By Cally Jetta
Regardless of individual student demographics and the Aboriginal visibility of any one particular institution and/or community, incorporating Aboriginal Perspectives Across the Curriculum (APAC) and moving towards culturally responsive teaching practice should be a priority and focus of every Australian school. National initiatives such as Closing the Gap and incorporating local language and knowledge depend on consistency and dedication from school leaders along with a sound understanding of the importance and benefits of APAC for all Australian students.
The argument that ‘our school has no Aboriginal students so Aboriginal content is not relevant’ is grossly inaccurate and irresponsible. How can learning the original history, culture and language of your homeland ever be irrelevant? A comprehensive knowledge of traditional Aboriginal society and colonial history are vital to fully understand Australia’s social, cultural and political evolution and the ongoing legacy of this today in terms of Reconciliation and addressing Aboriginal disadvantage.
In many ways those schools with the least Aboriginal student presence need to work the hardest to provide their staff and students with learning that challenges popular myths and personal presumptions; builds cultural responsivity and assists communication and relationship building in the wider community. This can be a difficult and daunting task for schools when local Aboriginal community connections and support are limited or absent.
Every Australian should have the opportunity to learn the full and unbiased history of their country; to gain wisdom and empathy from an alternative cultural, social, spiritual and environmental perspective and; feel a sense of belonging and pride when it comes to the world’s oldest living culture and desire to preserve it. How can non-Aboriginal students with little or no experience interacting with Aboriginal people gain the knowledge they need to understand the complexity of issues facing Aboriginal communities and educational outcomes today?
How can they be compelled to want to work towards change with and for Aboriginal people without first having an opportunity to be inspired and enlightened?
Lately I’ve been doing a fair bit of work around the Cultural Standards Framework, which is a W.A. education initiative that all government schools are required to implement. There are five key areas for schools to address including leadership, teaching, relationships, resources and physical environment each with a continuum to progress along. While a mandatory requirement sounds like a big step in the right direction, as usual the loopholes and lack of rigour in its application mean that results vary greatly and technically a school can be ‘progressing’ in certain areas indefinitely. There is no way as yet of ensuring that all schools or staff cohorts commit the same level of time, effort and planning into reaching the progressive stages of the framework. Years could easily be spent making changes that fit within the framework criteria and tick the mandated boxes, but that have very little impact on student outcomes. This is what I see being the biggest hurdle; the fact that there is no structure or deadlines around reaching certain proficiency levels across the 5 key areas and therefore no way of ensuring the framework has any significant impact within a reasonable time-frame.
Leadership of any school will drive the implementation and again this means the level of dedication and rigor applied will vary hugely from school to school depending on the value and importance the Principal places on Aboriginal Education, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.
Regardless of specific location and demographics, all Australian students should have access to Aboriginal history, culture and language, as it is an undeniable part of their Australian identity. Regardless of how many Aboriginal students attend a school, the non-Aboriginal students should be given access to the information and experiences that will allow them to forge better relationships with Aboriginal people beyond school, based on genuine understanding and respect. All schools have a part to play in Closing the Gap in educational disadvantage and aiding authentic reconciliation by acknowledging their social influence and reach. All schools and their leadership should recognize the value of Aboriginal perspectives and culturally responsive teaching practices irrespective of Aboriginal enrolment figures.
When mapping out proposed strategies to progress in each domain it became obvious to me that this continuum of change didn’t just apply to schools and the framework, but to society and its institutions at large. Progression is easy and relatively quick in the early stages when the changes are minimal and largely peripheral. For example, a school could add a few Aboriginal books to the library as a step along the ‘resource’ strand or have an Aboriginal mural painted as a progression along the ‘physical environment’ strand without much expense or disruption to the norm. No one is resistant because the changes are not significant enough to cause any discomfort or personal effort. At a certain point, I have nicknamed ‘the threshold’ progress slows down however and there is far more uncertainty and animosity about moving forward. Making the local Aboriginal dialect an integral part of every classroom would be at the advanced stage of the ‘teaching’ domain, but it can’t happen without real effort, collaboration, learning and courage. Leaders would need to be prepared for staff resistance and possible community backlash; and committed to standing by the changes and reasoning behind them.
Adding some didgeridoo music to the beginning of the Australian Anthem might be a beginner step many schools would take and consider being progressive. No real compromise or consideration is required. From an Aboriginal perspective, the only real and meaningful step in regards to the anthem would be it’s complete abandonment and replacement with something inclusive. But that would cause some people discomfort and force them to reconsider their knowledge and opinions. It would require real compromise and thought from many, and unfortunately for many, that is too much and where the line is drawn – the threshold. Individuals, schools and society at large are often resistant to such compromise and change, especially if it challenges pre-existing beliefs and attitudes or threatens the status quo. But it needs to happen. No real change ever comes without much discomfort, backlash and resistance. Just think of the fight for female equality! The fear, beliefs and self-righteous arrogance that woman had to combat in order to force the social changes needed and wanted.
Without such leadership I fear that many of the advanced stages of the initiative will never be attempted much yet met; they will be deemed too hard, too disruptive and/or unnecessary and avoided. It is imperative then that the education department really focus on school leadership going forward and find means of ensuring commitment and dedication to Aboriginal education to ensure a trickle down effect in schools. Without the right attitudes and approach at the top, the framework is doomed for failure, or at best – mediocre and inconsistent success.
We can all play a small part by placing pressure on our local schools to be transparent and accountable to the Cultural Standards Framework (or the State or Territory equivalent) and providing an education that does not exclude or minimize Aboriginal perspectives and contributions.
Together with rigor and solidarity, we can break the threshold and finally start to climb that mountain in earnest.