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Getting to the heart of the matter: The importance of the Aboriginal community voice in education

Jeannie Herbert
This paper provides an opportunity to hear Aboriginal voices - students, their parents and other members of the community - talking about the issues they perceive are important in relation to their participation in the education process. These voices have emerged from a research project conducted in secondary schools in the Northern Territory and New South Wales. The purpose of the research was to explore issues associated with the non-attendance of Aboriginal students in the secondary school. One of the most critical factors revealed through this study is the importance of identity. Such understandings are vital to education systems that still appear to be struggling with the development and implementation of policies and practices which will lead to an improvement in the participation, retention and success of Indigenous students in our secondary schools. Put simply, 'kids need to feel they belong ... they need to feel they have a place in the school'. This is not happening for many Aboriginal students. What needs to happen in our schools? What can we do about it?

In 1998, a project entitled Keeping Our Kids at School studied factors affecting the attendance, suspension and exclusion of Indigeneous students in secondary schools. The research, commissioned by a partnership consisting of the Australian Centre for Equity through Education and the National Children's Youth Law Centre, was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) and the Australian Youth Foundation. This study was an important initiative as there has been limited research into the issue of Indigenous non-attendance at school and it is important that teachers develop deeper insights in this area if there is to be any hope of effecting real change in the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

The data for this study were gathered in remote, rural and urban settings in New South Wales and the Northern Territory and the focus was on secondary schools. However, the teachers on the research team believed that many of the issues that emerged share a commonality across all states and territories as well as permeating all levels of our education systems. A number of key findings emerged from the information provided by the students, parents, teachers and community members who participated in the study. The report, by Herbert, Anderson, Price and Stehbens (1999) is entitled If they learn us right: A study of the factors affecting the attendance, suspension and exclusion of Aboriginal students in secondary schools.

In this paper I explore some of the issues, identified in the interviews, that have impacted upon Aboriginal participation in education, throughout Australia, over many years. For example, the second review of the provision of public education in Western Australia (Equal Opportunity Commission [WA], 1990) reported that: 'from 1987 onwards ... Aboriginal students are increasingly over-represented in the group of students excluded from school' (p. 11). The review revealed that, despite the high rates of truancy and absenteeism in a number of schools, the issue tended to be ignored by the relevant authorities. In fact, during the period 1985-1989, 29 of the total 133 exclusions were Aboriginal students, yet from 1987-1989, of the total 67 students excluded, 25 were Aboriginal. These statistics continue to be replicated in Western Australia and other Australian states to this day (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 36). Such statistics have grave implications for schools within the context of the introductory statement to the National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, where it was stated that: 'Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders are the first Nations of this continent and have inalienable rights as the indigenous peoples of Australia. Education is one of these rights' (Department of Emploment, Education and Training, 1995).

I would like you to consider that statement in the context of the words of an Aboriginal parent who was a respondent in the research project:

... when the kids cross from outside to inside the gate, they're expected to forget their culture and to be somebody else. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 11)
The issue of school attendance is complex. It also should be accepted that, in most discussions concerning the issue of Aboriginal school attendance, there is a tendency to locate the factors affecting student non-attendance within Aboriginal people themselves in a 'blame the victim' manner (Ryan, 1976). As a result of our research, we believe there is a need for schools to broaden their focus and consider aspects of Aboriginal student non-attendance, beyond the individual child and their life situation.

In recent years, Indigenous Australians have increasingly argued their right to an education that meets their specific needs. Yet, from where I stand as an Aboriginal educator, I do not sense any genuine response to such arguments. Instead, many systems seem to be in reaction mode - 'discipline is what is needed; let's get tough on these kids'. For 'discipline' read 'punishment' because, if what I am hearing from the community is true, that would seem to be the reality.

What should our education systems be doing, if they have a genuine desire to address the current epidemic of non-attendance and the related poor literacy and numeracy levels amongst Indigenous students? Put bluntly, nothing is going to change until we change the way in which educational programs are delivered in this country. The answer lies at the heart of the system - in the schools or in other educational institutions. If schools do not give equity of access to an educational experience that is relevant to the learning needs of Indigenous students, then our education systems will continue having to throw precious resources at trying to 'fix the problem'.

