Skilling Up: The Elephant in the Room

Year: 2015

Author: Jackson-Barrett, Elizabeth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The Skilling Up Project has provided the space to read, to listen to and yarn with Aboriginal Education Workers (AEWs) in three regions across Western Australia – Metropolitan, Gascoyne and the Kimberley. All AEWs are working within different education sectors ― Australian Independent Schools, public schools, Independent Public Schools and Catholic schools. However despite their differing employment contexts and the complexity of the roles performed, there has been a common thread in the discussions which appeared from the onset of the project. The ‘terra nullius’ mindset is an element of continuity within the institution of education and as such distorts progress at the cultural interface for those in AEW roles. If education is to truly ‘close the gap’ in education for Aboriginal students and improve cultural understandings of non-Indigenous students then we must examine the powerful sources that create such a ‘gap’ in the first instance. The ‘terra nullius’ mindset is one such source that has “formed an educational legacy that we now have to reconsider” (Willinsky, 1998, p 3). The language and practices of the ‘colonial’ through the ‘terra nullius’ mindset not only has had a vested interest in the educational developments but held power to influence and underpin those developments for Aboriginal peoples. We believe that the cultural interface, that is schools and classrooms, where many AEWs fulfil numerous roles, is the very space to map and reconsider the ‘tainted understandings’ of Aboriginal peoples and education. AEWs are more often than not in the first instance, the first contact for Aboriginal parents and caregivers when navigating the educational terrain — we contend that if there was an ‘attitudinal’ shift, coupled with AEWs being given para-professional status this would give the capacity to redress the misrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples that commenced in 1788. It is affirmative action at the cultural interface that is needed and until then the ‘terra nullius’ mindset will perhaps remain the elephant in the room.

Willinksy, J. 1998. Learning to Divide the world: Education at Empire’s End
University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, MN55401-2520