Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education

The ignorance of our shared history is shocking. Morrison’s denial shows us time for truth-telling is NOW

Never has the cultural gap been so evident.  What I am talking about is the outright denial and whitewashing of the shared Australian history.  The leader of colonial Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison proclaimed on commercial radio station 2GB that Australia was founded on the basis that there be no slavery.  His failure to recall such histories as blackbirding or the forced indentured labour of Aboriginal peoples as domestic help or station hands after removal from family up until the 1960s has been rightly called out by historians and Aboriginal politicians

As an Aboriginal academic and first and foremost, educationalist, it is shocking to hear the apologetic voices of others excusing the Prime Minister’s dismissal of our shared history.  Such debates only further perpetuate the denial and divide within colonial Australia.  In reaction to the outcry Scott Morrison backed away from his original assertion by saying “there have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place, and so I’m not denying any of that” and that his comments on 2GB “were not intended to give offence, and if they did I deeply regret that and apologise for that”.

But it has not only been this latest act of denial by the prime minister.  The violence on Blak bodies in recent months has been an assault of endless proportions.  Politicians enacting blow after blow through their mindless rhetoric and inept claims incite further violence against Blak people.  But we should not be surprised with the contempt and disdain currently being hurled within politics and more pointedly, by the Prime Minister.  The denial and ignorance has been evident since the now Prime Minister, Scott Morrison’s maiden speech to parliament on the 14th of February, 2008.  The day after the momentous Apology to the Stolen Generations proffered by then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, Morrison said:

“…we cannot allow a national obsession with our past failures to overwhelm our national appetite for celebrating our modern stories of nationhood”.

He was speaking at the time about his view of the Australian nation, “the product of more than 200 years of sacrifice”.  One must ask just who or what was the sacrifice Morrison was referring to in this statement. 

The erasure of Blak histories and peoples was littered throughout his speech where he suggested that Australia was “at peace with its past”.  He continued stating that “this situation is not the result of any one act but of more than 200 years of shared ignorance, failed policies and failed communities”.  A shared ignorance!?  The outright dismissal of the Blak experience; the assimilatory properties of education where the sole purpose was to indoctrinate the Indigenous child into the ways of the coloniser – surely, the ignorance is not shared. 

Indigenous peoples know the western world.  We have been subjugated to learning the ways of the coloniser since 1788.  It was the intent to ‘discipline the savage’, if I was to paraphrase the words of Professor Martin Nakata.  The ignorance is not ours to bear.

Fast forward to 2018 when the debate about Australia Day was again being raised and Morrison was now the Prime Minister of Australia.  He had maintained that the need for Australia Day to remain as it is as “you don’t pretend your birthday was on a different day”.  He acknowledged that Australia’s national story had “a few scars” and that it was “not perfect”.  He further tweeted that “being honest about the past does [make Australia stronger] – our achievements and our failings.  We should not rewrite our history”.

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How ironic that in 2020 Morrison is doing exactly that!?  Rewriting history to placate the fragility of the Australian public.  Indentured labour is a euphemism for slavery in Australia.  There was no choice.  Aboriginal peoples and Pasifika peoples were not in a position to leave or change their conditions.

And yet, truth-telling is what the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for.  Truth-telling is exactly that.  The truth must be told.  Not a white-washed history of a nation built on the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples but the truth.  And where better for that truth-telling to occur but in politics and in education.  For if the plight of the Indigenous child in the shared Australian historical context proves anything, education has the power to effect change and to privilege or deny the truth.

The responsibilities of schools and universities

And so while the current leader continues to use his power, privilege and position to deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the respect and dignity that they deserve, I turn my lens to schools and Initial Teacher Education programs in all Australian universities and their power, privilege and position to ensure that such blatant ignorance does not continue. 

Universities and schools have a responsibility to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures are embedded as well as privileged within their teaching and learning.  Shifts in teacher education policy has made it explicit to teachers and systems the importance of addressing the cultural gap. 

Classroom teachers and principals are required to demonstrate how they know students and how they learn as well as how they know the content and how to teach it.  Embedded within these focus areas are explicit reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and content.  The onus in ensuring that graduating teachers are meeting the standards is placed on Initial Teacher Education programs and universities.

Some universities have met this challenge by ensuring that there is a mandatory Indigenous knowledges course within their programs university wide.  There is recognition that doing so is beneficial not just for students but for society.  Universities are further required to have an Indigenous Graduate attribute for all courses and programs. 

In Initial Teacher Education, while it is not mandatory for a standalone course, the lack of cultural awareness on display of late surely illustrates the need for such a course.  That is, if the leader of the country does not know the shared histories, how can we expect peoples who have received the same western education to know any different?

We can change it

Education is where we can effect change.  Initial Teacher Education is where we can effect change within the education provided for all.  We can work towards addressing the cultural gap. Surely, it is time. 

It is time now to look to effect change, to work towards creating a world we want to live in.  It is time to privilege and centre Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, histories, cultures and peoples. 