The key factor which has emerged from this research, and one on which all of the researchers were in agreement, is that the teacher/student relationship plays a critical role in improving the quality of education for Aboriginal students. This finding has implications for teachers and how they teach. Listen to the voices. Hear what the Indigenous community is saying:

We get teachers straight out of universities that just have no understanding - they've never even seen a black kid before. You've got schools that are not friendly and parents who don't come to the school because they weren't allowed to go to school here ... just to the missions. All that hasn't been broken down yet. You've got some good teachers there though. You have got some good principals. But it's still a white man's system. And that's probably our biggest harm. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 17)

... they can stand out the front and do a lot of things ... but until they walk up and show the kids, 'I like this to be done this way' - explain things to them, show them ... they need to be visual or hands on. ... if you want respect you've got to earn respect. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 43)

So, could it be that we are trying to 'fix a problem' that, in fact, is the direct result of programs which both disenfranchise and disempower Aboriginal students? The focal point of this research was the consultation process. It was made very clear to the researchers that many Aboriginal students feel totally devalued within their schools. We hear a lot about how schools are trying to improve educational outcomes Aboriginal students through the development of 'inclusive' schools, yet many Aboriginal groups perceive this as simply another 'fad' - the latest priority in a long line of priorities.

What many schools have failed to recognise is the fact that, while the priorities of education systems are continually changing, the priority of the majority of Aboriginal communities remains very focused; people want justice. The Report on Native Title Social Justice Measures (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1995) discussed the importance of education and argued that the achievement of equity in and through education 'must be based on two fundamentals: embracing the first nations' heritage as part of Australia's national heritage, and respecting equally the culture and values of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders and the cultures and values of non-indigenous Australians' (p. 90).

Responses from Aboriginal respondents suggest that the recognition and acceptance of these 'fundamentals' could well be quintessential in opening schools up to 'other' ways of knowing, to ensuring that 'other' voices can be heard, to making schools places where Aboriginal students are valued and places where they want to be. In my opinion, a lot of this has to do with achieving a shift in attitudes. I don't agree with some that the 'attitude change' has already occurred and the problem has been fixed. The message I get from students is that we still have lots of 'attitude' out there and we need to do something about 'shifting' it! Reflect upon what you hear in schools, words spoken in staff rooms and the Principal's office - these are the places where 'attitude' breeds. Think about those words you now have in your head, and compare them with the words of this non-Aboriginal School Principal:

We prefer to see Aboriginality as a bonus, as a benefit. A lot of these Aboriginal kids have tremendous skills. Many of them are bi- and tri-lingual for example. They have terrific empathy. They're very great carers, particularly the girls, but the boys also, in terms of their family obligations. They have very extensive networks of people that you can tap into. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. v)
It seems to me that these words encapsulate the very qualities that our teachers need to focus on if education systems are to develop a real capacity to respond effectively to the learning needs of Aboriginal peoples. Where the school community defines Aboriginality as a set of positives as opposed to a problem, then the delivery of an educational program which is relevant to the needs of Aboriginal peoples is no longer an impossibility. From my perspective, such a shift in the thinking of the school community will not only provide the catalyst for ensuring that education is accepted as a right Aboriginal peoples, but is also the essential element in changing the current situation.


To consider the issue of how Aboriginality is valued within school communities, I have drawn heavily from pages 11-13 of the report, where we outlined the way in which we analysed the data in terms of the institutional response of the school to the educational needs of Aboriginal peoples. We utilised a framework for Aboriginal peoples' participation in mainstream education that was based the model developed by Kirkness and Barnhardt (1991) used in their work in higher education. We paraphrased the original model to adapt the notions of 'coming to' and 'going to', to the circumstances of the school.

