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[ from Inge Kral, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University ]

On Tuesday October 14 Marion Scrymgour, the Northern Territory Minister for Education and Training, announced a greater emphasis on teaching English in NT DET remote community schools. Why? Because she is ‘committed to making the changes needed to improve attendance rates and lift the literacy and numeracy results in our remote schools’ as the literacy results in remote schools are still ‘unacceptable’ while the results being achieved in Darwin, Alice Springs are comparable to schools in similar parts of Australia. So what is the aim here? To improve English oracy, literacy and numeracy, and to increase the employability of Indigenous youth in the real economy, one assumes.

For those of us who have worked in Indigenous education on the ground in remote areas over the past few decades, it is clear that these policy decisions are not evidence-based. Yes, English is important, however a critical flaw in the argument is that more ‘teaching’ in English will not necessarily equate to better ‘learning’ of English. Rather, the best path to increasing remote Indigenous students’ English involves increasing the relevance of what is offered to students and communities, and paying more attention to the provision of meaningful post-school contexts that allow for application of the learning. To assume that increasing the requirement in remote schools to spend more hours of the day teaching English, in English, by non-Indigenous teachers who speak English only will increase school attendance and lift literacy and numeracy rates is way off the mark. Furthermore, literacy levels are comparable whether a school teaches in English or the children’s own language for the first four hours of the day – only 10 out of 55 remote schools are bilingual, and there is considerably more community commitment to the children’s education in the bilingual schools than in non-bilingual. Communities want bilingual education [1] – why is this government not listening to them?

Without dispute, school attendance in remote schools is low. Primary aged children are not attending regularly and the retention rates of adolescents in the secondary years are low, with most having dropped out of formal schooling by the time they are 15. However, instituting the requirement that more English be taught in school time will not remedy this situation. Attendance will improve when schooling is truly relevant and meaningful to the lives of Aboriginal people in the bush. We know, anecdotally, that in the past school attendance was higher when bilingual programs were flourishing because there was more adult engagement in school and children attended alongside the adult teachers, teaching assistants and literature production workers. Anecdotally we also recognise the level of competence is higher in both the vernacular and English language and literacy in those young adults who attended school regularly because their mothers were teachers.

Over the last decade school has become increasingly irrelevant as Aboriginal people have become more distanced from participating in their local community schools; due to the reduced support for the bilingual program and the increased emphasis on English in the curriculum. Over time ‘bush mob’ have seen their role and priorities (language and culture) marginalised in the teaching/learning process. They have witnessed non-Indigenous teachers often struggling in remote contexts due to inadequate preparation for the context, and inadequate cross-cultural and cross-linguistic preparation, yet being provided with good housing, wages and conditions. Since the initial cohort of qualified as remote Indigenous teachers in the first phase of bilingual education, there have been almost no more, and recently few of the purported ‘educational outcomes’ to warrant regular school attendance.

Focusing on English language and school attendance may not be the solution if remote Aboriginal people’s experience shows them that schooling makes little appreciable difference to the factors that matter in the construction of a fulfilling and meaningful life. What matters in the learning for successful futures is not just English literacy and numeracy benchmarks, but also finding pathways that will support the formation of individuals who have a positive sense of self, strong linguistic and cultural identities and the learning and literacy skills to shape their own futures and the sustainability of their communities. This entails paying attention to and supporting a range of environments that encourage and support the necessary learning. Socialisation and the courses of learning in remote contexts are complex as they integrate learning styles drawn from different social and cultural worlds.

If the message that young people are getting from school is that only English language, literacy and numeracy has value and that they are failing to acquire this knowledge, then how will this experience contribute to positive identity formation and the future production of the wide array of spoken and written forms needed for the multitude of intercultural, intergenerational situations in which individuals interact daily and across the life span?

Despite the generally accepted assumption that schooling is the most effective institution for educational transmission many researchers have turned away from formal schooling to view literacy as a social practice that has meaning only when it is embedded in the social and cultural practices of the community, i.e. in the home and the community. In many remote communities this generation of school children is at most the third or fourth generation to participate in school learning, with few other locations for social literacy practices in most communities. We cannot expect the outcomes to come from schooling alone.

Nevertheless, bilingual schools have had the most success in bridging the cultural gulf between mainstream schools and remote Indigenous communities, demonstrated by such programs as the current successful ‘Community Reading Program’ in the Warlpiri bilingual schools. Large numbers of family and community members have responded to the children’s invitations to participate in own-language reading evenings in the schools, therefore building the notion that reading is not just something that non-Indigenous people do, but something valued by their own families.

Research shows us how important family or home literacy is to the development of literacy habits, attitudes and practices in the pre-school years. Research also demonstrates that only during older childhood and adolescence do speakers begin to encounter to a substantial degree the styles, registers, and genres of discourse that advance communication, knowledge acquisition, and skill build-up. These syntactic and discourse structures potentially begin to move young speakers forward toward adult roles. Yet, even in mainstream contexts, the time limits of schooling cannot possibly provide the necessary input and practice for fluency gains that speakers need with the highly complex and intertextual structures of discourse for later language and literacy development for adult communication needs in the workplace and in other roles.

Thus, the vast majority of language development for adolescents must come from their time beyond classrooms and beyond their families. This is particularly so in remote Indigenous communities where school attendance and retention rates are low and where Standard Australian English is being learned as a second language in newly literate contexts. Bilingual school programs offer structured opportunities for children and young people to continue to deepen the use of their own language in a variety of genres and registers, thus enabling them to develop stronger English.

Discussions on Indigenous literacy rarely move beyond predictable school paradigms. Yet in remote Indigenous contexts we have to start looking at previous and current research to move beyond a school-based deficit perspective by noticing the other sites where literacy and English language is used, acquired and developed. In a three year research project currently being conducted at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, in partnership with the Fred Hollows Foundation, it has been found that although young people may be walking away from current models of schooling and training, they are not rejecting learning [2]. Case studies indicate that youth are engaging in projects and programs where learning is taking place in a range of community-based domains and positive outcomes are being attained.

If we are to seek intergenerational change, then, in addition to the kind of school-oriented initiatives aimed at closing the gap, we also need to pay attention to literacy as social practice. That is, we need to find meaningful applications for multimodal literacy for children in the home environment and for the many school-age and post-school age adolescents who may remain outside institutional learning domains, yet are accessing non-formal youth organisations, community libraries or arts- or media-based programs as their main learning sites. This indicates that relying only on compulsory schooling and accredited training may be too narrow in this context and that room also needs to be made for a range of learning paths all of which may lead to the outcomes desired by the community, young people and mainstream Australia.

Inge Kral [inge.kral AT anu.edu.au]



[1] Warlpiri Triangle Meeting, Lajamanu June 2008.

[2] This three year (2007-2010) research project ‘Lifespan learning and literacy for young adults in remote Indigenous communities’ is funded by the Australian Research Council, Australian National University and the Fred Hollows Foundation.


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