When Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson first published his small book Our Right to Take Responsibility in the late 1990s it was immediately welcomed by thoughtful conservatives as a way out of the blind gully of calls for symbolic apologies that followed the Stolen Generations debate and the white middle-class orgy of moral superiority that was the “sorry walk” across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000.

Pearson has expanded his intellectual output into many other spheres of black and white life since that first pamphlet, but he has remained steadfastly wedded to the responsibility agenda. This is the agenda he and his Cape York Academy give practical shape to in the Queensland primary schools of Aurukun, Coen and Hope Vale, run as partnerships between the CYA under Pearson’s “Good to Great Schools” banner and the Queensland Department of Education and Training.

The CYA also manages Djarragun College, south of Cairns, which provides quality education up to Year 12 for day students and boarders from the Cape.

So when the Queensland DET shut the Aurukun school in May over incidents that involved intimidation of young teachers and two attempts to steal the school principal’s car this was a matter that looked very different to politicians in Brisbane compared with the point of view of the people on the Cape who have toiled to put flesh on the bones of the responsibilities agenda.

Pearson, his supporters and the school community are under siege from local critics, rival family groups who have always opposed the Pearson clan, the DET, older educators who disapprove of the school’s teaching methods and the Left of the Aboriginal lobby, which opposes the CYA’s focus on merit.

The CYA pulls together much of Pearson’s thinking on boarding schools and his work with mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest on GenerationOne, the Australian Employment Covenant. So not only does the CYA attempt to imbue children of the Cape with a sense that their community is involved in, and taking responsibility for, the education of its children, it then builds on Pearson’s work with boarding schools around the state to make sure those kids who show promise go on to a mainstream education up to Year 12.

Some of those who don’t make boarding school are channelled into work in projects around the country under GenerationOne, which seeks to place 50,000 indigenous people in jobs in partnership with big business and the federal government under a deal negotiated in 2008.

The boarding school side of the plan is not unlike the thinking behind Andrew Penfold’s Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, which is backed by some of Australia’s most powerful businesses, to make sure bright Aboriginal kids get the same sort of opportunities bright white children often take for granted.

While Pearson’s thoughts on sending children from remote areas to boarding schools were initially met with howls from the Left about another Stolen Generation, such schemes have now achieved wide acceptance. And, of course, there is a real racism in the culture of low expectations that says poor Aboriginal children should not have the same opportunities through scholarships to prestigious boarding schools as poor white children.

Pearson himself left home as a child on a scholarship to board and study in Brisbane at the prestigious St Peters Lutheran College. He is well aware many of those who go on to boarding school will leave the Cape forever, but also knows any hope of creating a generation of new leaders depends on breaking free of the culture that dominated Cape education for most of the 20th century.

Aurukun is a troubled place and has been throughout its history since it was founded as a mission by the Presbyterian Church in 1904. The community has long been plagued by substance abuse and introduced an alcohol management plan in 2009. It is a community in which 10 per cent of all residents are on parole.

Yet despite the furore over Aurukun since the school’s May closure, the results being achieved under Pearson’s favoured Direct Instruction teaching model are good. Direct Instruction involves a traditional “chalk and talk” approach by a teacher at the front of a classroom focusing on literacy and numeracy. Older readers who remember rote learning from their own primary school days will be familiar with the concept.

A review of the Aurukun school commissioned by the state government after the closure and released early last month made 27 recommendations, including the reintroduction of high school years 7 and 8, and the introduction of more national curriculum work in the final two years of primary, years 5 and 6. The state government says all 27 measures will be adopted, and the school reopened last month. Teacher numbers are up from 19 at the start of the year to 26 in term three. Full-time enrolment at the start of the year was at 208, though attendance rates vary and are sitting at about 130 to 140.

