Bloomsbury Education and Childhood Studies - Australia: Aboriginal Education
Education in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific
Education in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific

Michael Crossley

Michael Crossley is Professor of Comparative and International Education, Director of the Research Centre for International and Comparative Studies and Director of the Education in Small States Research Group at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, Greg Hancock

Greg Hancock has worked as an Australian Schools Commissioner, the Chief Education Officer of the Australian Capital Territory and most recently at AusAid and The World Bank. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Terra Sprague

Terra Sprague is a Research Fellow in the Research Centre for International and Comparative Studies at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2015




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Australia: Aboriginal Education

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 91–110

Introduction: learning in traditional Aboriginal society

Education is mostly thought of in institutional terms as formal schooling and as an artefact of ‘advanced’ cultures (East or West). Both conceptions are false. Aboriginal education is arguably the oldest form worldwide: perhaps 40,000–60,000 years old.

Learning in traditional Aboriginal society, now largely only seen in remote communities and nowhere practised fully, did not occur in institutions and would today be called informal. Generally, small communities practised forms of education that were shaped by both the local environment (landscape) and deeply held spiritual values that linked people to animals, the land and a continuity of existence. People came from the dreamtime (spirit world), were attached to the land and their totem, and returned to the dreamtime after death:

No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word ‘home’, as warm and suggestive though it be, does not match the Aboriginal word that may mean ‘camp’, ‘hearth’, ‘country’, ‘everlasting home’, ‘totem place’, ‘life source’, ‘spirit centre’ and much else all in one. Our word ‘land’ is too spare and meagre. (Stanner, 1979: p. 230)

Education was a practical initiation into culture: learning by doing. It was ‘not so much a preparation for life, as an experience of life itself’ (Hart, 1974 cited in Welch, 1996: p. 27). It was oral (there being no written forms) and was in principle lifelong, as individuals gained deeper and more sophisticated understanding of stories and rituals that were in turn passed on to the rising generation. Elders were respected and seen as repositories of wisdom. Moral and physical sanctions existed for breaking the law, or the core code of values (e.g. disrespecting elders, or eloping with a non-kinship partner), and varied according to the transgression. Spearing, or being banned from the community, was a common form of punishment.

Education began early, largely via imitation and practice. Based on songs, myths and stories, education was oral, experiential, integrated and based on a spiritually informed cosmology. The sexual division of labour within the tribe meant that patterns of education were strongly gendered: girls learned from older women; boys from older men. Kinship was an important component, and so it was often the mother’s brother who might have particular responsibility for education of a young boy, for example. Indeed, ‘kinship welded Koori life together’ (Miller, 1985: p. 2; Berndt and Berndt, 1988). People lived in harmony with their environment and learned appropriate skills: boys would learn hunting and tracking, while girls learned to dig and forage for food and look after younger children.

While no written evidence exists, and clearly no census data, it is estimated that at the time of European colonization in the late eighteenth century there were perhaps 250 languages and 500 community groups, totalling perhaps 300,000 individuals. Aboriginal groups were spread across the country and formed linguistic families, some of which still exist (Horton, 1996). Distinctive economic structures depended on local environments (fishing in coastal locations, hunting in desert locations). Shortage of water in desert settings was often associated with a peripatetic existence. Unlike Western societies, economic activity was not oriented towards material gain, but part of kinship and mutual obligations (Rose, 1987; Butlin, 1993). Education was unitary and unifying: it explained one’s role and place in society, one’s relationship to the land, to kin and to spirit ancestors. Birth was not the beginning of life, death not the end. Spiritual beliefs were expressed through art, music, dance and stories, each of which was learned and refined over the life course. More sophisticated understandings came with adulthood and later life.

Colonialism: the clash of civilizations

The onset of British colonialism in the late eighteenth century saw this traditional world overturned, notwithstanding vigorous, protracted resistance in the form of guerilla warfare (Willmott, 1987; Reynolds, 1990, 2006). Indeed, according to one of Australia’s most senior historians of Aboriginal history,

Black resistance in its many forms was an inescapable feature of life on the fringes of European settlement from the first months of Sydney Cove to the early years of the 20th century . . . . every acre of land in these districts (Sydney and its surrounds) was won from the Aborigines by bloodshed and warfare. (Reynolds, 2006: p. 67, see also p. 107, 168 et passim)[1]