Kirkness and Barnhardt (1991) argue that from the vantage point of the educational institution, Aboriginal students could be regarded as 'coming to' school to partake in what the school has to offer. From this perspective, the school can be perceived as being an established and sustainable institution with its own policies, practices, programs and ethos, which have been developed to serve the society in which the school is embedded. However, from the perspective of the Aboriginal students and their families, the notion of entry to school is one of 'going to' school and participating within the school from their own cultural knowledge base. Such a positioning may mean that the students and their families are not willing to become socially integrated into the cultural setting of the school, if it will be at the expense of the culture they bring with them. For such students the experience of school may only be valuable in terms of the extent to which the school is willing to build upon and respect the cultural integrity which students bring. This approach is evident in the NSW Aboriginal Education Policy 1996-2000, which states:

It is critical that schools are places where Aboriginal students feel a sense of belonging, Aboriginal students have the right to be Aboriginal and to express their own unique cultural identity. School and all levels of the Department must recognise this. (Aboriginal Education Unit, 1996, p. 6)
The right of Aboriginal people to be Aboriginal and to have access to an education which is framed within an Aboriginal context, is supported by international agreements and documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which Australia is a signatory). The reality for many Aboriginal students and their parents wanting to participate in our schools, is that they are expected to adapt to the already formed ways of operating the school if they wish to obtain the benefits of the knowledge and skills that it has to offer. These parents and students are keenly aware of this need to adapt, and despite the rhetoric of the Aboriginal Education Policy, recognise that 'going to school' for them means:
I'll leave my Aboriginal culture at the school gate, and when I come in I'll be this person that's moulded into this institution, and this way of doing things, And then when I go home again I'll become Aboriginal again. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 11)
The paramount and overriding importance of 'the system' is recognised by senior school personnel. In one school, a senior manager acknowledged that success in the school system is dependent upon fitting into the system:
I don't think that's actually geared up to really look after Aboriginal students. I think we've got our system, we acknowledge that there are difficulties and there will be exceptions and we acknowledge that perhaps some groups won't fit into the system, but I don't know that it's geared to work with those exceptions. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 12)
When Aboriginal students do not readily adapt to school norms and expectations and do not achieve the levels of 'success' comparable with other students, Kirkness and Barnhardt (1991) suggest the school may focus on the students as being aberrant and may intensify efforts to socialise them into the institutional setting. Yet a critical aspect of maintaining credibility for Aboriginal students and adults in their own world and in the world of work or school, may be their need to maintain two different ways of being and communicating.


Within Aboriginal communities, most young people have very strong notions of their 'personal responsibilities' within both cultural and family spheres . Older children often have quite onerous responsibilities in terms of their younger siblings. In addition, many students try to undertake part-time employment in order to help the family survive. The time taken up in fulfilling such responsibilities often impacts seriously upon a student's capacity to meet school requirements. For example, one Year 11 boy who was interviewed spoke of the dilemma he experienced because his parents worked and he had responsibility for his two younger sisters.
I've got two sisters that go to the school across the road here. I've got to help them get ready in the morning. There is one period a week that we have to come early and I can't make it because I have to help them get ready. Teacher says, 'It doesn't matter, you still have to come' and I try to explain and they say all this stuff about if I don't come I won't get my HSC. I can't just leave them home by themselves. When you tell the teachers that they say 'You can't do that, you still have to come to school'. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 13)
Another aspect of family responsibility relates to respect and caring for the elderly:
My pop was in hospital a couple of months ago ... close to death I tried to explain to the teacher that I was up at the hospital all hours of the night just seeing how he was and they never cared about it. I tried to explain why I didn't do my homework. They just say straight away that it is not their problem. They want me to do their homework but they 'say' they respect what I was going through at that moment. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 14)
At the heart of the difference according to a Year 11 male student was that the teachers did not understand the background that the students were coming from:
They don't come from the same type of background as we do. They think it is easy for everybody but it's not because we have to look after people. Like I had to look after my brothers and sisters when I was still in primary school because my parents were working full time and they don't understand that. You got to look after them (your family) and help them. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 14)