Recent disruptions aside, the school at Aurukun has cause to be optimistic. When the University of Melbourne’s John Hattie, the doyen of educational standards measurement in Australia, examined National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy results for Aurukun earlier this year, he was impressed with the school’s achievements, which show Year 3 reading and numeracy improving at a faster rate than the national average.

Said Hattie in June: “The program is truly making a difference; the sobering news is that the students have to make three-plus years’ growth in a year to catch up. There is more to do, but the nay-sayers want to destroy an evidence-based program because it has not performed magic.”

As CYA former manager Danielle Toon, now a Melbourne-based education researcher, points out, these children are unlikely to be getting the encouragement at home about their education that they might expect from their parents if they lived in Brisbane.

One of the more vocal critics of Pearson and Direct Instruction since the Aurukun closure, Aboriginal educator Chris Sarra, began his career as a principal in an area of Queensland, Cherbourg, that more closely resembles what most Australians would recognise as a traditional country town than the sometimes vicious life of the old Cape mission towns.

One of the most experienced high school principals in Australia and the head of Pearson’s Djarragun school, Don Anderson, has known Sarra for years and considers him a friend. He supports Sarra’s “stronger, smarter” classroom strategies for indigenous children but believes the kids Sarra designs his programs for are more like those from an underprivileged outer suburban school than the traumatised kids at Pearson’s primary schools.

Anderson, 62, is scathing of what many see as bureaucratic “arse protection” and believes this is threatening to undo some of the good work at Aurukun.

“Listen, I have been working with Aboriginal kids for decades. What the department does not realise is these kids come from a war zone and for the first time in my life they are making real progress. Just as Noel has managed to put the primary education, boarding schools and employment covenant together and it is paying off, along comes a bunch of bureaucrats wanting more paperwork. They do not give a stuff about the kids,” Anderson says. He is referring to the recent review and moves by the bureaucracy to impose workplace health and safety changes at the Aurukun school.

As with any community, educational results in Aurukun depend on diligent parenting. Kerrie Tamwoy, a senior Wik woman who has a nine-year-old son, Gerald, at the Aurukun school and children at university and boarding school in Brisbane, is clear. “The Aurukun school is being scapegoated,” she tells Inquirer. “I have been happy with the school for the last couple of years. A lot of what has happened is a law-and-order issue. The kids who stole the principal’s car are just not being engaged with anything by their parents. What are the parents doing, really, when young teenage kids are out on the street all night?”

Tamwoy is a strong supporter of Direct Instruction and is proud of the way Aurukun school has managed to reinforce Wik values while focusing tightly on educational basics. “I have seen the results of Direct Instruction in the children. Not only with my own children. I have seen the confidence the children have when they are doing their work.”

Tamwoy, like most Cape parents, many in the education bureaucracy, at the CYA and inside the teachers union, suspects the government has an agenda to gut the CYA partnership and take back control of the Cape’s schools. It is feared the violence of a few youths who are unemployed and not in the education system is being used as a Trojan Horse to this end.

State Education Minister Kate Jones and her department director-general, Jim Watterston, insist this is not true and point to concerns about teacher safety and other workplace practices as the reason for their recent interference. But despite their protests to the contrary, there is strong evidence the bureaucracy is winding back Direct Instruction and the role of the CYA as a partner in the Aurukun school.

A statement by the Wik Women’s Group, which supports the school, was released on August 4. The women complain that the extended school day at Aurukun has been cut back from a finish time of 4pm to 2.30pm. Toon says the extended day has been crucial in allowing the school’s children to catch up to educational levels in mainstream Australia.

“The extended school day en­abled the kids to receive the literacy and numeracy hours needed to accelerate progress while still receiving high-quality, teacher-led instruction in other areas of the national curriculum,” Toon said this month.

The Wik women complain that DI also is being cut back, and not just in the last two years of primary school as the department had suggested following the mid-year review. Says Toon: “DI now only goes until lunchtime (as opposed to 2.30pm) and children who are years behind are missing out on crucial instruction time to catch up. I can confirm they have cut back DI so far this term across all years.”