Colonialism disrupted every aspect of Aboriginal existence, as evident in the following quote:

. . . the newcomers impinged on accustomed patterns of life, occupying the flat, open land and monopolizing water. Indigenous animals were driven away, plant life eaten or trampled (by introduced animals such as cattle, horse and sheep) and Aboriginals pushed back into marginal country – mountains, swamps, waterless neighbourhoods. Patterns of seasonal migration broke down, areas free of Europeans were over utilized, and eventually depleted of flora and fauna. Food became scarcer, and available in less and less variety, and even access to water was often difficult. (Reynolds, 2006: p. 72)

This destruction included traditional educative practices, which were difficult if not impossible to sustain in the face of such onslaught. The Aboriginal population, estimated to have been around 300,000 in 1788, declined dramatically over the following century, to little more than 50,000 (Reynolds, 2006: p. 127).

The British were not the first outsiders to discover Australia. People from various Melanesian groups of Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait Islands as well as the Maccassans from Indonesia had ongoing early contact with mainland Australians. The Dutch had landed in the early seventeenth century and it is quite possible that Chinese (Ming dynasty) Vice Admirals (Hong Bao and Zhou Man) contacted northern Australian tribes in the early fifteenth century. African coins found on a remote northern island raise the tantalizing possibility of visits by Arab traders almost 1,000 years ago (The National, 2013).

Referring to the Aboriginal population, the British explorer Captain Cook explained in 1770, ‘They live in a tranquility . . . not disturbed by inequality of condition. The Earth and Sea furnish them with all things necessary for life’ (cited in Welch, 1996: p. 25). Sadly, however, this view was the exception. The most common view was informed by the doctrine of Terra Nullius: of an empty land to which the white man could legitimately lay claim. This was a form of internal colonialism, in some ways analogous to the situation of the Ainu peoples of Hokkaido whereby thousands of years of history, and close relationship to the land, were generally ignored by colonists (Shimomura, 2013). An early English settler’s characterization gave voice to a view broadly felt and which situated Aboriginal peoples at the base of a commonly assumed civilizational pyramid:

If their intellectual functions . . . are thus so far above debasement, how is it that the abject animal state in which the [Aborigines] live . . . should place them at the very zero of civilization, constituting in a measure the connecting link between man and the monkey tribe? (Cunningham, 1827, cited in Welch, 1996: p. 28)

Informed by prevailing theories of Social Darwinism and Laissez-faire economic liberalism, as well as a Lockean interpretation of Christianity which held that only those who tilled the land could lay claim to it, white settlers (with some honourable exceptions) rode roughshod over Aboriginal institutions and ideologies. The common understanding of Darwinism, for example, afforded no comfort to Aboriginal cultures:

The survival of the fittest means that might – wisely used – is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection (or of demand and supply) when exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races, and we appropriate their patrimony as coolly as Ahab did the vineyards of Naboth, though in diametrical opposition to all our favourite theories of right and justice – thus proved to be unnatural and false. (Goodwin, 1964 cited in Welch, 1996: pp. 30–31)

Honourable exceptions notwithstanding, racism was also often present in prevailing forms of Christianity which held that Aboriginal peoples held ‘no religious beliefs’ lacked ‘all moral views’, and that it was ‘the design of Providence that the inferior races should pass away before the superior races’ (Mulvaney, 1967 cited in Welch, 1996: p. 31). Nineteenth-century anthropology too assigned Aboriginal cultures a very low place in the prevailing racial hierarchy. Early journals such as the Australasian Anthropological Journal and the Science of Man legitimated techniques such as craniometry to lend scientific credence to what was in fact simple cultural difference, but which was presented as scientific evidence of Aboriginal inferiority. Lastly, and paradoxically, Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality were withheld from Aboriginal society, which was seen as too primitive to fit these ideals:

the egalitarian and libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment spread by the American and French revolutions, conflicted of course, with racism, but they also paradoxically contributed to its development. Faced with the blatant contradiction between the treatment of slaves and colonial people, and the official rhetoric of freedom and equality, Europeans and North Americans began to dichotomise humanity into men and sub-men (or the ‘civilized’ and the ‘savages’). (Van den Berghe, 1967 cited in Welch, 1996: p. 32)

Effectively, this constellation of values (a potent, if poisonous, cocktail of Christianity, Science and Capitalism) constituted a form of internal colonialism in which both groups occupy the same territory and which, in effect, can socialize the colonized into an acceptance of their inferior status, power and wealth (e.g. Native Americans, or the various native communities of Africa) (Altbach and Kelly, 1984). If Aboriginal people were afforded schooling at all, it was mostly very rudimentary in form, leading only to the most basic occupations (housework for girls, unskilled farm work for boys). Curriculum was based on the 4 Rs: Reading, Writing, Reckoning (arithmetic) and (the Christian) Religion, paying insufficient attention to Aboriginal values or practices. Over the course of the twentieth century, this gradually evolved into a more assimilationist era in which it was assumed that simply opening up black access to unchanged white educational institutions would guarantee progress/equality. In turn, as this limited conception also proved inadequate leaving too many Aboriginal pupils behind, it was succeeded by a more integrationist era which was accompanied by rising black unrest. The current era of ‘self-determination, self-management and reconciliation’ is one in which funding is still highly controlled and compliance to multiple and competing state and Commonwealth (federal) agencies and ministries is complex, technical and burdensome. This is especially the case for remote communities where educational levels are the lowest in the country, where the first language is still largely an Aboriginal language and where communities are most dependent on outside support (Hughes, 2007, 2008; Scrymgour, 2008). This is not to diminish the problems experienced by Aboriginal people in urban settings who often feel that they become invisible within a non-Aboriginal town or city environment, that they have no support at all and that agencies lack the necessary understanding to be able to help.

Current context

The 2011 Census data showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people comprised 2.5 per cent of the Australian population, but the proportion varied greatly by state and territory (see Table 4.1). For the purposes of this chapter, Australian ATSI peoples (i.e. the Indigenous inhabitants of the islands between Australia and New Guinea) are referred to collectively under the terms Aboriginal or Indigenous. However, due to limitations in length, the very different history of Islander peoples is beyond the scope of this chapter. The analysis here, therefore, focuses on Aboriginal experiences generally.

Table 4.1. Indigenous population status by State and Territory, 2011

State/territoryNumber of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders% of total ATSI population (national)ATSI % of total population (state)
New South Wales172,62431.52.5
South Australia30,4315.51.9
Western Australia69,66512.73.1
Northern Territory56,77910.426.8
Australian Capital Territory5,1840.91.5

Source: Adapted from ABS (2011a–c), Census Counts – Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Peoples. .

Currently, across Australia teachers are still often poorly prepared for teaching Aboriginal students, staff turnover is high in regional and remote areas and student attendance and achievement levels remain low, especially in remote communities (Gonski, 2011). Notwithstanding its effectiveness, bilingual education was replaced in the Northern Territory with Two-Way Learning, where English was to be taught exclusively in the morning and, if decided by the community in consultation with the Education Department, the locally endorsed Aboriginal language in the afternoon (Government of Northern Territory, 2008). There is still some debate as to how comprehensively the Territory’s Transforming Indigenous Education policy of 2008 has been implemented particularly with regard to language provision. Although there are currently no definitive data, it is widely claimed that some 250 Aboriginal languages were spoken at the time of initial European contact (Schmidt, 1990), but no more than 100 had survived by 1971 (many with fewer than 10 speakers) (AIAS, 1971). Other sources, however, claim the existence of 145 Aboriginal languages in 2010, of which 110 were critically endangered (House of Representatives, 2012). In some communities, where the local language is still primary, local teachers (more commonly teacher aides) are employed together with white teachers to teach the language at school. ATSI ‘elders’ may also be called upon to impart local, cultural knowledge.

In all education sectors, while rates of participation and success have improved, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is still large. For example, in 2011 22 per cent of Aboriginal 4-year-olds lived in remote regions of Australia and of these 82 per cent were attending a preschool programme (COAG, 2013). In later years of schooling however, Aboriginal students are less likely to participate in NAPLAN[2] testing for literacy and numeracy raising some question over these results. Nonetheless, current results show a decrease in the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal reading scores at the primary school level but an increase for Year 9 (the secondary level) (COAG, 2013). However, the reverse was evident for numeracy scores (COAG, 2013). Nonetheless, remoteness still places Aboriginal students at a disadvantage with achievement in both literacy and numeracy continuing to decrease among these students (COAG, 2013).

More positive outcomes have been recorded for Year 12 completion with attainment rising from 47.4 per cent of Aboriginal students nationally in 2006 to 53.9 per cent in 2011, although this is still markedly less than in some other indigenous contexts (COAG, 2013; Shimomura, 2013). A considerable gap persists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students at university; however in 2010 Aboriginal students formed 1.4 per cent of total university enrolments, despite Aboriginal people comprising 2.5 per cent of the Australian population (DEEWR, 2009; Behrendt et al., 2012). Moreover, 68.6 per cent of non-Aboriginal students commencing a degree in 2005 had completed in 2010, while only 40.8 per cent of ATSI students had done so (Behrendt et al., 2012).

In the vocational sector, Aboriginal 20–64 year olds with, or working towards, a Certificate III qualification or above rose from 30.2 per cent to 35.6 per cent between 2006 and 2011, contributing to an overall increase in postschool qualifications among the Aboriginal population (COAG, 2013).

The most recent Behrendt Report[3] recommended that better pathways between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education be developed, with parity with the non-Aboriginal population set as the benchmark. In addition, better and more extensive use of IT should be undertaken for remote students, and universities should adopt a whole-of-university approach to Aboriginal student success, focusing on boosting retention and completion rates (Behrendt et al., 2012).

Two-Way learning: a case study

What the earlier sketch demonstrates is that, while much has been done, much remains to be done to redress persistent and deep disadvantage. While rates of Aboriginal participation and retention in education have increased markedly in recent years, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal achievement remains wide. It is also very important to remind ourselves of at least two further points.

First, Aboriginal Australia is highly diverse geographically, socially and educationally. For example, as shown earlier, rates of educational participation, retention and success in remote communities are often well behind those of urban dwellers and continue to be by far the worst in the country for remote desert communities.

Secondly, the character of Australian federalism means that, constitutionally, education is a state responsibility (for more, see Chapter 1 in this volume), hence there are variations from state to state. Also varying are the proportions that the Aboriginal population occupies compared with the overall population (see Table 4.1), as well as the proportions that live in urban as opposed to rural and remote settings. It is among the latter that Aboriginal languages are often still the primary languages. It is in this spirit that the following case study from the geographically vast state of Western Australia in which Aboriginal people occupy 3.8 per cent of the population (second among all Australian states and territories) is presented (ABS, 2007). It focuses on the complex and contested arena of language and how this affects educational success.

The Western Australian Education Department administers one of the largest jurisdictions in the world, covering an area of 2,645,615 square kilometres. The Department employs 20,560 teachers (of whom 167 are Aboriginal) and in addition 606 Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers. Aboriginal students make up 8.29 per cent of the general student population (7,935 Aboriginal students in remote locations and 14,310 in regional and metropolitan centres) (Western Australian Department of Education, 2012). It is estimated that approximately 85–90 per cent of these students speak Aboriginal English (a dialect of English now recognized by linguists, see later) as either their first or their second language. In view of these statistics and the ongoing low achievement of Aboriginal students, the Western Australian Education Department has supported extensive academic research, staff training and materials development to improve the outcomes of these learners.

In particular, a reciprocal Two-Way bidialectal approach has been strongly promoted through the Department’s ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning Project. This ‘Two-Way’ approach calls for educators to critically reflect on the unidirectional method of teaching that is conventionally used to assist Aboriginal learners. The ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning uses Aboriginal English research data to guide both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators towards exploring language difference including the deeper level of cultural meaning. This includes taking account of the different histories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia and acknowledging the differing conceptual understandings, in order to construct mutually trustful relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators.

Additionally, the Western Australian Two-Way bidialectal approach advocates programme delivery inclusive of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students and sets in place teaching and learning practices where both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners can learn from each other. From its inception, the ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning Project has maintained strong ties with the Aboriginal community and emphasizes respect for, and acceptance of, the different ways that Aboriginal students speak English and interpret knowledge and experience (Malcolm, 1997).

English deconstructed: the Australian situation

English established itself in Australia in various ways. First, it was regionalized as speakers of different British English dialects settled in Australia. It absorbed local influences and led to a new Australian norm. Australian English, as it is known today, has two main socio-lectal varieties (Collins and Blair, 2001). Australian Vernacular English (Pawley, 2008) is a colloquial variety spoken by many working class and country men and women across the nation, while Standard Australian English (SAE) has been heavily influenced by Standard British English and codified in dictionaries and style guides. SAE is used in Australia’s educational, political, economic, legal and social institutions.

