secondary hasn't worked in the bush, it's (because) it's not there.
"What they're really saying is, let's try to get these kids a secondary education.”
And while the history of using boarding schools is also plagued by poor outcomes, good news stories do occasionally emerge.
"Stories of students who go away to elite, and not so elite, boarding schools, and do succeed,” says Dr Disbray. "I believe in role models; these are small starts, but they will generate momentum.”
But secondary schooling away from home isn't for everyone and there needs to be choice.
Further complicating matters, however, are shifts in the Aboriginal languages themselves.
Of the 14 Aboriginal languages still spoken in Australia across all generations and by more than 900 people, 12 are in the Northern Territory.
But some say this number is growing, by counting new 'contact languages' now being spoken.
Contact languages such as Kriol and varieties of Aboriginal English, are new stand-alone languages, which have been developing since Europeans arrived in Australia.
They form when different languages come together, and children often play an important role.
One contact language is so-called 'Light Warlpiri', spoken at Lajamanu. It has its own rules and grammar from Warlpiri and English and includes words of traditional Warlpiri, some of English, and some from Kriol.
So even though a teacher may speak Warlpiri, their students may speak Light Warlpiri as a first language and be a learner of both Standard Warlpiri and English.
In a recent study, Dr Disbray was asked to find a best-practice solution to get kids a secondary education, in or out of a particular remote region.
"We couldn't come back and say, here's the golden pathway, because there isn't one. But we did find many good elements”.
So has bilingual education achieved anything?
"We're damning the bilingual program by saying it hasn't achieved NAPLAN,” says Dr Disbray.
"But if we go back to the (original) goals, and try to evaluate it according to what it set out to do, it hasn't done too badly.”
Given eight bilingual schools still operate across the Territory, and with a standout example currently in place at Yuendumu according to Dr Disbray, bilingual education is not dead yet.
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