Education in Aboriginal communities: a case of one step forward and two steps back?

Aboriginal children in Mornington School, Flinders University Archives

The questions, demands and problems relevant to the education of Australian Aboriginals is a major issue for Australian society since the 19th century and remains pertinent to this day. Despite enormous changes and regulations implemented by the Australian government and its states and territories, the fact remains that for a large part, indigenous peoples and communities have yet to fully take part in mainstream society and access a sense of social and cultural inclusiveness.

After several decades of recognition of problems ranging from the loss of indigenous culture and traditions to chronic socioeconomic and health issues, where does aboriginal education stand today? Film director Warwick Thornton’s first feature film Samson &Delilah about two young teenage indigenous Australians allowed a wider audience to understand the continuing complexities and hardships of everyday life for aboriginals.  The winner of the 2009 Palme d’Or touched upon a number of issues within aboriginal communities, ranging from drug use to unemployment. The film, which contains very little dialogue while portraying a very powerful story of two young individuals alienated and invisible to much of society leaves the viewer with many questions concerning their situation. Someone unaccustomed to Australian and aboriginal history will wonder as to how this situation has been allowed to happen and indeed, in what ways are aboriginal communities, particularly children and teenagers incorporated into society?

Scene from Samson & Delilah
Scene from Samson & Delilah

The exact age of the protagonists in the film is unclear, yet they are both young adolescents seemingly left to themselves with no apparent purpose. Their days are repetitive, banal and excruciatingly void of belonging to any social construct. In all developed countries, it is an obligation for the young to attend school. What then are the rules and regulations for Aboriginal education in Australia? The absence of any reference to this in Thornton’s film resonated, especially when one would expect these characters to be going to school rather than passing their time doing nothing day after day. The behavior and leading principle towards aboriginal education has evolved and changed considerably over the past century. In the beginning of the 20th century, only state and territory governments were responsible for Aboriginal issues. In turn, this meant that policies in education and assimilation varied across Australia, although the main principle was understood to be that Indigenous populations needed only minimal education.  Indeed, prior to the1970s, policies concerning Aboriginal issues, including in education incorporated racist ideology. It could not interfere with the general policy of segregating Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, in particular concerning education and schools. The 1970s marked an important shift in Aboriginal education, with an implicit understanding that education could be a way to improve the socioeconomic situation of Aboriginal communities and their assimilation to dominant Australian society. A relatively recent policy initiated on a national scale in 1990 called the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy (AEP) attempted to deal with Aboriginal education by linking policy, schools, communities and parents. This was an attempt to address the issues on multiple sides in order to better involve wider aspects of the community to facilitate Aboriginal education.  In spite of these initiatives on a nationwide scale, it has been noted that the success in improving the disadvantage of Aboriginal children has met a number of obstacles, including schools implementation of policies, funds, and in isolated areas the distance between indigenous communities and schools.

Cartoon by Nicholson from from « The Australian » Newspaper,

In another attempt to attract indigenous communities to send their children to school, curriculum includes classes on the history, culture and identity of Aboriginals. This allows for a better understanding and knowledge of Aboriginal culture by both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike. In essence, it attempts to create a sense of respect and shared past between both communities. In other words, there is a definite aim to create a unified sense of national identity common to all of Australians. The question is whether or not it is working.

Children at the Aboriginal Australian Academy Aurukun campus. Picture: Jeff Camden for « The Courier-Mail »

Despite all of these positive steps towards incorporating indigenous peoples in Australian society and aiming simultaneously for the social and economic improvement of Aboriginal communities, school attendance remains a problem. Although statistics show that Aboriginals in the age of compulsory schooling (from 6 to 15 years old) hold a relatively high ratio of school attendance (it is compulsory after all), beyond this age range, rates of higher education for Aboriginals are still very low compared to non-Aboriginals. Indigenous education professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney at the University of Adelaide however makes a compelling argument as to the reasons why Aboriginal education has yet to prove successful in meeting Aboriginal community improvement. For Professor Rigney, it is imperative to remember that the indigenous peoples of Australia are as diverse as the country is large and embody varied cultures and languages. In an article entitled “The Challenge of change”, he stated that “We do not all speak the same Indigenous language nor do we live in the same region. This may seem obvious to some, but government bureaucracy—and to a lesser extent curriculum writers—keep getting this wrong. Recognising and responding to the complexity of the remote situation and the urban divide in educational attainment is fundamental.” As a renowned national and international spokesperson and expert on indigenous affairs, he also calls for the creation of an “inter-jurisdictional education council of Indigenous schooling experts who could advise and engage government and education bodies”. What seems striking is that such a council still does not exist.

Other critics of Aboriginal education thus far and what is being done today call for more locally inspired “bold” ideas in an attempt to bridge the huge gap in education between indigenous Australians and non-Aboriginals. An article written by D Robert Dean, barrister and former Liberal member of the Victorian government,  in the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2010 practically discredited government backed education programs and suggested that “Fresh thinking is called for in the delivery of education in outback Australia” and questioned if it was “time for private enterprise – the bastions of initiative and lateral thinking – to bring some of their energy and relentless determination to the table?” As he put it, these new initiatives should work hand in hand with Australian companies who sponsor important community causes thereby instilling money and delivering innovative educational institutions and ideas. There is no mistaking that Aboriginal education and the way it is implemented has drastically changed, especially in the past 30 years. Nevertheless, government expectations are not being reached and the wider societal ills linked with Aboriginal education problems still endure.

There is no secret as to why Australian film and cinema continue to portray these problems. There are no easy answers and solutions but these issues must be addressed, and as Dr. Robert Dean simply but poignantly puts it, “If for no other reason, our pride as a nation should drive us.”


“Educating Aboriginal Children-Issues, Policy and History”, Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander education”, Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Hudson, Sara, “Changing Expectations of Aboriginal School Attendance”, The Drum ABC news, 18 October 2011, Hughes, Helen & Mark, “Education fails Indigenous Kids”, The Australian, April 29 2010, Rigney, Lester-Irabinna, “Indigenous Education: The challenge of Change”, Early Childhood Australia A Voice for the Young,

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