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Whitefella education wont work

By Jan Ferguson - posted Monday, 21 April 2008

Helen Hughes may be right when she says our education system is failing Aboriginal children - many studies have shown that - but she is wrong about the solution. The issue will not be solved by arbitrarily imposing whitefella educational culture on Aboriginal people.

In the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) we work with Aboriginal people in remote communities and understand the critical importance of engaging with them as partners and gaining their support. We understand their knowledge is integral to our research. Valuing Aboriginal intellectual property is at the heart of our practice and philosophy. That applies to education, which is also part of our business.

From my experience with the CRC and from living in Outback Australia I take issue with Professor Hughes for articulating the solution as getting tough about imposing whitefella culture on Aboriginal people. What she should be arguing is that we need to get a lot tougher about properly organising the delivery of education to remote Aboriginal communities.


What is in place at the moment? It may well be - as Professor Hughes claims - that some Aboriginal children are being denied a “mainstream education” because teachers are tinkering with, or dumbing down, the curriculum to suit so-called Indigenous learning styles. But the fact is that the Northern Territory’s Curriculum Framework is applicable in all manner of cultural contexts: it is a mainstream curriculum that all Territory schools must follow.

It is misleading to ascribe the failure to provide a mainstream education to cultural factors when the failure lies in the inability of systems to grasp what they are dealing with. This is not confined to the NT departments, teachers or schools, but there is little evidence yet that there is a coherent and credible plan with long-term strategies to get better results from sustained good teaching in remote Aboriginal schools.

If we are to make remote education work, we need to engage Aboriginal people effectively and sustainably in a collaborative effort. Culture in schools is part of the main game. It is not an irrelevant cultural sideshow; nor is it antithetical to good teaching and sound curriculum development.

Families in many remote communities want primary schools to be a vehicle for supporting language and culture to reinforce their children’s cultural identity as Yapa, Anangu, Yolngu or Bininj. Aboriginal people know how important it is for their children to learn English and arithmetic and become familiar with computers. But they will neither accept nor respond to schooling that is imposed on them at the cost of negating who they are. This puts the lie to the claim of curriculum manipulation by outsiders.

If there is to be a successful partnership with Aboriginal families that will lead to better educational outcomes, then we need to give tangible evidence that we value their cultures as much as we value our own and support them in this. We need to give those cultures the respect they deserve and incorporate Aboriginal people’s imperatives in the way we do things with them on their country. We need to collaborate and organise, which means negotiating, listening and learning.

This means a cultural change for all of us. Teachers need a more sophisticated understanding of specific cultural settings before they go out to remote communities. The current system of generalised cross-cultural awareness “training” needs some real meat, a tight focus and solid content. In showing that we value Aboriginal cultures, we should also take greater care to explain our own so that Aboriginal people may start to make some sense of why we do the apparently incomprehensible things we do. We should also think about what Aboriginal people want from our education system.


What Professor Hughes talks about reveals a deeper a crisis in the system, one I have directly observed in the field. It is partly about recruiting teachers who have the intellectual wherewithal, the pedagogical skills and experience and the emotional maturity to survive the rigors of remote community life.

Having recruited them, however, the system seems to have no strategy for retaining experienced teachers in remote communities. The average stay for a teacher in a remote school is seven months. It is possible for a school to see a turnover of as many of 15 staff in a year - regularly, not just as a one-off occurrence.

The crisis is also about the failure to provide appropriate resources - specialist help, a pool of relief teachers, IT support - at a regional level to support students, teachers and school communities. It is about the failure to systematically value, engage and train local Aboriginal staff to take their place in remote schools. It is about inadequate housing and substandard school accommodation with poor hygiene and inferior facilities. Funding from the Australian Government’s Intervention may alleviate this. We need to understand this will be a long term process.

If we can fix all of these, plan for the long term and at the same time recognise and value Aboriginal people’s contribution, then there is a chance that we can deliver Aboriginal children the education they need and deserve. If we take up Professor Hughes’ suggestions, then remote education will remain another failed post-colonial enterprise.

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About the Author

Jan Ferguson is the Managing Director of the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre in Alice Springs.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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