and another one

July 3, 2007 at 9:53 pm (education, essays)

Wow, look at that painstaking APA style reference list. and all the goodies in it…

“Existing educational institutions cannot solve the problem, because they are the problem.” (Chubb & Moe, 1990). To what extent are educational organisations capable of dealing with the issues of Aboriginal disadvantage in Australia?

All Indigenous social indicators, from low average birth weight and high infant mortality, to the ten times higher percentage of people incarcerated than exist in the population and life expectancy 20 years less than the rest of the country, (Malin & Maidment, 2003) show that the Aboriginal peoples of Australia are among the world’s most disadvantaged. The Indigenous population is also educationally disadvantaged, as evidenced by perhaps the most basic statistic, that while 73% of the Australian population completes Year 12, only 32% of the Indigenous population does so. School retention is even further marred by low attendance and participation rates. This is not surprising, as school students usually suffer from a non-culturally sensitive, non-Indigenous teaching system. The curriculum lacks familiar and culturally interesting content and is usually taught by non-Indigenous teachers with poor cross-cultural understanding, who interpret the use of Aboriginal English and alternative cultural capital as poor education or lack of ability.

Aboriginal students in mainstream educational settings share many needs with other groups such as migrants, non-native speakers of English, rural or poor communities and the vast number of students of any identification, who happen to have a learning style which is not commonly catered for. Many recommendations for changes in schools involve common consideration of the student as a learner, and as an individual embedded in a context. This is certainly a positive step in assisting Indigenous learners, but these recommendations benefit not only Aboriginal students but any member of any of the above groups, and indeed even the most average, culturally dominant student conceivable, by attention to needs and differences, and by encouraging exposure to difference. There are, however, some areas in which the characteristics and needs of Indigenous learners are distinct from those of similarly disadvantaged students, and require more specific attention than merely good teaching such as encompassing all pertinent learning styles. This relates to cultural aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander communities. Schwab (1996) has identified four specific themes of Indigenous culture in Maningrida, one extended community in North-Central Arnhem Land, which impact on the classroom. Autonomy means that, while participation can be encouraged, it cannot be enforced. Specific understandings of shame sometimes make educational institutions fraught environments, and engender behaviours such as deference and non-engagement which are easily misinterpreted by the ignorant. Sharing is another theme foreign to non-Indigenous school life, which can both be mistaken for cheating, and entail a completely different set of motivations from those of the individualistic world view. The concept of caretaking also shapes different priorities from the unquestioned school version and much possibility for cross-cultural confusion (Schwab, 1996)

To these could be added other factors, such as those relating to the history of racist conflict and discrimination, or the treatment of content areas such as Australian history. The important claim of Indigenous peoples on this country, the rights of each person and community, and even the merits of these ideas and values themselves all emphasise the necessity of addressing all these issues, whether they are specific to Indigenous peoples, or not. This is only beginning to happen. Schools are the mainstay of the entire education system, and mainstream schools, defined here as that majority of institutions for students from kindergarten to year twelve which are not Indigenous-focused, remain culturally inappropriate, produce extraordinarily high suspension and exclusion rates for Indigenous students (Malin & Maidment, 2003) and do little to either relieve health and poverty issues, or even account for the fact that such issues impact severely on the learning capabilities of students.

The first place many look for change is to the teachers of Indigenous school students. This is certainly an important point. Non-Indigenous teachers have a high turnover rate and often lack sufficient cultural awareness (Malin & Maidment, 2003). Furthermore only an Indigenous teacher can ultimately do what many consider to be one of the most important functions of a teacher: to provide a role model as a successful, educated Indigenous person.