Ngarritjan-Kessaris's (1994) study of Aboriginal parents' perceptions of their children's schooling identified 'talking to teachers' as problematic for Aboriginal parents. She believed that if teachers had a better understanding of Aboriginal communication styles then relations between parents and schools would be more productive and constructive. She suggests that often people look at the externals to judge a person's culture but culture is more 'about how people view their world and how they structure their lives according to that world view' (p. 117). She suggests that while there are many differences between Aboriginal peoples across Australia, there are also many similarities and continuities that bind people together and 'make us uniquely Aboriginal' (p. 117). These are most evident in social relationships and the ways in which Aboriginal peoples use language.


The New South Wales Board of Studies Report (1997), Making a difference, provided a strategy for schools to use in implementing the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. An important proposal contained in this report was the need to make schools places that recognise and affirm Aboriginal identity and promote Aboriginal self-determination. The findings of this research highlight the importance of this concept of affirming a student's cultural identity. We would argue that cultural affirmation is a critical first step for any teacher who seeks to build closer relationships with Indigenous students. Implicit in the argument is, of course, the recognition and acceptance that the majority of school-based staff will need to gain a deeper appreciation of the importance of Aboriginal cultures and Torres Strait Island cultures.

Aboriginal peoples have always been aware that their cultures were not valued within the dominant culture but, in recent times, increasing politicisation of the issue has meant that the broader community is becoming more informed. Extending the knowledge base of educators will also increase their capacity for understanding a range of issues associated with Aboriginal feelings concerning what is perceived to have been a deliberate policy to destroy Aboriginal cultures.

The 1995 National Review of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education (Department of Education, Employment and Training, 1995) maintained that educational participation is not a culturally neutral activity and must take into account 'the differing positions and histories of communities, families and individuals' (p. 50). Herbert et al. (1999) cite Bourdieu's argument that culture may be an important aspect of schools' legitimising the values and beliefs of the dominant culture. Furthermore, they imply that such thinking could justify Mukherjee's assumption that, 'Schools adopt teaching methods and curricula only appreciated by those from families that possess the required cultural capital' (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 15). From such a perspective, it could be argued that issues of culture and identity lie at the very heart of education.

Prior to attempting to address cultural issues, it is critical to recognise the complexity of the task and the huge diversity of the cultural experience of individual Aboriginal people. The task may be daunting but there is no doubt that the need of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to maintain their cultural identity must not be overlooked. The words of an Indigenous Education Worker highlight this issue:

There is also a bit of an identity crisis too, in terms of how teachers and the school system perceive Aboriginals. A lot of these mixed marriages where the Aboriginal kids are not dark, 'What are you doing in this class, you're not Aboriginal. Why do you want to do Aboriginal Studies; you should be over there doing something else'. There is a lot of misinterpretation about what it is to be Aboriginal - who is an Aboriginal? They seem to run into a lot of conflict, not only from the teachers but also from the Aboriginal kids who are dark. Unless they know the parents, or they come from that area, particularly if they move around a lot, there is a lot of conflict within themselves, like who they are, what they are. What is an Aboriginal? The school system thinks that an Aboriginal comes from the Northern Territory. (Herbert et al, 1999, p. 15)
In many instances Aboriginal students expressed a real willingness to learn about their culture and their history but there is a sense that this is not being done adequately in the schools. Some students saw themselves in a precarious position in terms of their cultural knowledge, as they believed that they did not know their culture and expressed fears that as the old people passed away, their stories, hence knowledge of culture, would be lost.

Many parents expressed similar sentiments:

I really think our elders have got to go into the schools, they've got to be there for a class a day to start teaching their grandkids, nephews and nieces what happened to them and have these kids feel proud that we've moved on. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 15)
The initial step for a school in focussing on the way in which they are responding to the specific needs of various cultural groups within the school community is to define what culture means for them. The following is the definition in the NSW Aboriginal Languages Interim Framework: 'The accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving; common understanding shared by the members of a group or community. Includes land, language, ways of living and working, artistic expression, relationships and identity' (New South Wales Department of School Education, 1998, p. 30).


