Partnerships not Punishment

While the Families Responsibilities Commission may claim it is working as a means to get Aboriginal children re-engaged in school, taxpayers have every right to question such claims. In the interest of healthy debate and development of good public policy, there are some alternate views I think must be considered. All good business and public policy should be scrutinised within the context of the triple bottom line. Good policy must deliver on economic, environmental and social returns in order to be considered effective. Against this background I suspect the public has good reason to be outraged.


From the outset I acknowledge the good intention of this strategy. I like the part of the FRC design that engages Elders in serious decision making process relating to school. It is absolutely crucial that Aboriginal children engage positively with school. Clearly though, I do not share the excitement of some about the attendance results trumpeted this week, and like many, have some questions. It is good that in three of the four schools that are part of the FRC trial there was some improvement, but for the dollars spent, they should all be exceptional.


In economic terms some very serious questions exist, particularly when there is 48 million dollars for less than 600 students in question. With the most basic crunching of numbers we realise the FRC has been extremely costly. The questions become more serious when we consider that even better results have been delivered in other places, for much less. For instance, at Cherbourg with 250 students and a budget of 400 thousand dollars, attendance improved from 63% to 94%. In essence, these are better outcomes, delivered for 120 times cheaper, and in a way that is positive rather than punitive. While my time at Cherbourg was some time ago, recent reports suggest that this trend of positive engagement in school continues under the strong and smart philosophy.


At the Stronger Smarter Summit earlier this week, an extensive range of schools from across Australia had a similar story to tell about student engagement under the premise of the more economically viable and more sustainable philosophies of positive engagement with children and communities. Like many Australians I think it makes little sense to waste significant funds on the salaries of bureaucrats with very little understanding about how schools work, much less about the crucial need for positive relationship with people. Whilst I am certain such people are well meaning, it makes more sense, if we have such significant funds, to spend it on salaries for Aboriginal people based in such communities. The dollars in question could be spent on at least 5 Aboriginal salaries for several years, in every Aboriginal community in Queensland whose role could be forging positive relationships between schools and communities. I know for certain such measures work because I see it working in schools throughout Australia. 


There are other significant economic questions to be raised. For instance why would we waste such dollars to invent and enforce new legislation, when legislation has always existed declaring that chronic disengagement from school is against the law? The law has existed for some time, but what we have lacked as school and community leaders, is the courage to enforce such authority.


Further to this, the sustainability of the FRC is questionable. If it fails it fails, yet if it succeeds it can only fail. There is absolutely no way any state budget can extrapolate this strategy to other communities at the same investment rate. The FRC is ‘Passion Pop’ policy at ‘Dom Perignon’ prices, with ‘Pepsi’ returns.


The environmental return on such punitive approaches also raises serious questions. Good public policy should always pursue a win-win circumstance. From my perspective nobody wins with the FRC strategy. Parents who are perhaps already struggling lose not only income, but their sense of hopelessness is reinforced. School principals lose because their capacity to have a positive relationship with the community is seriously undermined as they become ‘informants’ in very small communities. Students forced back to school lose because their relationship with parents is seriously undermined, and they are boxed in to a school circumstance that they have already rebelled against because they could not connect with it. Students who attend regularly lose because the teacher has less time for them as they spend more time dealing with those who are likely to be extremely disruptive. Teachers lose too as their morale is diminished and their lessons are now hijacked.


For me as a parent, a teacher, a school principal, and one who remembers what it is like to be an Aboriginal student, I understand very well that just getting a child inside the school gate does not mean the problem is solved. My experience as an educator confirms absolutely that children and parents engage school positively when respectful partnerships exist.


Finally I see limited social return with the FRC’s punitive approaches. They are clearly polarized from the stronger smarter approach. It is stick versus carrot. It is people punishment versus people partnerships. It is doing things ‘to’ people, versus doing things ‘with’ people. One approach says to Aboriginal people “You are so hopeless that we will force you to get your kid to school by taking money from you!” The other says “You have human capacity, let’s work together to educate your child!” The Stronger Smarter Institute website reveals an extensive range of schools demonstrating how this approach has been extremely effective throughout Australia.


It is fitting to close by acknowledging the hard work and tenacity of school leaders and teachers in the schools in question. They received no acknowledgement in the FRC’s desperate attempts to claim it is worth such exorbitant expenditure. The principal and staff of Aurukun in particular have worked extremely hard to deliver good quality teaching amidst the chaos and clumsiness of FRC. Their efforts inside the school gate are the real reason children are turning up.


If there is serious contemplation of extrapolating this policy, then I challenge its advocates to enable an external evaluation to determine whether or not the improvements at Aurukun are from the recent injection of quality leadership and quality teachers, or from the FRC. I strongly suspect it is the former. If somehow I am wrong and it is the latter, it still would not stack up against the triple bottom line of good policy.


3 Responses

  1. Hi Chris,
    I think it’s important to look beyond the politically driven hype of the FRC and applaud the positive efforts that have been made, especially from the Local Commissioners. And it’s also important to note that the Cape York Welfare Reforms are aimed at a range of social issues, not just school attendance. I agree that it is far better to do things ‘with’ people rather than ‘to’ them. I’m not so sure that Stronger Smarter and the FRC are so diametrically opposed as you suggest, though. For example, the SETs program (student education trusts) seems to be a great way to get parents engaging in their children’s education with some really positive results. What’s your view on this program?

  2. I teach in a remote community with a high level of indigenous students, and though I agree with some aspects of what you say, such as “getting the kids through the door is not enough”, I notice the lack of willingness of the Aboriginal community to be active members of their children’s education. the attitude appears to be that once they are out of the door and into the school, they are the schools’ problems.

    Nothing is mentioned here about Indigenous fractured families, drug abuse, petrol sniffing and alcohol abuse that goes on within families. These kids come to school with all of this going on, and we are expected to “respect”? Seems to me this “respect” is a one way street.

    Many kids are already fractured. Unless there is a typhoon of full-blown honesty here, we will continue to be mired in “FRC”, “Stronger, Smarter..” or any other catchy acronym or snazzy mantra that one may wish to conjure up.

    Self-awareness and self-honesty by Indigenous communities is needed. Until that happens and responsibility is taken, rather than blaming “the whites”, little will change.

  3. Dear Chris,
    I teach a 3rd year Education unit called EDF 3101 Working with Indigenous children, youth and their families. I want to have your permission to use your work in Indigenous Education as a case study of Best Practice. In the past, I have used the ABC documentary based on your work at Cherbourg School when you were Principal, but a friend lost that video. I was wondering if you might recommend some good documentary footage I might locate of you. My plan is to discuss your work and philosophies on 22 March and ask my students to do an internet search on the work of Chris Sarra. I hope this request meets with your approval.
    Kind Regards,

    Richard Routh, Lecturer Education Program
    Edith Cowan University, South West Campus

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