The Indigenous adult presence in schools is inadequate. In 2001 there were 1390 Indigenous teachers, or less than 1% of teachers, compared to 3.5% of students being Indigenous. There were also 2175 Aboriginal and Islander Education Workers, particularly Aboriginal Education Assistants (AEAs) (Malin & Maidment, 2003)

AEAs have become an important part of the school system, being employed by schools with a significant Aboriginal population. They have been found to help increase the students’ self concept and self motivation, (Scott, 2004) however the position is subsidiary to a teacher who is probably non-Indigenous, with less pay, less status and little opportunity to become qualified to move into a full teaching position. AEAs also are not employed in schools with less than the required number of Indigenous students, so can not even attempt to provide for the needs of all Indigenous students, let alone directly affect the attitudes of the wider community by contact with the majority of non-Indigenous students.

As important as it is to have Indigenous staff in schools, this is not enough. Indigenous heritage does not guarantee the ability to solve the wide and varied problems of disadvantage. Not only do AEAs need opportunities to study to allow them to become more useful to the community, but all staff in educational organisations should be equipped to teach Indigenous students, whether or not they are likely to have any.

Indigenous education is a cycle, with graduates of higher education not only personally enjoying non-Indigenous rates of employment and other social indicators, but feeding back into their communities as teachers, activists of many disciplines and role models, helping another generation of students to succeed at school level and beyond, and gain the same benefits.

This highlights the importance of higher education, if the cycle of education is to be maintained. Indigenous teachers must be trained, and non-Indigenous teachers must also be trained in Indigenous education, if they are not to remain a hindrance. It is not yet compulsory for teaching students to study Aboriginal Education, but “The future looks brighter. Aboriginal participation in tertiary studies has grown greatly in recent years. Every Australian university, but not yet every university campus, has an Indigenous education centre to support Indigenous students. There are now many more Aboriginal students in universities and they are studying across more faculties, not just the ‘traditional’ Aboriginal degrees such as welfare and teaching.” (Newlin & Moran, 1999)

Moving beyond Indigenous teachers in mainstream schools, an attempt is being made by a few Indigenous communities to overcome the problems of mainstream education by establishing community schools. In 1994 these schools only accounted for 1.6% of Indigenous students, or1350 students in twenty schools across the country (Schwab, 1996). Still, within this small number have developed many innovative ways of integrating education and self-determination, with interesting and positive consequences. Maningrida and Irrkerlantye are two different examples of this.

Maningrida Community Education Centre, one of the largest schools in Arnhem Land with 557 students, twelve of whom are non-Indigenous (Schwab, 2001) services a wide geographical area. There is a main, ‘hub’ school in the town, and thirteen ‘homeland centres’, each of which have between eight and 21 students, with enrolments fluctuating between homeland and hub. With a covered but unenclosed work space and one locked room for storage, each homeland centre has a preschool, primary and post-primary class all taught by one Indigenous teacher who is often untrained and sometimes doesn’t speak English. There is no provision for secondary or further education except correspondence courses and moving away. Five visiting teachers also provide and model lessons, deliver materials and train the homeland teacher, spending one day and night in each of their centres (Schwab, 2001). The hub school is understandably far better resourced than the homeland centres, it also employs 47.5 positions, with five of the sixteen teachers, and most of the other staff Indigenous.

Apart from noting how much can be done with so little, there are two important features of this organisation. The school assumes a position as the centre of the community by supplying food, transport, and other resources which attempt directly to overcome the effects of disadvantage. Salaries for the many Indigenous people employed by the school are enormous in context, as they are standardised with urban schools (Schwab, 2001). Many social resources are also provided through the school, such as health programs, help with interacting with the non-Indigenous world, and even occasional mediation, not to mention the entertainment and stimulation which children can find elusive in any setting. The other outstanding aspect of the school is its bilingual program. There are about 28 language groups living in Maningrida, and the school has been successful in creating written versions of the two most widely spoken languages, Burarra and Ndjebbana. Young non-English speaking students are taught both their own language and English, with classroom instruction in English gradually introduced by year four (Schwab, 2001)

Between these elements, Maningrida manages to provide cultural competence and maintenance, material and social resources desired. Despite the low attendance, parental non-involvement and low academic performance that non-Indigenous standards prioritise, the school has been highly successful in providing for the needs of the community.

