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Closing the Gap in Education?

My Story Should Not Be Unusual

The Education of an Australian Aboriginal Girl

Inala Cooper

Department of Planning and Community Development, Victoria

Indigenous Advisory Council, Monash University

In Australia it is customary to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. In doing so, we recognise and pay respect to them, their elders and their land. I’d like to acknowledge the people who belong to this land we meet on today, and I pay my respects to them.

My story is important. I was born in 1978, in Melbourne. According to statistics at that time, it was not expected that I would live past 60 years of age compared to 75 years of age for a non-Aboriginal baby born in the same year. So there I was, a baby. When I was three, I went to kinder. When I was four, I went to school. When I was 17, I went to university. When I was 20, I had my degree.

‘You’re so lucky,’ they said, ‘to have had that opportunity, to have graduated from university’. But luck should have had nothing to do with it. You see, it was not expected that I would obtain a university degree. In the 1990s, only three per cent of Indigenous people were enrolled in higher education in Australia. Current figures have risen slightly, but still nation-wide only two per cent of Indigenous people have a tertiary qualification, compared to 12.8 per cent of all Australians.

My experience of school and uni was a good one. I liked school and had a lot of support. No, they didn’t expect I would fail because I was Aboriginal. It was expected that I excel, because I was the only Aboriginal child there. That was my challenge. ‘Do your people proud’, they said. ‘You’re lucky you don’t live out there, with them. You’re different.’

But being different should have nothing to do with it. Why shouldn’t those who live out there have the right to go to school, be supported and excel? What they meant when they referred to those out there was the Aboriginal kids. But I’m an Aboriginal kid. Yes, but, you know, the ones that live on the outskirts of town. The ones who play truant, drink alcohol, take drugs and get pregnant at 15; the ones whose parents never know where they are. These are not reasons to deny someone access to education. These are not reasons to presume someone is incapable of academic success.

In Australia only 33 per cent of Aboriginal children complete their schooling, compared to a national average of 77 per cent. I am an example of someone in that 33 per cent. Is this a result of luck, attitude, government policy, money, or a combination of these things? Of the 67 per cent of Aboriginal children who don’t complete school, most leave in their last two years. Too many do not take on work or further study. Too many also become involved with the justice system, which establishes another barrier to achieving at school or in higher education and getting a job. Today’s young people will set the economic futures for the next generation. This is about making generational change.

As I mentioned before, I was born in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, which is in the south-east of our country. Aboriginal people have continuously occupied south-eastern Australia for over 40,000 years. Thirty-eight distinct groups shared the land now called Victoria, each speaking a different language. Today, six per cent of Australia’s Indigenous populations live in Victoria. Aboriginal cultures in Victoria are vibrant and evolving. Today’s Aboriginal Victorians reflect a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and experiences.

Melbourne is my home; it’s where I live. The spiritual home of my family is in the town of Broome, in Western Australia, which is a long way away from Melbourne. It’s about a seven-and-a-half-hour flight. Geographically, it’s about the same distance as from here [South Africa] to Sudan – some 3000 kilometres.

There are many Aboriginal Victorians who, like me, are not living in the spiritual lands of their ancestors. There are many reasons for this, one being the forcible removal and displacement of Aboriginal people by the government. Land is central and of overriding importance to Aboriginal people. The land has physical, emotional and spiritual significance. When people are removed from their land the effects can be catastrophic – on culture, ways of life, law, learning and identity.

Aboriginal social and cultural knowledge is traditionally passed on to younger generations through song, stories, art and dance. The education of the young was, and still is, a shared responsibility – the roles of parents and extended family members have equal importance. Throughout my schooling and into adulthood, my parents and extended family have been my greatest influence. Being surrounded by people who believed in me enabled me to understand that I had the right to be educated.

There are those who don’t have people around them to believe in them, push them, nurture them and guide them through their schooling. Remember those out there? So what about them? Who will believe in the 67 per cent of Aboriginal kids who are not attending school? A change needs to be made. Not only to get these kids to school but, again, we’re talking here about generational change, where attending school is expected and truancy is not tolerated. Where those who can’t attend school, for whatever reason, are individually supported by their communities and the education system.

