Last Friday Helen and Mark Hughes put their names to an opinion piece in The Australian entitled Authorities must not wag school.

In short the arguments that the Hughes’ make are that Federal, State and Territory governments abandon their responsibilities to students – particularly remote Aboriginal students – by the stealthy foreshortening of school terms and by funding or otherwise supporting what they call “community festivals” in remote townships.

Predictably the Bolter has picked this up and Australia’s blog with the most hits, and perhaps the least sense, has attracted the usual raft of ill-informed comments.

The Northern Myth isn’t familiar with the work of Mark Hughes, but Helen Hughes is a familiar conservative commentator with an interesting twist on matters indigenous and who has recently turned her attention to remote Aboriginal education in the NT.

And not without some controversy.

As reported by the National Indigenous Times in April 2008, Hughes wrote an opinion piece, published in The Australian, that drew on examples from one small north-east Arnhem Land homeland, drawing the following very general analysis from that meagre dataset:

“There are about 10,000 of these illiterate non-numerate teenagers who have been going to school … What is the government of the NT going to do about these 10,000 children?”

But [then] NT Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour has dismissed her findings and says the claims are “absolutely insulting and offensive”.

“I just find it astounding that she bases a report and a generalisation across the Northern Territory Aboriginal communities based on one small homeland centre that she has visited,” she said. Ms Scrymgour said Prof Hughes had left out “some fundamental pieces of information” and denied the government was providing misleading figures on education standards in the bush.

Nadine Williams, NT president of the Australian Education Union, said Prof Hughes needed to “stop generalising”.

“It would be helpful if Helen Hughes had ever been to some of the places she’s talking about,” she said.

Anyway, now it seems that Hughes and her research assistants are at it again.

In their opinion piece of last Friday, the Hughes’ say that, due to the NT Education Department’s training requirements for remote-based teachers:

Homeland Learning Centres lose eight weeks – almost 25 per cent of the school year – while their staff attend courses for the first and last weeks of each term.

Taking that statement on face value you would think that in each of the hundreds of small homeland schools across the NT students spend two months of each school year sitting in classrooms without teachers.

Fortunately for the students the Hughes’s version of events is at some considerable distance from reality.

It is true that at the top and tail of each term that a bunch of teachers from all over the NT – from homeland and “mainstream” schools – go off for professional development training.

But not all teachers go for that training at the same time. Depending on demand, individual needs or other factors some go several times a year, some perhaps once or twice.

And relief teachers and local Aboriginal team teachers are rostered on to fill the gaps.

How do I know this?

I asked a couple of the teachers here at Yirrkala where I’m staying with family while working on my Aboriginal bird knowledge book project.

The second line of attack that the Hughes’ make – on remote community festivals – suffers the same problem – a few facts and a dose of reality mug their story of apparent bureaucratic indulgence and neglect of the best interests of remote students.

The Hughes’s say that:

The limited school year is further eroded by cultural festivals and sports events regularly scheduled during school hours.

The commonwealth government is a serious offender with its Community Festivals for Education Engagement program. Under this program, 13 indigenous festivals are being held this year…all are held during term time rather than during school holidays.

As in previous years, the successful Garma Festival ran this year during the school term in August. Many children lost up to two weeks’ schooling.
It would take little effort to reschedule next year’s Garma dates to the July school holidays. Financial sponsors of the festival, including the commonwealth and Northern Territory governments and high-profile private companies, should ensure this change is made.

Being in Yirrkala, just down the road from the Garma festival site at Gulkula, I was curious about the reference to the “many children” that apparently lost up to a fortnight of valuable schooling because of their attendance at Garma.

As the very informative Garma Festival website notes, the festival ran from 7 to 11 August this year – that is Friday through Tuesday.

I asked the organisers of the Garma Festival, the Yothu Yindi Foundation, about the Hughes’ claims.

The CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, Alan James, told me that:

Garma formally starts at 4pm on Friday afternoon. The forums all finish by 4pm Monday afternoon – resulting in one school day “lost”.

Garma is not part of the Federal Government’s “Community Festivals for Education Engagement” program.

The music and multimedia training programs are integral parts of Garma and these operate in consultation and engagement with schools and other educational institutions and provides credits towards VET accreditation, so it is very much a part of formal schooling.

And in relation to the Hughes’ demand that Garma be moved to the June school holidays, Alan James said that:

Garma is strategically linked to a number of other events that are held in the Top End of the NT in and around August. Cooperation between Garma and the organisers of other large events is essential to ensure that logistical bottlenecks – on a national and local scale – are avoided where possible.

August kicks off with the week-long Darwin Cup Festival, then the three core days of Garma (with an extra couple of days for the tourists) the next weekend, followed by the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Awards in Darwin the following week. The fortnight of the Darwin Festival follows.

The other important consideration – bearing in mind that the more than 2,500 people attending Garma are camping in tents – is that August is the driest time of year – the last thing we want is for Garma to be rained out.

As the Hughes’ should know – but apparently didn’t bother to find out for themselves – one of the most successful events at Garma is the Garma Miwatj Youth Forum, a cooperative venture with Anglicare NT.

As Ann Buxton, Executive Manager for the Youth, Family and Remote area programs at Anglicare NT, told the Senate Select Committee on Regional and Remote Indigenous Communities Inquiry at Hearings in Darwin in May this year:

Over the past four years Anglicare, in conjunction with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, started the Garma Miwatj Youth Forum, which runs parallel to the annual Garma Festival.

We bring together about 250 young people from communities in the regions and it has become a key event.

We promote youth leadership, do a lot of skills development work, and look at issues that young people are experiencing.
Garma has become an important event. It is a little event compared with the overall festival but it helps to give young people in that region a role.

For some time many elders have been interested in supporting young people, getting them engaged in processes, and putting some positive energy into some of the issues that they are dealing with. This forum, which has become important, also brings together about 40 organisations from around that region to help get it off the ground.

It is a great event.

A great event indeed – a bit of training, mentoring, skills development, community support and engagement and lots of positive energy and maybe a fair bit of fun.

Perhaps that is what so bothers the Hughes’ – the idea that a few kids might “lose” a day of school while they do the hard yards at Garma and have some fun while they are at it.

But in the apparently joyless world of the Hughes’ vision of remote education that would represent an abject failure by governments of their core responsibilities to school-children.

There is more – much more – that I could say about the Hughes’ opinion piece – including that their comments about the Central Desert Shire’s policy of only supporting cultural and sporting events held during school holidays was old news and the quotes attributed to the Shire CEO, Rowan Foley and the Shire President, Norbert Patrick, are cast in the present tense.

If the Hughes’ had done some basic research- like having a look at the Council Minutes for the Meeting of 30 September or reading this ABC News report – they would have found out that Foley was stood down as CEO at that meeting.

“Motion 3 was amended to the following: “Whereas the Central Desert Shire has recently suffered the resignation and loss of key personnel attributable to the management style of the CEO, and there have been various complaints lodged relating to the conduct of the CEO and Council management, the Council resolves to direct that the CEO step down on pay for the time being and that LGANT be approached for assistance in resolving the crisis that has developed”. Moved: Councillor Bruce Finter. Seconded: Councillor Ned Hargreaves.”

Sounds to me very much like a Council in crisis management mode.

Makes the Hughes’ call of “Three cheers for the Central Desert Shire!” sound just a bit hollow – particularly when you consider that one of the two organisations to be funded by the Commonwealth’s Community Festivals for Education Engagement 2009 – the Ti-Tree school, according to the information on the Commonwealth website, held it’s festival from Tuesday October 13 to Thursday October 15.

In term time.

And the local governing authority with responsibility for municipal services at Ti-Tree is…you guessed it, the Central Desert Shire.