Irrkerlantye Learning Centre in Alice Springs caters for students ranging from preschool to adult. This intergenerational aspect reinforces the community and encourages generational authority. It has also been found to significantly raise attendance among secondary students, and that has been found to distinctly reduce criminal activity (Malin & Maidment, 2003). Similarly to Maningrida, Irrkerlantye conducts a nutritional program, provides social and health services and resources. It has however not only provided employment within the school, but has also realised its aims of providing the skills and knowledge required for the adult students to generate art, language and culture based enterprises. Irrkerlantye is therefore doing far more than taking up traditional Indigenous concepts of non-compartmentalisation and structures of authority, as it finds an organic way to complete the educational cycle and enhance the community.

One concern that some maintain is that even if students grow up more educated, happy and well adjusted through attendance at such a school, insulation from the harsher aspects of the outside world will create adults with no ability to interact with, and survive the problems of, white society. However the theory of “Both Ways” education is beginning to be practiced in an attempt to overcome this problem while enjoying the positive aspects of self-determination and community control in education. ‘Both ways’ education is “a theory of schooling for simultaneous Aboriginal cultural maintenance and academic success” (Schwab, 1996) which has been demonstrated in different ways by the schools above.

There are many ways education can contribute to Indigenous community development, and deal with Indigenous disadvantage. Community control over the content, structure and aims of their own education is essential, as is an increase in tertiary and other adult education, for both teachers and the general community. Cross-portfolio collaboration and co-ordination of schools and community services (Malin & Maidment, 2003; Schwab, 1996) is a suggestion with much support. Indigenous leadership and accountability to the community is important, as is an understanding of the function of role models, and the impact of disadvantage on learning. Finally, though, what is needed is a willingness to step outside of accepted definitions of education and habitual ways of providing it, to simply try new things.

Of course the possibilities of institutions are in many ways bound by the will of the political bodies. These are currently being forced to act to some extent, but they are still restricted by the important but hardly innovative concepts of participation, retention and attainment. Even if a government department ratifies the perfect policy, it still remains for the parliament to endorse it, make it mandatory and fund it. There is however nothing impossible about the obstacles which are currently blocking the way, especially as each positive change swells the ranks of educated Indigenous people, who can then take up the struggle in infinite ways, from being a good role model to getting legislation passed through parliament. It must be remembered that only 32 years ago Indigenous children could legally be refused education, and in fact it has only been 37 years that Aboriginal people have even been acknowledged as citizens of this, their country.

Although institutions of education have done much ill particularly in complicity with policies of assimilation and the stolen generation, education is considered by many indigenous people to be capable of much good. (Schwab, 1996) There is much evidence to support this position, even over our short history of the very concept of education for self determination. We have a long way to go, however, before there are enough cases of education to even contemplate them having a significant positive impact on nationwide social indicators in this country. Although mainstream schools are not moving fast, the achievements attained in optimal situations demonstrate that educational organisations do not have to be the problem.

Reference List

Malin, M., & Maidment, D. (2003). Education, Indigenous survival and well-being: emerging ideas and programs. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 32, 85 – 100.

Newlin, N., & Moran, C.(1999). Living Cultures. In R. Craven (Ed.), Teaching Aboriginal Studies. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Schwab, R. G. (1996). Having it both ways: the continuing complexities of community-controlled Indigenous education. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, 111.

Schwab, R. G. (2001). “That school gotta recognise our policy!” the appropriation of educational policy in an Australian Aboriginal community. In M. Sutton & B. Levinson (Eds.), Policy as Practice: Toward a Comparative Sociocultural Analysis of Educational Policy (pp. 243 – 264). Westport CT: Ablex.

Scott, W. (2004). The Impact of Aboriginal Educational Assistants (AEAs) in New South Wales Public Schools. In Aboriginal Education: Issues and Approaches. Sydney: Macquarie University.


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