Our institutions, the scholar from ANU says, work to gradually knead the ‘Indigenous-ness’ out of children, offshoots of a system that to this day whispers ‘yes, you are the problem, but we can fix you’.

 “When (in 1814) … the governor opened the first Native Institute, the idea was to take Aborigines and separate them psychologically and physically from their own culture, [to turn them] into Europeans – so that’s what Aboriginal education, from the beginning, that’s what it’s been designed to do,” Bamblett argues.

“And it hasn’t changed. Whether it’s what people mean to do, it’s still what it does.”

One quickly gets the sense that this is much more than an ideological standpoint. Rather, it’s an understanding that has been chiseled from life experience, and my questions seem to grate on a deeply personal level.

“My family come from [Erambie Mission, a community near Cowra in NSW], and the older generation  were separated from their kids by a fence,” Bamblett explains.

 “The kids were kept in the dormitory. They tried to keep them away from the old people, they were worried the old people would insist that they could take them out and teach them on-country. There are even examples of missionaries there whipping some of the adults for doing it.

“So schools worked hand-in-hand with that protection system of changing kids, and the idea was that they would gradually change from generation to generation until they had no memory and no ability to live as Aborigines.”

And while the missionary days of wire barricades and overt systematic assimilation are history, Bamblett says Australian education has a long way to go.

For when it comes to re-building real cultural understanding and connection, the odd one-hour dot-painting class or afternoon screening of Rabbit-Proof Fence is not going to cut it.

“What I think they do in schools now is they teach about Aboriginal history and Aboriginal culture, and that’s not the same as teaching people to live it.

“So we can know our language, but we don’t live our own language, we don’t live our own culture and our own ways,” Bamblett reflects.

The academic is calling for a return to ‘on country’ learning for Indigenous students. Taking kids out on the land to learn will help to heal torn cultural ties and breathe life into theory, he says.

“Part of that is also learning the languages, languages [are] about the land, and if you lose the language … you’re disconnected from the land and disconnected from your culture.”

The time has come to go beyond well-intentioned, yet feeble efforts in schools he urges.

“It’s knowing that [Indigenous education is] not something that you do for one day or one week and it’s not teaching about our culture as if it’s something from the archives of history and museums.

“It’s about making [our ways] a part of everyday life again.”

Indigenous education in the spotlight

A few things happened when nine-year-old schoolgirl Harper Nielsen recently refused to stand for the national anthem at a school assembly, on the grounds that it ignored Australia’s Indigenous people.

Firstly, there was outrage in the senate, as One Nation leader Pauline Hanson deemed the child a “brat”. Comments that, by their explosive nature, sparked a new trail of vitriolic tweets and piercing opinion pieces.

But once the uproar had faded to a hum, there remained  a deeper, more raw question at play – to what extent are our schools stained by structures of racism?

And how might discriminatory practices, in the teaching and assessing of Indigenous students hinder both their academic performance and their cultural identity? And what exactly are all students learning about the complex cultures and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders?

Well, “stuff all”, according to one expert in the field.

Keeping the curriculum ‘safe’

Dr Kevin Lowe, research fellow at Macquarie University, has just wrapped a research project analysing the racism implicit in our school system. This is not the sort of discrimination that manifests itself via derogatory remarks in the playground, he says.

This is silent and unwitting racism that’s made valid by policy. Racism that sits at the heart of what students are learning – or not learning – about our nation’s Indigenous history.

“There’s now a significant body of research, and evaluative research around the curriculum, that shows that the current structure, the placement of the cross-curricular content, has basically failed to address a significant range of issues that actually speak to the contemporary, social and political issues that we find ourselves in”, Lowe says.

“So the curriculum is quite good, in the sense that it focuses on colour and movement of marginalised people; so it’s the art, the style, the music, and in many ways for teachers, those things are safe to engage with.

“In fact [educators] can come away and feel like they have addressed major issues.”

The reality is that it’s too superficial and light-touch, Lowe asserts.

“...what they are not addressing is … the real structural disadvantage of being in regional or rural or remote communities, or especially for secondary students as they are advancing towards the end of their schooling, to give them the capacity to understand ‘how is it that Aboriginal people as a group, across all states and all territories and all locations, are educationally disadvantaged?  How does that happen?’”

Lowe wants to get one thing clear. He’s not attacking teachers – “nobody has taught them how to teach this stuff and often they don’t know where to go to find it”.

Rather, he’s calling for a bigger shift at the policy level.

“Go to Germany and have a look at their curriculum, how they teach about World War II, [and] the lead-up to the war, the consequences on the Jewish people, and so on and so forth – they don’t shy away from addressing big, big issues.”

Lowe says this “perfunctory” skimming of the surface is doing our youngest generation a great disservice.

“There is actually very little opportunity (for students) to engage in the sorts of issues that really are significant to the level of dissonance, the level of discord, the level of achievement and the level of disadvantage for Aboriginal people in this country.”
He blames the “tick and flick culture movement” for diminishing the scope and rigour of the cross-curricum priority.

“How do students make informed decisions about those sorts of things when we refuse to teach it?” he poses.

It seems Lowe is not alone on this.