Young people are motivated when they believe there is a genuine interest in them and expectations of them. So, how do we increase the number of Aboriginal students graduating from school and university? Do we go in at the final year of secondary school and encourage all Aboriginal students to ‘Choose Monash!’? Perhaps we do. But think about when it first occurred to you that university was even an option. It’s not necessarily an idea that pops up in your final year of secondary school. It starts much earlier than that. Exposure to the idea that university is an option needs to begin in the first year of secondary school, when students are 11, 12, 13 years old.

Raising the aspirations of Aboriginal students needs to start early, by enabling them to experience the economy. Conversations about university and work need to begin early. Many young Aboriginal people have little exposure to work, either through their own experience or that of their family, and don’t make a connection between learning and working. Young Aboriginal people should be encouraged and given opportunities to experience work while they are at school, regardless of their family or socioeconomic situation (SES).

The link between SES and academic achievement has long been debated and researched. Theories are many, including the belief that students from a low-SES household are disadvantaged at school because they lack an academic home environment. How governments interpret this debate influences education policies designed to ameliorate the educational disadvantage of Indigenous people.

The Australian Government has made a commitment to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Today, Indigenous people in Australia – that’s me – are expected to die 17 years earlier than non-Indigenous people.

Currently I work for the Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs in Victoria, which is chaired by our Deputy Premier. The taskforce was established in 2006 and is responsible for implementing the Victorian Indigenous Affairs Framework. The primary goal of the framework is to improve life expectancy and the quality of life for Indigenous Victorians. Education is a critical component of this framework and within it are six strategic areas for action, including to improve literacy and numeracy, increase the number of Year 12 completions or equivalent qualifications, and develop pathways to employment for Aboriginal people.

Some very successful initiatives already implemented by the government include better access to maternal and child health services for Aboriginal mothers and children, free kindergarten for three- and four-year-old Aboriginal children and an education strategy for Aboriginal students. This strategy highlights the importance of things like culturally inclusive learning environments, intensive literacy and numeracy programs for students achieving below expected levels, and developing an individual education plan for each Aboriginal student.

Government cannot achieve these things alone. The responsibility must be shared. Involvement by parents is crucial. Our parents are our first role models and it is they, together with our extended families and our communities, who have a responsibility to support young people through their education.

Role models and mentors for students have a huge influence, on both individuals and peer groups. To have someone to guide you and who believes in you makes all the difference to a young person. Role models for young people come in many forms – pop stars, athletes, models. Exposure of young people to academic role models is of incredible importance, as is celebrities promoting the importance of gaining an education. Leveraging your alumni, providing leadership and mentoring opportunities to Aboriginal kids will empower them to succeed.

In addition, scholarships for Aboriginal students can have an enormous impact on engagement with and desire to complete their education. Scholarships for high-achieving students in their final years of secondary school and into university are certainly of huge value – but imagine the impact on a 12- or 13-year-old student, in her first year of secondary school, being awarded a scholarship by a university. This is simple. Take, for example, a new laptop, or some money for school books. And then imagine that child – proud, beaming, excited: ‘A university believes in me. A university believes that it is possible for me to finish school.’ Imagine the impact on that child’s identity and sense of self.

In Australia we are struggling to get Aboriginal kids to Year 9, let alone Year 10. The challenge to get Aboriginal kids to Year 12 and to complete secondary school or equivalent is a great one – but not impossible. Investment in these kids needs to begin early. When I completed year 12, one of my teachers remarked that in all her career and the history of the school, I was the first Aboriginal student she had seen graduate.

It should not be unusual to have the school completion rate of Aboriginal students the same or higher than mainstream Australia’s. I want to live in an Australia where it is not strange to see an Aboriginal doctor, dentist or lawyer. Where it is not weird to see an Aboriginal judge, professor or scientist. Where it is not extraordinary to expect our country to one day be led by an Aboriginal prime minister or president. I want to live in an Australia where my story is not unusual.

Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen