English literacy, power, and community control: ‘Aboriginalisation’ in the Northern Territory bilingual education program

Year: 2018

Author: Thomas, Amy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Bilingual schooling, introduced in the Northern Territory by the federal government in 1973, was a reality for over twenty schools at the height of the program in the early 1980s. Many advocates for the program—and at times Australian governments—have lent their support to this pedagogical method based on the well-established principle that traditional literacy and the associated development of conceptual thinking occurs most effectively in one's mother tongue(s) before it can be transferred into a new language (Caffrey et et al 2008; Cummins 1999). Yet the aims of the bilingual program in remote Aboriginal schools have, at times, been much broader than the achievement of English literacy. Drawing on interview data and documentary sources, this paper explores the hidden history of 'Aboriginalisation' within bilingual schools in the 1990s, primarily in northeast Arnhem land. Aboriginalisation aimed for schools controlled by Aboriginal bodies, teaching an Aboriginal curriculum, envisioned as part of the push for self-determination and the maintenance of Aboriginal cultural life. English literacy was seen as part of the achievement of ‘double power’: the ability to negotiate Aboriginal society and non-Aboriginal society. At a local level, this vision of education challenged power relationships between teachers and brought into question the balanda values in the school curriculum. Today, this history serves as a corrective to those who see the bilingual debate primarily in pedagogical terms, and it presents a contrasting vision to the predominant contemporary policy paradigm of ‘mainstreaming’ in Aboriginal education.