Northern Territory Education Policy Places Distant Indigenous Students in Impossible Dilemma | Marnie O’Bryan and Jessa Rogers

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Tthe rent is from a community of 400 people in the Top End. Arrive by road and the first thing you see is the air strip of red dust, but closer to you, tall sprawling trees create oases of coolness in the tropical heat. Under them, ceremonies are planned, card games played, stories shared.

Trent didn’t leave his community because he wanted to. On the contrary. He went to boarding school because he, his mother and grandmother valued education and because he had no alternative. After a year, the Indigenous student coordinator at his school 4,000 km south described him as homesick.

Trent could belong to one of the 78 communities in the Northern Territory where young people face the same dilemma. Since 2015, sending adolescents to boarding school has been the official political position of the government of the territory. The NT’s 2015-2024 Indigenous Education Strategy states that if children want to access a high school program, it will have to be away from home. Those who choose to stay close to their country, kinship, language and culture during their teenage years will have access to rudimentary “post-primary literacy and numeracy” classes, but not a curriculum. secondary. The policy was launched with a schedule of promised evaluations, but six years later none have been made public.

Despite parliamentary and other inquiries exposing the complexity of Indigenous residential programs and calling for greater transparency, reliable data remains almost impossible to access.

In 2019, a study was conducted in the community of Trent by researchers from the Australian National University. This is the only comprehensive investigation into the NT’s Indigenous education strategy. Over a 10-year period, the 100 young people from this community were sent to 38 different schools in cities across Australia. 90% dropped out, more than half in their first year. In 2019, 22 of 80 high school children were enrolled in 10 boarding schools in five states. For the 58 who chose to stay at home, their only option was to go to the local elementary school, but that school only received funding for 11 students, which begs the question of what investment was made. been done in the other 47.

None, as it turns out.

Residential residential programs attract a lot of media attention. Typically, items celebrating a youngster’s enrollment or graduation from school are accompanied by photos featuring smiling faces and crisp new uniforms. Stories of courage, hope and opportunity. We all want Indigenous students to thrive in education, and it is fair and appropriate to recognize the efforts and achievements of individuals. But supporting the indigenous boarding school industry cannot come at the expense of the invisible majority of children in remote Australia in which no investment is currently being made.

Our respective research projects reveal how complex the experiences of First Nations residents are, and this is true in the community of Trent. Some young people had tried two, three, and even four new schools, but none had lasted a full year at their next school. When Covid-19 hit, all of the boarders went home. Border closures and various state and territory regulations made the operation a logistical nightmare.

Six of the 22 returning residents showed up at the gates of the local elementary school. They were welcomed, provided with breakfast and lunch, included in school activities and supervised in their learning. This strained staff and an already sorely underfunded system. The six came with a range of learning profiles, but without funding or allocation of resources to ensure their needs were met.

Similar stories are emerging from across Australia. We know of a young woman attending boarding school in Melbourne when the pandemic struck. She returned home to her Aboriginal community in far north Queensland. The local county website notes that his town has chronically low internet speeds and black spots. Her family doesn’t have a computer or iPad, and she struggles to finish grade 11 with her mom’s prepaid cell phone. This has eaten away at the data allowance that the family relies on to do all banking and Centrelink transactions, to connect to social services and, most importantly, to communicate with the family. Here too, there is no high school, and the local elementary school, already struggling with high staff turnover and poor internet reliability, had to take over without additional funds to help.

In one study, 90% of residential school students in remote Indigenous communities dropped out. Photography: Wayne Quilliam

In Budget 2021-2022, the federal government announced that $ 16.6 million would be spent to help boarding schools with large numbers of Indigenous residents remain financially viable during the recovery from the Covid pandemic. Supporting the residential school industry is one thing. Making sure that the money is spent where it is really needed is another.

Covid has not created an education crisis in remote Australia. He exhibited one. Some visitors to remote communities laugh when they see small children running around in thrown hats, shirts and private school bags. These are the artifacts of a broken system that does not meet the needs of remote communities.

All too often, boarding schools are just a revolving door: the students of the community come in, are chewed up and spat out, rapid fire, with no alternative to pick them up. The vast majority lose confidence in the education system and never return to school. Supporting the residential school industry cannot come at the cost of silencing their stories.

The pandemic has exposed the real cost of failing to develop place-based and culturally appropriate education in remote Australia.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) provides that states must provide indigenous peoples, especially children, with the means to access an education that supports their culture and language. The federal government adopted the declaration in 2008. How will our nation now seek to respect it?

Dr Marnie O’Bryan is a researcher at the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University and co-chair of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. His book Boarding and Australia’s First Nations: Understanding How Residential Schools Shape Lives will be published by Springer later this year.

Dr Jessa Rogers is a proud educator, consultant, researcher and director of the Wiradjuri board. Her Ph.D. Business School Boarding: The Voices of Indigenous Girls Attending Residential Schools focused on the experiences of Aboriginal students in boarding schools in Australia and New Zealand. Jessa is the Senior First Nations Researcher at QUT’s Digital Media Research Center and CEO of Baayi Consulting.

Wayne Quilliam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Communications at RMIT University and one of Australia’s foremost indigenous photographic artists. He was part of the research team investigating the impact of the NT’s 2015-2024 Indigenous education policy. His book, Culture is Life, is a modern photographic celebration of the diversity of Indigenous Australians.


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