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As a society we must take action

Date

Ian Thorpe and Jeff McMullen

Illustration by David Rowe.

Illustration by David Rowe.

When you first see the youngest Aboriginal kids in the remote Northern Territory communities, it is their size that is striking. They are so small and malnourished in a country that sells food to the world.

When you see their overcrowded homes, there is never enough food on the table for all the hungry mouths.  The poverty is confronting.  Everything we have provided other Australian kids seems missing.  Somehow these children are missing out on most of the building blocks of a happy and healthy life, including education, somewhere we can all make a difference.

It is time for Australians to awaken from our complacency over the low literacy standard that has one in four primary school children unable to read at their right age level.

Indigenous children in remote communities are often three to four years behind city students. Our nation is failing them.

If we believe in equality, more of us must champion literacy, an essential tool.

We need an Australia-wide effort in 2013 that brings our entire society to the realisation that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. We would like to see Australia's wealthiest people invest directly in the education of Australia's poorest children.

Prominent Australians could follow the example of former High Court justice Michael Kirby OAM, in advocating far greater support for the most disadvantaged schools. More sporting stars could take a lead from Michael Long, David Liddiard, Adam Goodes and Michael O'Laughlin in speaking up for kids who don't feel included in our national aspiration.

Our universities, private colleges, sporting clubs and corporations could create opportunities for kids in the bush to experience more first-rate learning opportunities.

Ian Thorpe's Fountain for Youth has spent more than a decade working with remote Aboriginal communities, funding skilled literacy teachers, early learning for infants, digital education and community storytelling. It has also provided the highly successful literacy backpack program to provide reading for the whole family.

We have helped build and enrich community libraries and train young people to run small businesses and cultural centres. Most importantly we have  made lifelong friendships.

In our travels we discuss whether education or empowerment should come first, but we have no doubt that Australia has not yet realised the full potential of hundreds of thousands of our children.

With Catherine Freeman we shared a dream in 2007 that a bipartisan political effort – the Close the Gap campaign, led by  Dr Tom Calma AO – would focus all branches of government on a co-ordinated effort to improve the education and health of  indigenous children.

Instead we see more Aboriginal children being removed from their families than during the worst decades of the Stolen Generations. Suicide is a terrifying contagion across the Top End communities. Incarceration rates are higher than during the apartheid era in South Africa. All of our nation's concern over the safety and well-being of these children have not altered the Northern Territory government's grim assessment that more are now at risk of neglect than before the federal intervention was launched in June 2007.

In a federal election year we will soon be ear-bashed with more political promises. Few of those dismal gaps will close unless we stop waiting for government action and start acting like a society that  cares.

Let us all make a New Year's resolution to directly help one or more children learn to read and write effectively.

We need to look honestly at the education effort and think of creative approaches.

A literacy brigade made up of specialists who get out of the universities and into the field could provide front line teachers with the  skills to develop oral language, phonological awareness, decoding and comprehension for multi-lingual indigenous students.

Despite a glowing report card from the Australian Council for Educational Research  on our efforts, Ian Thorpe's Fountain for Youth can expect no federal support in 2013.

The government that gave us the ''Education Revolution'' has cut literacy and numeracy funding to the 20 most successful programs in the country.

Ian Thorpe was awarded the 2012 Human Rights Medal for his personal advocacy and work by his foundation to improve the education of Aboriginal children. Journalist Jeff McMullen is the foundation's honorary chief executive.

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