For far too long, the western education system has worked to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to ‘fit in’ to their systems.  It is time that the system looked at itself and hanged its head in shame with the power, privilege and position it has maintained and look towards creating a culturally inclusive and responsive society.  The time is now.

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Assistant Dean (Indigenous) in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne.  Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  Her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy” was awarded the Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education. Melitta is on Twitter @melitta_hogarth

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

Before we begin again, I want to tell you why last year was horrendous

The education year is about to begin but I can’t let 2018 go. Not yet.

I want to share with you how last year was for me, a Kamilaroi woman, a former schoolteacher and now a university lecturer and educational researcher. My urge to share is simply because I need to be persistent and I have to keep on trying to communicate how it is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, like me, in Australia today.

I consistently investigate the biases and taken for granted assumptions upheld in our society in my work as a researcher and I want to tell you that last year was absolutely horrendous for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  And yet, it was also a significant year where we celebrated the strength and persistence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and we began discussions about truth telling and acknowledging the detrimental shared history of colonial Australia.

This time of the year, the lead up to January 26th, is always a nightmare for me. But last year the nightmare did not stop after January 26th. It went all year. Nowhere was safe.  Every month, we were reminded that our bodies were political, our lives in ‘need of saving’ by the coloniser and implicit and explicit racism splashed across many forums on a daily basis.  There was no escape. Let me explain.

The January 26th debate

I purposefully do not name this day.  The debates that occur about it on social media forums every year are an excellent example of White Privilege in action, ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know their place in wider Australian society. 

Last year it was headlines such as “Why I’m proud of Australia and you should be too” and “Australia day: Most Australians don’t mind what date it’s held, according to new poll”.  This year we got Australia Day debate: Poll reveals most Aussies want celebrations to stay on January 26.  

Within every one of the discourses triggered by these headlines is the reminder that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to “get over it” and “move on”.  But it doesn’t take into consideration the arguments of how January 26th is a recent date set nor recognise that the detrimental effects of colonisation continue

The shared history is inconvenient and again, not something that can be changed, so we are told let’s just “forget it”. Let’s dismiss the history of genocide and massacres and “move on”. 

Malcolm Turnbull said the date would not change while he was Prime Minister and it didn’t.

Ironically Malcolm Turnbull, along with his predecessor, Tony Abbott, espoused a wish to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their Closing the Gap reports.

February

Talking of Closing The Gap, February marked the tenth year of the Closing the Gap initiative. Yet again, the annual report saw few of the goals achieved.  The National Indigenous Reform Agreement, more commonly referred to as Closing the Gap, was introduced in 2008 with the intention to address the inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods encompassing health, education and employment. 

But in 2018, once again the reports were not positive.  Once again, the failure to achieve the targets was lamented and once again data was provided as to why governments can’t close the gap.  And the money spent, a reported $130 billion (paywalled) over the years, raised further discussions. 

Few commentators acknowledged the complexities of policy making and the lack of Indigenous voice being involved in the decision-making.  The call to be heard in the Redfern Statement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was lost. Some politicians even placed the lack of progress squarely with the communities (paywalled).  Such notions emphasise the political agenda of self-empowerment (that is, blaming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perceived failures and current conditions on the idea that the people do not take up the opportunities made available to them) and silences the Indigenous right for self-determination

So the Australian Government abandons the policy and moves on to another review with new targets as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples wait and remain silenced.

March

Yes we were only into March when an all-White panel on the morning show, Sunrise, advocated the further removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their homes for their well-being.  One of the commentators suggested a second Stolen Generation was necessary.  The segment caused outrage throughout Indigenous communities and led to protests outside the studio.  The audacity of the panelists to feel they could speak about Indigenous issues from a position of knowing caused instant reaction.  However, it also illustrated the enactment of privilege.  Our political bodies are consistently the subject of discussion and this instance, sought to remind us that colonial Australia was not afraid to voice their solutions for the perceived ‘problem’. 

Formal complaints were made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority about the mistruths shared within the segment and in September, Sunrise was found in breach of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice.  But it was all too late.  The perpetuation of stereotypes and mistruths were already out there being normalised and re-interpreted within colonial Australia; further pushing any chance of reconciliation back.

April

In April, the dilemma of silencing and the inconvenience of Indigeneity in colonial Australia continued as Australia hosted the Commonwealth Games.  Indigenous protestors were in the news again. Protesters re-established the mantra of the ‘StolenWealth Games’ first used in 1982 protests.  Media discourses perpetuated the inconvenience of the protestors and the makeshift camp, Camp Freedom, highlighting the number of caravans, tents and so forth.

Organisers of the games emphasised how they were using fencing to ‘cage in’ protestors. The protest and activism was an inconvenient truth upsetting the celebrations of colonisation.

May

This marked one year since the Uluru Statement of the Heart, which the Turnbull Government subsequently rejected. In the outright rejection political voices aired their concerns of a perceived “third chamber of parliament” as reasoning for the dismissal, ignoring the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  The extensive consultation process that had been funded by the Federal Government became another point of critique about the perceived exorbitant funding extended to Indigenous affairs. 

Advocacy for the Uluru Statement of the Heart has been maintained seeking to further the recommendations made.  Still, the call for a voice and space to speak into what happens in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs seems ‘a step too far’ for government with the now Prime Minister Morrison again dismissing the renewed push

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples having a say in policy and actions that affect them is actually written in policy but, as always, it is all just words.

June

Reconciliation week falls at the end of May/early June.  The 2018 theme was ‘Don’t keep history a mystery’ and it kept the notion of ‘truth telling’ front and centre.  Embedded within the recommendations in the Redfern Statement and the Uluru Statement, the week challenged non-Indigenous Australia to question how much they don’t know about the shared history.  Denial of the historical past needs to be addressed.  We cannot have reconciliation without it.  For goodness sake, this year was the first time that Reconciliation Week had been celebrated in Tasmania!  We have a long way to go.

Still in June, another news frenzy occurred where students at a university in Australia decided to dress in blackface.  There has been a rise in this practice in recent years with models, sporting teams and so forth all being called out on their racism (or ignorance).  Although, I would suggest it is hard to argue ignorance when there has been such an influx of condemnation of such behaviours on social media and the repercussions shared on the news including suspension and so forth.  It is a position of privilege that you can feign ignorance of the stereotypical assumptions linked to blackface and post to a social media platform photographic evidence of your actions.  But even better is the almost instant disclaimers that in no certain means were the actions intending to be racist or malicious.   

July

But then came July and the world seemed bright if just for a while as we recognised the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women during NAIDOC week with its wonderful theme, Because of her, we can.  It was a powerful theme championing the often-silenced women who have, persistently and with great strength, fought for equal rights.  The week provided opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to voice their appreciation of their mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and ancestral mothers but also, allowed space for recognition of the various achievements in all fields and disciplines. 

As an Aboriginal woman, the theme was empowering and yet humbling; reminding me of the women who faced such adversity in the past with tenacity, grace and pride.

August

In August we came crashing down with the appointment of the once self-proclaimed Prime Minister of Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott, as Special envoy for Indigenous affairs.  Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples shared their frustrations about the appointment and the irony of yet another white male being positioned as a knower about Indigenous affairs.  Recognition of the dramatic reductions in funding to Indigenous health, employment and so forth while he was Prime Minister seemed to counter the notion of closing the gap and yet, here he was returning to focus on attendance of remote Aboriginal Australia in schools (paywalled).

Abbott’s focus tends to be on remote Aboriginal communities and yet, the largest Aboriginal population in Australia is actually found in New South Wales where the majority live in towns and cities. So why focus on remote communities?  And why should Tony Abbott have an input into overhauling Indigenous education?

September

Yet another media frenzy around race and representation exploded in September with the publication of a political cartoon of Serena Williams featuring a stereotypical exaggeration of racial features.  The alignment to Bill Leak’s political cartoon in 2016 of an Aboriginal man not knowing his son was soon raised and again, our politicised bodies became the subject of many a forum. 

Australia’s ignorance regarding race was exposed in national and international media.  But as usual, the denial by the cartoonist and the interpretation by the editor emerged in support of their colleague and no progress was made in Australian racial relations.  Reflection on why it may be perceived as racist and/or sexist did not occur.  Instead, we were told it was the PC world gone too far.  Within weeks, the world had moved onto the next big news story but at least one Aboriginal researcher was still reeling in a year of constant disruption.

October

This was not a month of reprise.  Instead, the government took it to another level with One Nation’s leader, Pauline Hanson, bringing forward her ‘It’s okay to be White’ motion to the Senate.  And worse still, the motion was almost passed with government members voting for it.  It was a slap in the face to me.  The controversial motion spoke to the perceived anti-White racism on social media and the challenge on Western civilisation.  Commentators drew connections of the motion to the White Australia Policy.  Again, the positioning of the coloniser as the dominant norm was established placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander on the margins.

November

Some positive news for educators arrived in November with 90+ elaborations released to assist classroom teachers to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in the Science classroom.  Indigenous educationalists and scientists assisted in developing the list; contributing their own knowledge to help in closing the cultural gap.  Yet, this action could not escape the criticism and scaremongering of some commentators.

For years there has been advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures to be embedded rather than ‘bolted on’ to the curriculum.  And yet here came the resistance.

December

Abbott started up on what to do to improve attendance in Indigenous education.  He wants the introduction of police officers within the school setting and a review of the Australian Curriculum to simplify it (read as let’s get rid off the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities and just focus on numeracy and literacy). You know how it goes.

I could not wait for the year to be over.  It is, well and truly.

Let’s start again soon, shall we?

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.

The image featured on this post is from Adobe Stock