Jennifer Buckingham, a senior research fellow at libertarian think tank the Centre for Independent Studies, believes the cross-curricular nature of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority works to dilute its content and water down any chance of teachers getting into meaty analysis.

“I think the danger in it … is that by spreading it across the curriculum and requiring teachers to touch on it in every subject area creates the risk of it not being done in any great detail and with any level of expertise,” she reflects.

Buckingham wants to see the priority granted just that: priority.

“…requiring it, and particularly requiring it from teachers who may not know very much about it, will end up making it, inevitably, fairly superficial. Rather than trying to sticky-tape bits of it around various different subjects … it should have its own place in the curriculum.”

However, Janet Davy, director of curriculum at ACARA, maintains that the priority does in fact grant teachers the “insights, perspectives and strategies” needed to delve into intricate historical and social issues.

“[It’s] designed so teachers can engage students in reconciliation, respect and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures,” Davy says.

“This includes the opportunity to learn about the historical and ongoing impacts of colonisation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander responses to and perspectives on these.”

Nevertheless, the authority are all too aware of the brewing criticism and have taken action.

“More recently, we have undertaken some significant work to address concerns raised by educators, and from within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” Davy concedes.

“This feedback has clearly indicated that there is a strong desire for more support in implementing the [cross-curriculum] priority.”
Davy reveals that ACARA is poised to release new “elaborations” to show science teachers how they might swiftly tie in the Indigenous priority.

She notes that the curriculum is designed to ensure that Indigenous students can maintain their cultural identity throughout their schooling years.

“It has long been said by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators and parents that ‘we want our students to be educated, but we don’t want them to stop being Aboriginal’,” she says.

“[Indigenous] students should not be forced to choose between these two basic rights – the right to an education and the right to retain their cultural identity.”

But this too is a work in progress, she indicates.

“Our work with the cross-curriculum priority … aims to address this (issue). We welcome feedback as we continue to challenge ourselves to meet these goals…”

Indigenous leaders in despair

Whether the new suite of science resources will do much to soften the disgruntlement now brewing among our nation’s Indigenous leaders over policymakers’ approach to Indigenous education remains to be seen.

 A key source of their displeasure? Tony Abbott.

Having just accepted his newly crafted role as the Government’s special envoy on Indigenous affairs, Abbott has been quick to flag attendance as the solution to raising outcomes for Indigenous students across the board.

He’s toured remote communities in the Top End, sat in on direct instruction underway at Warruwi School, and met with elders to discuss the challenges unique to their patch of Australia.

“That’s the objective. To try and ensure that every kid goes to school every day,” Abbott espoused from a dust-blown street in Galiwin’ku, in footage shared on his rolling Twitter feed.

“And while they’re at school they get the best possible education, so that, yes, they are culturally competent to live a good life here in Galiwin’ku, but more importantly, that if they want to experience all that modern Australia and the modern world has to offer, they can do so…”

Abbott is clear in his conviction that there needs to be “adverse consequences” for parents that fail to get their children through the school gates each morning.

Bamblett and Lowe remain critically unimpressed.

“He set himself up as an expert because he goes out and talks to black fellas, mind you he doesn’t go to Fitzroy, he doesn’t go to Redfern, he doesn’t go to Logan, he doesn’t go to Elizabeth where urban Aboriginal people are,” Lowe posits.

“He goes to remote communities where the ‘real’ black people are, mostly because they don’t give him a bad time. It’s true,” he argues.

The academic says Abbott is “totally off the mark” with his school attendance strategy.

“…his policy on attendance is that he did what you’d expect a conservative, neo-liberal to do which was to threaten families with a loss of welfare or a loss of their rights because they are responsible for getting  their kids to school.”

Essentially, Lowe adds, Abbott is blind to a basic truth: schools, in their current state, hold little relevance to the lives and motivations of many Indigenous children.

“If you see schooling as totally unproblematic … then of course you would force people to go because good things will happen.

“And yet the history of Aboriginal education has shown that that’s not case; Aboriginal kids have left school as early as possible, they have basically disengaged from school as early as Year 5; they attend, but they don’t engage with learning.

“They start to truant and get in trouble by Year 7 and 8, and they are out the door by the time they get to Year 10.”

Bamblett says Abbott’s appointment is an insult to Indigenous communities across the country – and he has no qualms about voicing his displeasure.

“It just seems to me that we are the ones being punished, because everybody else seemed to have kept their job,” he says of the political move that was actioned “without consultation”.

“Tony Abbott to me, his ideology is that everybody needs to be like him, and this idea that Western civilisation is great and that he’s great.”

“…but if you make school something that [Indigenous kids] value, that’s when then they will go.”

If schools don’t adequately speak to the cultures and histories of their Indigenous students, the kids are better off at home, Bamblett asserts.

“I was blessed in my life in that I grew up in a time when oral history was really strong in our community and my mother and father encouraged me not to go to school…

“I don’t think Tony Abbott sees a lot of value in Aboriginal ways of being and he wants to change us into being just like (the) British. Because he sees us as the problem, and that’s the way to fix it.”

* Tony Abbott was contacted for comment in this story.