Australia: Finding paths to indigenous classes
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Sat Jun 23 17:47:17 UTC 2007
*Finding paths to indigenous classes*
As Australian ministers look for ways to raise English skills among
Aboriginal communities - and increase their access to jobs - Rob Burgess
assesses how schools are helping bridge the learning gap
*Friday June 22, 2007*
A child's first days at primary school usually involve some tears, but
nothing a few kind words from the teacher can't remedy. Not so for many
indigenous kids from Australia's more remote communities, who often arrive
to find that the teacher speaks only a foreign language and expects them to
speak it as well. Acquisition of that language, English, remains a thorny
problem for many remote indigenous communities in Australia and is often
identified as contributing to a range of social ills - from low employment
rates to constant friction with police and the courts, poor health, low life
expectancy and even to communities failing to protect children from violence
and sexual abuse.
Mal Brough, the federal minister for indigenous affairs, forced this issue
into the open last month by announcing plans for a national policy to tackle
truancy and improve English acquisition among remote indigenous children.
Most controversially, he said he would consider withholding welfare payments
from parents whose children skipped school. "Many grandparents in remote
communities have lamented to me the fact that their grandchildren don't have
the language skills they themselves were provided with," Brough said. "The
proposal relates to quarantining a portion of welfare payments to parents of
children at risk to ensure the children are fed, housed, clothed and
schooled. I'm urging states and territories to ensure indigenous children go
to school. They pursue that responsibility for other children. Why should
indigenous children be treated differently?"
Brough's plans met strong opposition from MPs and indigenous leaders. Why,
asked the Aboriginal state MP Linda Burney, was the same government that
removed funding for bilingual education programmes in the Northern Territory
now concerned with getting students back into the classroom? The Greens
party leader, Bob Brown, accused the government of failing to value the
languages that indigenous communities speak. "The neglect and even disdain
for original Australian languages is chilling," he said.
Yet despite criticism of Brough's methods, the need to improve English in
remote communities is widely supported. Vincent Forrester, a 55-year-old
Aranda man based in Alice Spring, says English is an essential skill for the
surprisingly numerous employment opportunities in remote areas, whether in
mining, tourism or "traditional" work such as harvesting natural medicines
from the bush. Forrester's career has encompassed indigenous curriculum
development for schools and adult colleges, political activism, working as a
specialist guide in the tourism industry and more recently working as an
"My generation can read and write, but the younger ones cannot," he says.
"The cost of living is exorbitant in the bush, so kids often turn up to
school with no tucker in their bellies. Over 70% of these kids suffer from
middle ear infections because of poor living conditions, so there are a lot
of reasons they don't learn." As a result, indigenous school-leavers miss
out on jobs on their doorstep, says Forrester. "I talk to thousands of
national and international visitors a year as a guide at the Alice Springs
Desert Park and the response I get from them is, 'We want more access to
Aboriginal people'. But if you look at the major tourist resorts, you won't
see any indigenous people working there."
The campaign to get remote indigenous children back to school obscures the
fact that several programmes have successfully done just that. One scheme
enforces a "no school, no pool" policy that excludes truants from school
swimming pools when they've skipped class. At the 1,500-strong Northern
Territory community of Ngukurr, this policy saw attendance jump from 45% to
70% in 2005. More subtle, though, is the move to make the educators and the
materials covered in class less foreign to the students. Greg Dickson, a
linguist who works in Ngukurr for the Katherine Regional Language Centre, is
helping the local communities turn their oral culture into a range of
learning materials, from story books to CD-roms.
These resources help students feel at home in the classroom, as do teachers
who have learned a local language, if only the lingua franca of indigenous
northern Australia - a heavily creolised English known as Kriol. Acquiring
fluent Kriol is not easy, but even knowing the basics makes the classroom a
less foreign environment, says Dickson. Increasingly, indigenous teachers
are becoming available to act as this bridge between cultures, although they
face obstacles to a career in teaching that metropolitan graduates do not.
"They can burn out pretty quickly, because non-local teachers rely so
heavily on their local knowledge," says Dickson. "Also, all fully qualified
teachers are supposed to be provided with accommodation, but there's not
enough to go around. So if you're a local, you don't get an Education
Department house - you keep living in your overcrowded house that just
doesn't give you the space and time to be ready for work each day."
Training indigenous teachers often means starting with improving their
English, says Tom Evison, deputy director of the Batchelor Institute of
Indigenous Tertiary Education, which operates from six campuses across the
Northern Territory. "Teacher registration in the Territory requires that
Standard Australian English is the medium of instruction, so we have units
of study to support all our students to make sure they have the level they
need." Some graduates will return to remote communities, says Evison, but
many use their qualification to find work in cities. He hopes that some of
them will later return to do language work, much of which is currently done
by non-indigenous researchers.
Evison, like Dickson, says the bilingual skills of indigenous teachers are
extremely important: "We accept that everyone needs to speak standard
English, but we know that a facility for learning in the first language is a
pathway into a second language. The two should be going hand in hand."
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