Indigenous Education

I spoke in parliament last week about some great things happening in Indigenous education.
Adjournment Speech - Indigenous Affairs
12 May 2011

Where kangaroos graze on an oval overlooking the Pacific Ocean lies the most picturesque school in my electorate. Founded in 1914, Jervis Bay Primary School serves children of Defence Force personnel serving at HMAS Creswell as well as children from the Wreck Bay community. Although it has the lowest ICSEA score of any school in my electorate, a like-schools comparison makes Jervis Bay Primary one of the top-performing schools in the ACT system.

Last week I visited the school and I was struck by the sense of community among the students and staff. With only 84 students, 63 per cent of whom are Indigenous, the school is quite small and everyone knows everyone else. As I walked through the K-2 room with two women who were active in the P&C, one of the boys said, 'What are you doing here, Mum?' My visit coincided with a meeting with Principal Bob Pastor, who had coordinated a Learning 4 Life meeting with representatives from Vincentia High School, the University of Wollongong, Noah's Ark, Booderee National Park, local preschools and childcare centres. The Learning 4 Life group promotes the value of education to Indigenous parents and students, with involvement right through the education spectrum from early childhood learning right up to TAFE and university.

Education's place in helping overcome inequality and disadvantage was also reinforced when I visited Cape York last year and earlier this year. Travelling with the House Economics Committee our task was, in part, to consider Indigenous economic development, so I used the chance to ask some of the witnesses about local schools. Phyllis Yunkaporta, a witness appearing before the committee, told me:

'The education system, as I knew it before, has been of low standard. The curriculum in the past, as it is in all cape Aboriginal communities, has been of very low standard. By the time our children go out to mainstream schools they are hardly there—a child in grade 8 still has the understanding of a child in grade 1. Speaking for Aurukun, I was one of the persons who were invited to the States last October; I went to New York and Los Angeles visiting African-American schools. What we have brought back to Aurukun is a new kind of teaching method and we are having that implemented in the school. Of course it took time. At the beginning it pretty much had been, in my words, chaos before that. Since having this new program come in, if you come to the classrooms in Aurukun the kids are fully focused. This new method of teaching has got them going. The teacher is full-on with the tasks given and you cannot believe it when you enter those classrooms—it is as if some of those kids are play-acting. They are not; they are just full-on, focused. I guess in time we have to have expectations for our children to be educated in a way where they have to balance both worlds—the Western world and the traditional way. Of course we want them to hang onto the traditional way because that is where they are going to be identifying themselves for the future. And with them having to venture out into mainstream, we want them to compete. It is a competitive world out there. We want our black little kids to start taking on the world. That is the aim of all this.'

Ms Yunkaporta was talking about Noel Pearson's Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy, championed by the Minister for Families, Housing, Communities and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. The program offered by the academy has four components focusing on Class, Club, Culture and Community.

Noel Pearson recently wrote that the Class program immerses students in numeracy and literacy using the Direct Instructions, DI, programs. Students need to achieve a mastery of 90 per cent at their level before they can move on. Tests are done every five to 10 lessons and both the students' and teachers' performances are carefully monitored.

Club ensures that kids do not miss out on those future opportunities, providing extracurricular activities that many children in my own electorate enjoy; including the hope to one day include foreign languages and Shakespeare classes.

Culture helps children learn the local Aboriginal languages and their culture and traditions.

In-school activities are supported by the Community program. School attendance and readiness for school are carefully monitored. A food program provides meals during the day and families are helped to manage funds to cover educational expenses. It is clear that there is something in the different models used by Aurukun and Jervis Bay schools that is working well, and I commend the hard work of all those involved—the principals, the teachers, the parents, the children and the whole school community for making something really special happen in these parts of Australia.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.