The original memorandum of understanding between the CYA and the DET signed in 2009 committed the state to work in partnership with the CYA to imple­ment the academy’s model, including DI programs, “to the fullest extent and highest fidelity to facilitate maximum outcomes’’.

The original executive principal (at the time Anderson) under the 2009 MOU was the linchpin, making decisions about academy schools based on advice from a subcommittee of equal CYA and DET representatives who were “philosophically aligned to the academy”. A critical component was the participation of the CYA (Pearson or his delegate) in the recruitment and selection of teachers. Under recent negotiations related to the reopening of the school, that all goes by the wayside and the assistant regional director or deputy director-general will make all decisions in relation to the school.

The recent government review says on page 7: “DET to develop and oversee a school improvement action plan responding to the recommendations of this review.” There is no mention of doing this in partnership with the CYA. The review also says DET will “strengthen its support for the governance and day-to-day operation of the school, with the CYA contracted to provide professional development, curriculum and pedagogy licensing and design”. The academy quite reasonably sees this as relegation to the status of service provider rather than the equal part­nership envisaged in the original MOU with the Bligh Labor government.

Jones does not seem keen to move too far from the Pearson agenda, but it is unclear if she is on the same page as her DG. For instance, Jones is completely committed to the CYA partnership: “There is good work happening in ‘Good to Great’ (Pearson’s education program for CYA),” she tells Inquirer.

But she cites two audits conducted before her time as minister, the first in 2014 and the second the following year, which found certain matters constituted high risk in terms of the department’s legal obligations.

“Some of these go to the basics of how you run a school,” she says. “Like making sure you have a hazardous chemicals register, that you actually do have a workplace health and safety committee, and that you undertake annual safety assessments. All those sorts of things every school in Queensland is required to do.”

Jones does not allege any financial impropriety but the view in the department is that payment records have not been maintained in sufficient detail. “The director-general has to ensure every school is meeting the requirements under the Workplace Health and Safety Act,” Jones says.

The DG has certain legal requirements under the act that Jones as minister has to respect, but she says she wants the community at Aurukun to know she supports the work of “Good to Great”.

She is also a supporter of what she calls Explicit Instruction, and cites the success of the DI school at Broadbeach on the Gold Coast. “There is a place for Direct Instruction,” she says. “It’s working in Hope Vale and Coen. If they keep direct instruction in place and put more support in place to have a broader curriculum we should also think very strongly about having more access to Wik language and culture.”

She is pleased with the NAPLAN analysis by Hattie but does express concern at the number of young teachers with little experience on staff at the school. Jones has set up a taskforce within the department to try to get more experienced teachers out to rural and remote Queensland.

But the problem in Aurukun with teachers is less about the classroom and more about living in the town. If young teachers spend their spare time locked up in their houses, too scared to get out and about in the community, this naturally breaks down trust with the locals. Watterston is more guarded than Jones when it comes to Aurukun. Asked about a comment he allegedly made at a private meeting about the department taking over the school, he told a parliamentary hearing late last month, “I am not aware the department ever relinquished control of the school.

“There has been no misunderstanding from my point of view that ‘Good to Great’ will be required and it is necessary that they play a role in that school going forward. The pedagogy and the curriculum that they have brought to the school, Direct Instruction and the program that they use, is one that we would like to continue with and that we see great merit in, in terms of building on the gains that those children have already made.”

But whatever the department and the minister say publicly in terms of their support for CYA’s reforms, it is clear any new MOU will be very different and will reduce CYA’s control of the venture. In other words, the government is taking away at least part of Pearson’s “right to take responsibility”.

Some see this all as no more than a power grab by Watterston, whom education insiders say has been more focused on building bureaucracy than fixing schools.

Originally from Western Australia, Watterston spoke at length to Inquirer about his thoughts on DI and the Aurukun school. He says the department wants the school’s children to go to boarding school, “but they need to be able to cope in an environment out of Aurukun. For some of those kids their experience out of Aurukun is very, very limited.”

