Only 32 per cent of Indigenous students attend school more than four days per week, students have registered only minimum improvements in math and in some cohorts, reading skills have worsened, the department’s annual report shows.
The Department of Education’s Annual Report details a $1.1 billion budget, teacher retention rates and academic performance against a backdrop of a tumultuous year that saw COVID-19 significantly impact schools and budget cuts, which the union representing teachers says is being felt by students.
According to the report, infrastructure works started at 43 schools as part of the $5.2 million Building for Inclusion Program to improve facilities for students with additional needs, and 75 remote schools received classroom adjustments for the 2449 students diagnosed with a hearing or ear health issue in the last year.
However, $1.29 million was slashed from spending as the NT Government implemented budget repair measures as part of its fiscal strategy to fix the Northern Territory’s budget.
Money being diverted to pay wages rather than on ‘basic things’: NTEU
The report highlighted there was “no adverse effect on schools or students” of the budget cuts, but Jarvis Ryan, the president of the NT Education Union says the budget squeeze is in fact impacting the sector.
“A 2.5 per cent salary increase hasn’t been funded, we know there is a massive backlog in maintenance and repairs and we know schools have gone without basic things like gardening because those funds have been directed to staffing,” he said.
Mr Ryan said he was concerned the cuts would continue into the next budget and highlighted controversial measures to find savings, such as axing rental subsidies for teachers in Katherine last year, continued to strain the workforce.
“Katherine High School is already actively recruiting for many positions, now I can’t say definitively if problems with recruiting and retention stem directly from the cuts to housing subsidies, but if you have a subsidy and then take it away it is not going to help,” he said.
According to the report, staffing expenses remain the department’s major expense component at $512.1 million for a staff total of 4588, making up 46.2 per cent of total expenses.
The report flags “ongoing savings by changing the provision of head-leasing housing to employees in Katherine”, which is expected to save $500,000 per year once fully implemented.
However, this saving, Mr Ryan said, is likely to cause more problems than it is worth.
Naplan scores show reading skills among non-Indigenous students in year nine have not improved since 2015 and in fact worsened by five per cent compared to the previous year.
The report’s most alarming revelation lies in attendance, with only 32 per cent of Indigenous students attending school four days or more per week across 2019-20.
By comparison, non-indigenous students recorded an attendance rate of 84 per cent for the same year.
“Attendance is one of the biggest challenges we face,” Mr Ryan said.
“We often see low, sporadic attendance especially in remote communities, and our concern as a union is that this space has been neglected by the NT Government.”
He said there has been “no significant headway” in closing the gap with high rates of teacher turnover in remote schools remaining an issue, and not enough focus on adopting culturally appropriate practices.
“The NT Government has a lot of work to do in this space,” he said.
Opposition CLP education spokeswoman Jo Hersey said the low attendance rates were cause for concern.
“The latest attendance figures are shockingly low and continue the poor trend under the Labor Government. The CLP has consistently argued for truancy officers to be brought back and expanding school based policing,” she said.
“All children deserve to have a good education and it’s incumbent on the Government to make sure they’re in the classroom, reaping the benefits.”
Education Minister Lauren Moss did not respond to questions.
The report also showed while school attendance continues to be a significant issue in the NT, a record 1454 students completed the Northern Territory Certificate of Education and Training (NTCET) in 2019-20 Territory-wide, an increase of 79 students compared to 2018-19.
More Indigenous students completed their NTCET in the last financial year than ever before, with 227 receiving certificates.