English in Australia was also indigenized by speakers who spoke traditional Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal people continue to maintain this variety. Developing from a contact situation, English was pidginized and used as an auxiliary language alongside traditional languages. Eventually, as Aboriginal people were displaced from their lands and even prohibited from speaking their own languages, the pidgin form was used for communication with other Aboriginal people. In some places, subsequent generations of Aboriginal people adopted this pidginized English as their main language, turning it into a creole. In the course of time, under the pressure of the majority culture, some of these pidgins and creoles came under renewed English influence, and Aboriginal forms of English emerged. At present, ‘we are now in a situation where levelling has taken place across Aboriginal English varieties to the extent that we can say that (despite regional differences), there is one Aboriginal English. However, we cannot say that Aboriginal English is a form of Australian English, in that it is fundamentally different in origin, structure and conceptual base’ (I. G. Malcolm personal communication, 2 September 2012). Thus Aboriginal English is a separate dialect.

It is uncommon for educators to take account of possible discrepancies in their Aboriginal students’ understandings of SAE. In primary schools, when it comes to literacy instruction, the focus is mainly on spelling, reading and writing without taking into account dialectal variation. By the time students reach secondary school, the emphasis generally shifts to the study and production of the various types of texts or genres, ranging from the literary to exposition, and texts needed for study and daily living. Literacy is further emphasized in the face of high-stakes testing. However, the introduction of standardized National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in recent years has had the affect of narrowing the range of approaches to literacy and content, and is undermining opportunities to acknowledge the existence of other dialects (e.g. Aboriginal English) in schools. Moreover, it fails to accommodate the different paths to literacy and the acquisition of standard English language experienced by non-native speakers of SAE, notably by Aboriginal Australians (Wigglesworth et al., 2011; House of Representatives, 2012; The Conversation, 2012; ACTA, 2013). The validity of Aboriginal English as the students’ home language, as the language they use to describe their experience and worldview and as the language that carries their cultural heritage, is rarely recognized. Too frequently, it has been seen as a non-standard linguistic code with poor pronunciation and incorrect grammar that needs eradication or remediation.

Aboriginal English differs from Australian English in more ways than just sounds, words and syntax, however. The differences lie deeper, in specific text forms, pragmatics and underlying conceptualizations. For most Aboriginal learners, the language they hear at school is not what they are accustomed to at home. This means they are more likely to misunderstand or get confused by SAE (Sharifian et al., 2012). As a result, students become distracted and lose interest: behaviour that is quickly interpreted as a lack of concentration or performance ability. Consequently, Aboriginal learners are often mis-diagnosed with learning difficulties or disabilities. Once this occurs, the students adopt a negative self-belief, doubting their own ability to succeed and resigning themselves to failure. Without awareness that the underlying problem is the difference between Aboriginal English and Standard English, both teachers and students struggle finding ways to improve.

Two-Way bidialectal education recognizes that Aboriginal learners have to work with the two dialects for maximum success. But first they need to recognize the existence of the two dialects and become aware of the differences between the two. This needs to occur at all levels of language – at the level of linguistic structures and features, and at the deeper cultural conceptual level. Within the Two-Way bidialectal approach, Aboriginal English is accepted as an alternative medium of classroom expression for its speakers. This is important in that it provides the learners with a tool for learning as well as a basis for expanding their current repertoire to include SAE (Malcolm et al., 2003).

For Two-Way bidialectal Education to be really effective, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conceptualizations of the world and how we express them need to be exposed. This can only effectively occur when an ongoing genuine exchange of ideas and experiences can take place in which both parties agree to approach collaboration without prejudice and ulterior motives. The flow of knowledge needs to be educative to each party and it needs to go both ways. To date, this has been most effective when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators work as partners in Two-Way Teams. In schools, Two-Way Teams can be a non-Aboriginal teacher and an Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer. However, other scenarios include the collaboration between a non-Aboriginal teacher and an Aboriginal Language Teacher or community member, or in the adult education sector between a non-Aboriginal lecturer and an Aboriginal student. Using a framework that includes ‘relationship building’, ‘mutual comprehension building’, ‘repertoire building’ and ‘skill building’ (Malcolm and Truscott, 2012), Two-Way Teams learn about each other’s words and language use. In particular, the importance of the home dialect (in this case, Aboriginal English) to the learner is acknowledged and valued.

The management of Two-Way bidialectal education

The recognition of Aboriginal English

Research into Aboriginal English commenced in Australia in 1960s, first in Queensland, then in the Northern Territory, and since the 1970s in Western Australia. Other studies in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have since confirmed that Aboriginal English exists throughout Australia (Malcolm, 1995).

After two successful joint projects with Edith Cowan University in Western Australia (Malcolm, 1995; Malcolm et al., 1999), the ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning was conceptualized in 1998. This project instigated a Two-Way approach to both research and education and investigated how issues such as the recognition of culture and home language and the structure of the learning environment influence educational processes, and how Aboriginal English can be effectively utilized by Aboriginal learners in the classroom (Malcolm, 1995). These and subsequent projects have produced numerous research publications and curriculum support materials gradually enhancing the empowerment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators.

The establishment and maintenance of the ABC Project

The establishment and maintenance of the ABC Project within a government department did not come without challenges. The project required travel across the vast area of Western Australia (approximately 2.6 million square kilometres) to work with all leading Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators and to garner community support. Workshops had to be conducted, first with Aboriginal educators and then with non-Aboriginal cohorts to ensure that each group had the opportunity to bring out the issues important to them without having to compromise their concerns by being sensitive to other points of view. Workshop content concentrated on raising awareness about Aboriginal English by highlighting the need to value and take account of dialect difference by incorporating English as an Additional Language and Standard English as an Additional Dialect (EAL/D) strategies in teaching, and by emphasizing Two-Way processes (Department of Education and Department of Education and Training, 2012).

To develop this further, the ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning Capacity Building Project was established in collaboration with the Department of Training and Workforce Development in 2004. This project used a cascading model of action-learning professional development. Fourteen Two-Way Teams from nine education regions were trained over 12 days during the course of 1 year, and supported by centrally based Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators and academics. Each team delivered professional learning to a further 2 Teams in their region, making a total of 42 trained educators. Much progress was made by participating schools and training sites. However, in many cases the ongoing implementation had to rely on the goodwill of those involved to ensure its sustainability. To improve dissemination, the Tracks to Two-Way Learning Resource was then developed (Department of Education and Department of Education and Training, 2012).

Influencing system-wide policy

The ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning project has also implicitly influenced system-wide policy. The grounds for systemic recognition of Aboriginal learners were laid in 1988 with a report led by Dr Paul Hughes, which officially recognized for the first time that educators needed to ensure that the curriculum reinforces rather than suppresses the cultural identity of Aboriginal learners. Some years later, the National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (DEET, 1994, 1995) recognized the need for support of Aboriginal English-speaking students and stressed the need for ‘Two-Way education’; however, it failed to recognize the positive effects that a learner’s first language or dialect can have on achieving bicultural objectives (Malcolm and Königsberg, 2007).

In 1995, a policy on Aboriginal English was commissioned by the Department of Education, Western Australia. Although the policy was never officially implemented, this impetus had far-reaching effects on the future development of curriculum in the state. For example, the term Aboriginal English was embedded in Education Department’s major policy document (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1998). In 2003, a review of the Achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students in English Language Competence Project (AAAJ Consulting Group, 2003) recognized the need to use Aboriginal English in course design and student assessment. In 2006, the Western Australian English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) Course recognized the acceptance of Aboriginal English speakers into a course designed specifically for those learning SAE as an additional language or dialect (Curriculum Council, 2006). In the same year, recognition of the critical importance of Aboriginal cultures and languages, including Aboriginal English, as well as the need to explicitly teach SAE was finally adopted nationally with the publication of the Australian Directions in Indigenous Education 2005–2008 Report (MCEETYA and Curriculum Council, 2006). This document provided directions in Aboriginal Education at a national level.

The inclusion of the term Aboriginal English and the explicit teaching of standard English as an additional dialect in the newly developed Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2010) is the result of much of the supporting research and advocacy contributed by people involved in the work of the ABC of Two-Way Literacy and Learning.