This is why the department is offering the new years 7 and 8 option. Watterston says there are other options such as distance education for children beyond Year 8 who do not make it to boarding school.

“One of the issues in transitioning to boarding school, whether at Weipa or at Brisbane Boys Grammar, is that the kids are quickly exposed to a much wider variety of subjects than just literacy and numeracy.

“The Direct Instruction pedagogy is a really strong scaffolding … but you can’t take the Direct Instruction with you and when you move into the next phase of your education or when you move into employment.

“We need to make sure that in the upper years of primary and now in years 7 and 8 we start developing some capacity for kids to be able to apply those skills in an open environment.”

He says the whole country is struggling in indigenous education but Queensland is doing the best, even though there is a long way to go. He thinks the DI results in Coen and Hope Vale are better than in Aurukun because there is more community buy-in. And he believes the lack of secondary education in Aurukun does leave too many kids “with idle hands”.

“There needs to be a pathway for those kids to give them a way forward for later in life,” Watterston says. “We have to make sure we are giving kids second, third, fourth and 10th chances in life, and I don’t think we have been doing that in Aurukun.”

He says part of the problem is the small-P politics of previous educators in Aurukun. People need to get over the educational politics and concentrate on what is best for the children.

Asked specifically about critics who claim he has an agenda to take the CYA schools back under the department, he says the schools were and always have been state schools.

“I am being deliberately misrepresented. It’s my role and moral objective to make sure that every single kid in Queensland gets the best opportunities from the education system that they can get. I am really committed to making sure that Aurukun is the best school it can be.

“I don’t care how much people want to debate this review that we had … that was conducted by 11 professional, high-performing educators who have got credibility who say that what’s going on in Aurukun could be done better. We are not raking over the coals of history. We want to make it better.”

It is not only political and educational resistance that threatens Pearson’s responsibilities agenda at Aurukun. As usual on the Cape, family and local rivalries fester and in most disputes Pearson and his brother Gerhardt manage to attract more than their fair share of critics.

Aurukun’s former mayor Neville Pootchemunka was a big supporter, but he died in April 2012. His successor, long-term health worker Dereck Walpo, is not a supporter of the CYA or DI and has made his position clear to the state government. Pearson still has support from former deputy mayor Phyllis Yunkaporta and the powerful Wik Women’s Group.

Walpo has made it known he supports a return to a traditional secondary school in Aurukun. Pearson refused to be interviewed for this piece and is believed to be concerned about alienating Watterston or the mayor.

Like Walpo, there are those in the Queensland education system who agree the lack of a secondary school option has left those without the ability to make the boarding school transition with little real education option.

Some of Pearson’s critics, but especially former state teachers union secretary Ian Mackie, believe this is at the core of his problems. Yet Pearson did initially try to make secondary school work, and does use the employment covenant to find work for kids who will never make boarding school. And the CYA has no issue with the state system expanding its footprint into secondary school in Aurukun.

There is no doubt the state’s decision to move Year 7 from primary to high school last year as Queensland joined the rest of the country in having a kindy year and 13 years of schooling has hurt the CYA in Aurukun this year as the first year of CYA primary has graduated. This change has left a gap for kids who do not go on to boarding school.

Mackie, who was also the state’s assistant director-general for indigenous education and director of the Western Cape College in Weipa, agrees this is a problem.

“I don’t see Direct Instruction as the problem at Aurukun,” he says. “The central problem is the lack of a secondary school.

“That is where Noel Pearson got caught up in a perfect storm. At the same time they moved grade seven to secondary and Noel launched, they now leave at 12 and have no school.

“Then they are supposed to go off to boarding school, and a number do succeed. But what of those who don’t go boarding? In my day, two-thirds would have remained (at school) to 15.

