Alekarenge: the school Australia forgot

Alekarenge School

Shame: The school Australia forgot

The plight of Alekarenge School is a scandal and highlights the skewed priorities of the Territory and Federal Government when it comes to school infrastructure, writes Jarvis Ryan

Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. You could be forgiven for forgetting that when you step into the grounds of Alekarenge School in the Barkly Region, two hours drive from Tennant Creek.

On entry, you will likely be greeted by wild dogs that have entered the school grounds because its fencing is so dilapidated the dogs can’t be kept out.

The problem is so bad that students must eat their meals locked up in a cage-like structure to prevent them from being bitten. Despite this precaution, numerous teachers and students have been bitten in recent years.

Kids are forced to play in hot, dusty yards on rusted play equipment with no shade netting. Ramps to buildings and walkways are so corroded that, far from providing access, they represent a safety hazard.

In the Families as First Teachers building, teachers co-ordinate activities for up to 50 parents and their infant children in a demountable classroom whose floor is in danger of collapsing at any moment. A condemned, crumbling asbestos portable building sat boarded up for years, with the Department of Infrastructure ignoring repeated requests to remove it.

Alekarenge’s teachers have laboured heroically to continue to provide a quality education to their students even in the face of these inadequacies, not to mention other challenges. In 2018 they remained in Alekarenge and kept the school open, despite rioting and unrest in the community, to provide a haven for students.

Student attendance plummeted in the wake of the unrest and the school had its budget cut due to the Department of Education’s longstanding policy of funding schools based on attendance rather than enrolment.

Last August I invited our Federal President, Correna Haythorpe, and Deputy President, Maurie Mulheron, to visit Alekarenge. They were shocked by what they saw.

“It was a privilege to meet the passionate and dedicated staff at Alekarenge school, however no student or staff member should have to endure the dilapidated buildings and playground areas that we saw on our visit,” Correna said after her visit. “It is shameful that any government, be it Commonwealth, state or territory can believe that it is acceptable for students, teachers, principals or education support staff to learn and work in such unsafe buildings.”

Following our visit, the AEU’s Barkly Regional Council and then the AEU NT Branch Executive endorsed a campaign for a new school to be built in Alekarenge. Our call was echoed by Alekarenge’s LEaD Committee, a parent and community advocacy body, who wrote to Minister for Education Selena Uibo last October:

“The families of Alekarenge School have many hopes and dreams for the future of their children. We want changes to make sure we can always be proud of Ali Curung Community.

“Our kids are the future of our community and we want them to have the best opportunities our country can provide. We are already working with Centrefarm [an Aboriginal horticulture company] to develop this community towards economic independence in the next 25 years. This can’t happen unless our children are proud of our community and have a good education…

“We are asking for three things:

  1. Get rid of the old buildings and play equipment that give our community shame.
  2. Build new buildings and play equipment for our community to be proud of.
  3. Do not remove any more buildings until new buildings are funded and a date for building is given.”

Last September the AEU NT wrote formally to Minister Uibo requesting her government commit to building a new school. I raised the issue with local MLA and cabinet member, Gerry McCarthy, and infrastructure minister Eva Lawler. I got the same message from everyone: there is no money for new infrastructure.

The best the Department of Education has offered is to transport portable classrooms no longer required in Top End urban schools.The perverse irony of this proposal is that the current buildings at Alekarenge are mostly “temporary” – they were installed as an interim measure after fire damaged the old school.That fire occurred in 1970 – 50 years ago.

The AEU has raised the issue again with ministers this year as finalisation of the 2020-21 Budget nears. We have been told there will be no money in this year’s budget for new school infrastructure spending. According to the Department, even the repairs and maintenance budget will be stretched thin.

The lack of funds for infrastructure marks a departure from big spending in recent years. New special schools have been built in Darwin and Palmerston. Last year’s budget allocated $29 million to Stage 2 of Zuccoli, a new primary school in Palmerston.

In recent years, $42 million has been allocated to the Bullocky Point precinct in Darwin, allowing for the building of a new distance education centre and upgrades to Darwin High and Darwin Middle to cope with rapid enrolment growth.

The AEU has supported all these upgrades. We welcome the Government committing funds to build and upgrade public schools to replace outdated infrastructure and in response to growing student enrolments and identified need.

What we object to is the double standard whereby some students and some communities are deemed to matter more than others. The festering neglect that is Alekarenge School is a disgrace that would never be accepted in a major town or city in Australia.

We know Alekarenge is not the only remote school desperately needing attention. But it is one of the most glaring cases of government neglect you will ever see in this country.

There is no excuse for it to continue. This government must commit now – in this budget – to funding the construction of a new school for Alekarenge.

Feds must do their part.

The plight of Alekarenge School is not just a Territory problem. The Morrison Government bears a large part of the blame by abolishing federal capital spending on public schools.

Last year the Morrison government provided a $1.9 billion capital works special deal for private schools without providing a dollar for public schools. Capital works funding – for new school buildings and school maintenance – has not been provided to public schools by the federal government since 2017, leaving state and territory governments to pick up the slack.

This is despite the original 2011 Gonski review stating that “all levels of government need to provide greater attention to addressing issues in these schools to ensure that the existing capital is at the very least adequate for delivering 21st century education.”

The massive discrepancy in capital works funding between public and private schools is clear. Catholic schools spent 2.2 times more per student on capital works than public schools in 2017. Independent schools spent four times more per student.

While public schools educate 66 per cent of school students nationally, their infrastructure funding was just 38 per cent of the total provided to all schools. In fact, My School data shows that Australia’s four richest private schools spent more on new facilities and renovations than 1800 schools combined.

Historically, the Northern Territory has relied on Canberra to provide additional funding to overcome the massive disadvantage suffered by remote Indigenous communities. There is no way the huge infrastructure deficit we see in public schools – most glaringly obvious in remote communities – can be addressed without substantial federal resourcing.

The AEU has made central to our Fair Funding Now campaign a demand that the Federal Government establish a capital works program for public schools, commencing at $300 million per year and increasing each year in line with enrolment growth and rising costs.

This article was first published in the Term 1, 2020 edition of the Territory Educator magazine