Influencing system-wide implementation

The most recent resource, the Tracks to Two-Way Learning, which incorporates past key research findings and related educator training materials, is already guiding ongoing implementation. Two recent Western Australian initiatives show how the materials and guidance provided in the Tracks to Two-Way Learning have led to additional effective initiatives. The Language, Literacy and Learning Two-Way Professional Learning Course (Department of Education, 2013) uses the Tracks to Two-Way Learning as an underpinning to teacher training. The resource is being used within the Department of Education to improve bidialectal approaches to language and literacy learning in early childhood education. Another major resource currently being developed by the Department of Training and Workforce Development is a Certificate III in Two-Way Aboriginal Liaison. When accredited, this certificate course will introduce a new approach to teaching adult literacy and numeracy that values and capitalizes on Aboriginal English (or creole) and gives appropriate recognition to the social, cognitive and linguistic practices of Aboriginal people who use Aboriginal English or an Australian creole as their first or ‘home’ language. The researchers and academics involved in this work continue to support the view that a sustainable, organic and inclusive cultural and linguistic balance can be achieved within mainstream education and training. However, since these projects are long-term endeavours, a passion for Two-Way learning and an open-minded appreciation of, and genuine interest in, cultural differences are all essential for its success.


Despite the fact that Aboriginal education is the most ancient form of structured learning (much older than Plato, or Confucius), it was massively disrupted by colonialism from which it has never really recovered. While rates of participation among Aboriginal students in current education systems have improved significantly, their achievement levels still lag well behind the national average especially at upper secondary and higher education levels (Otsuka, 2008; Behrendt et al., 2012). While the Behrendt Report recommendations may show a way forward, at least in higher education, three factors still stand out: more respect by non-Aboriginal Australians; the dependence of success in higher education on achievements in lower levels of education; and the need for considerable improvement in the health, housing and financial hardships faced by Aboriginal families which obstruct educational achievement in the next generation. More than 20 years after the landmark Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report charted the dimensions of disadvantage (Australian Government, 1991), more than 20 years after the Supreme Court’s Mabo decision finally granted recognition of Aboriginal land rights and 5 years after the then Prime Minister issued a formal apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’ in Australia’s national parliament,[4] racism and disadvantage still divide the country. It exists in both social and economic terms: ATSI people aged 18 years and over received a median gross weekly equivalized household (GWEH) income of $445 per week, cf. the non-Indigenous median GWEH income of $746 per week (Behrendt et al., 2012). In education, while great strides have been made and substantial sums invested, participation and retention rates still significantly lag national averages, especially at secondary and higher education and in remote communities. In 2010, 45.4 per cent of ATSI pupils remained enrolled from Year 7 to Year 12, compared to 79.4 per cent of non-Indigenous pupils (Behrendt et al., 2012: p. 6).

This pattern of disadvantage is not restricted to schooling outcomes. While ATSI students made up an encouraging 4.6 per cent of all enrolments in vocational education and training (VET) in 2010 (NCVER, 2010), they are eight times more likely to enrol in a VET course than in university study. For non-Aboriginal students, the ratio is 2:1 (Behrendt et al., 2012: p. 7).

Within the higher education sub-sector, in 2010 ATSI students made up 1.4 per cent of all enrolments in university, 1.0 per cent of total full-time equivalent university staff and 0.8 per cent of academic staff. 2010 saw 47.3 per cent of the ATSI enrollees (of whom two-thirds were women) enter university on the basis of their prior education, relative to 83.0 per cent of non-Indigenous student population. In that same year, 40.8 per cent of ATSI students who commenced a bachelor course in 2005 had completed their course, compared to 68.6 per cent of non-Indigenous students (Behrendt et al., 2012: p. 8).

The pattern of difference sketched earlier translates into poorer workplace outcomes. For example, ATSI people made up just 0.8 per cent of the professional workforce in 2006, 0.6 per cent of the managerial workforce and remain less likely to have a degree or higher qualification compared to non-Indigenous professionals (Behrendt et al., 2013: pp. 9–10). Much remains to be done therefore to redress decades of educational disadvantage.


The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable comments of Emeritus Professor Ian Malcolm, Margaret McHugh and Cheryl Wiltshire on drafts of this paper.


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[1] In his earlier (1990) book, Reynolds acknowledged that resistance was by no means universal; that accommodation was also part of the story.

[2] The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).

[3] The Behrendt Report or Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People was commissioned by the Australian Government in response to an earlier Review of Australian Higher Education (Bradley et al., 2008), called the ‘Bradley Review’, which recommended commitment to improved higher education access and outcomes for people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.

[4] In Australia, the term ‘Stolen Generation’ refers to Aboriginal people who were forcibly removed from their families, and who often grew up with little or no knowledge of their family’s whereabouts, and their own origins.