Learning for the western world? The Indigenous education dilemma by Bill Fogarty

Last week the Western Australian Indigenous Labor MP, Ben Wyatt, told a conference in Perth that Aboriginal children in remote communities need a “full Western education”.
Wyatt went on to say that the State had delivered “a palliative education system” to remote Indigenous communities and had endorsed low expectations of Aboriginal children.
I agree with him that Indigenous children need the best possible education. But, he went on to issue a challenge to Aboriginal people saying “Aboriginal people cannot be empowered if they are not willing to prioritise the one key to empowerment, education.” He also suggested that parents must compromise on “cultural life” for the sake of their children’s economic futures. And herein lies the problem.
If it is to be successful a “full western education” as Wyatt puts it, must also value who the students are, the culture they come from and respect their identity.

A history of disadvantage

The history of Indigenous education provision throughout Australia’s remote areas is replete with instances of neglect, infrastructure shortfalls and systemic underfunding. Every Aboriginal child deserves the best education possible and this has patently not been the case in the past.
Indeed many Aboriginal children in Australia’s remote north are still unable to attend secondary school in their own communities and children living in very remote outstation communities are still receiving only the most rudimentary of education services.
Aboriginal people in remote Australia face a great and deep dilemma in engaging with the current education system. On the one hand, as Wyatt implies, education can be a pathway to social mobility, it can offer great economic returns and education can be the key to alleviating social disadvantage.
However, education that does not allow for learning in your own language and that is not inclusive of your social, cultural and economic values is not empowering. It is disempowering.
At its worst, education can be a tool of acculturation and assimilation for remote Aboriginal people. Education can usurp local social structures, cause deep intergenerational divisions and education that is not connected to the reality of a student’s daily life in remote community can seem utterly pointless, leading to disengagement.

A national test

Tackling this dilemma is one of Australia’s great challenges. On the face of things, our inability to deliver a good education to such a small percentage of the population defies belief.
Of course, there are deep complexities.
There are 168,803 Indigenous students in Australia characterised by an array of geographic, socio-economic and cultural diversity. Collectively, these students come together with educators, parents, policy-makers and politicians to form something referred to broadly as ‘Indigenous education’.
Given this diversity of stakeholders, it is perhaps not surprising that Indigenous education in Australia is a highly politicised field of endeavour, and that its form has long been contested. Also, as I have previously noted, the causal relationships between systemic neglect, socio-economic disadvantage, geographic isolation and poor health