“This (lack of secondary schooling) developed recently into the gang-style behaviour and it was something the community could not keep a lid on. The state went along with this (ditching secondary) because it was held over a barrel by the commonwealth.

“First under Jenny Macklin and Labor, and then under (Tony) Abbott, Noel cultivated high-level relationships and they supported his plans. Most of the funding in this area comes from the commonwealth.

“What is required for these kids who don’t go to boarding school is a mapping back of the job opportunities on the Cape. They need to provide an education for these opportunities, of which there are many. They will always need teacher aides, nurse’s aides, low-level clerical jobs, land management jobs and tradies.

“There is a real fourth estate question here. The partnership model was only meant to last a decade. Why aren’t more serious questions being asked?”

Another former senior education bureaucrat, who asked not to be named, also thought there should be the option of a more practical secondary education after Year 8 for children not equipped for boarding school. This would need a real focus on vocational education and training.

But he supports DI: “When Noel came to see me about his plans seven or eight years ago the model of education being used at the time did not seem to be delivering for the kids there. Why not give something else a chance to succeed?

“My opinion is it has been reasonably successful and last year it was delivering education better than it had been. There might be a case for transitioning to a more typical curriculum in the two years ahead of high school. But the determinant in Aurukun is social disadvantage.

“My understanding is the minister and the Premier want to work with Noel Pearson to get the school back on track. I am not sure that is the view of the director-general. I think he wants to get control over the school back.

“Have a look at the expansion of the senior bureaucracy under this DG and you will see what’s going on. He has surrounded himself with a little kingdom and in that is a classic bureaucrat.”

Back up 18 years and Pearson was a columnist for me at Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail. He did not know the then premier, Peter Beattie, and wanted to talk to the Labor leader about his ideas on welfare reform.

I introduced them. We listened to Pearson for more than an hour. Beattie was mesmerised.

His first response was that he wanted to help. His second showed a wisdom that probably explains the success of his long term as premier. Beattie wanted Pearson to repeat everything he had just said for the director-general of health right away.

“Because, mate, no matter how much I or the media support you, it is the bureaucracy that will undermine this if it is not onside. They will kill any reform they see as against their interests,” Beattie said.

Late last month, the former premier took up the theme again in the context of Aurukun. “We used to encourage the DGs to maintain personal relationships with the remote communities,” he said. “The real problem at the time we began engaging with Noel was that no one really understood these communities, which were well over a thousand miles away.

“The whole thing about change in the end, like the alcohol management plan we did, is that it is very difficult. There is a lot of division and not a lot of understanding of the issues in Brisbane. The principles that apply in the cities just don’t apply on those communities.

“Change does require a local partnership with direct engagement. Without that nothing works. One of the reasons policy failed for so long is we had a one-size-fits-all approach. These com­munities are as different from the Aboriginal communities on the fringes of provincial towns as chalk and cheese.”

Pearson must feel like he is stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. Having persuaded Beattie, signed the MOU with the CYA under Beattie’s successor Anna Bligh and then had to win over the subsequent Newman government, he is now back having to sell the merits of his venture all over again.

And while he is a controversial figure on the Cape, with many enemies on both sides of politics, there is no doubt he has succeeded at something the mainstream education system of a state department with 1600 schools has never been able to do. As Hattie says, Pearson’s NAPLAN improvements are real and he is being attacked for not producing a miracle.

Unfortunately, at Aurukun at least, the DET seems to have forgotten the lessons of its own history in a race back to a one-size-fits-all approach.

The last word goes to Djarragun’s passionate principal, Anderson. “The whole time I was executive principal at the Cape York Academy from 2009 I was used as cartilage by senior people in the education bureaucracy whose only aim was to prevent me doing what the then premier, Anna Bligh, had asked me to do.

“Every step forward was a fight.”

Chris Mitchell is a former editor of The Courier-Mail and a former editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers and The Australian. He is an ambassador for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

READ: The Australian