The researchers sought information about the ad ministrative structures within the school, in relation to the degree of flexibility offered in certain circumstances for students. For example, what happens where an Aboriginal student has to be away for a funeral and the mourning period that goes with that. In listening to school staff, it would appear that generally speaking, missing school is viewed as very much the responsibility of the student and hence, there is no expectation on the school to provide a formal structure to ensure students 'catch up' on what they have missed during their absence. Such responses can be located firmly in the notion of 'blame the victim' (Ryan, 1976) and hence, can be used to shift the responsibility. Within such a discourse schools simply take no account of the way in which they 'seek to reproduce social inequality, to secure cultural dominance, to sustain dominant class, race and gender relations and to prepare students ideologically for a social world riddled with injustice and inequality' (Carrington, 1990, p. 266).


Generally, senior staff indicated that their commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and interests within the school was obvious:
Just about everything that is put to us by students, representative council, Aboriginal groups, teachers wanting to get things done, it all has to go through us, and permission has to come from us. If we weren't responsive to it, it wouldn't be happening. The fact that it is happening I think is indicative of the fact that we are. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 11)
In considering how effectively the school demonstrated its commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures, teachers focused on 'visible' signs:
All our subjects have Aboriginal perspectives throughout them in the programs, so no matter what the subject, issues important to all Australians come up. We talk about land rights and we talk about Wik and the Mabo decisions, but more so of course in Aboriginal studies, or legal studies ...

... You've also got Aboriginal days, like we've got a day therefore bands and different dancers come along and we try to give kids and parents a better understanding of the Aboriginal culture, an appreciation of that culture. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 11)

Aboriginal parents offered a different perspective:
I guess the schools still don't cater for the cultural differences, it's the biggest problem that we have. Our kids learn in two environments - they're still learning in an unstructured environment at home and then they come to a structured learning environment. I think what escalates our problem, particularly with our kids, is there's very poor teacher understanding of Aboriginal culture. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 17)

I think what holds Aboriginal kids back is the terminology, like when I first walked in this school, I said to them we use a different vocabulary. I mean our vocabulary is very limited and we use a lot of Aboriginal English ... I know the kids, like if I'm in a class and they're doing a paper and they'll say, 'What does this mean? I can't do it. ' I'll say, 'Yes you can - what does this word mean?' and I'll explain to them in their own language and they'll say, 'Oh is that all it is.' (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 49)

Aboriginal students offered yet another perspective:
They only do it around Aboriginal week.

The Aboriginal flag is only for Aboriginal Day. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 18)

Students appeared very negative about the degree to which Aboriginal peoples (including students) and their cultures were perceived within the school community. Most positive comments were reserved for specific teachers who were seen as understanding Aboriginal students:
... asks students to do things by giving clear helpful instructions.

... talks about things other than school work, eg. social life, TV; sport and so on - helps students blend into the school by making them feel welcome.

... assists students with schoolwork.

Mr X he's the best. He knows what it's about, when you go in there he talks a lot about Aboriginals but he's a whitefella ... but he's the best. (Herbert et al., 1999, pp. 42-43)


The outcomes of this research would seem to suggest that, if schooling is to become more effective in meeting the educational needs of Aboriginal students, teachers will need to develop deeper insights into culture. As Groome (1995) reveals, an aspect of how teachers may respond to Aboriginal students and their families can come out of negative stereotyping and 'culturalism' whereby the 'behaviours of Aboriginal students are excused on the basis of imagined cultural characteristics'. It is important for teachers to acknowledge that all Aboriginal students have 'a unique personal identity which reflects vastly different backgrounds of family, community, peers and their own personality' (p. 75).

Some teachers did reveal a degree of empathy with Aboriginal peoples when they expressed concerns regarding community perceptions of the school's commitment to Aboriginal cultures and peoples:

I think there are areas that we can work on, certainly there's community involvement and our parent/teacher nights that don't get a lot of community involvement. I don't think that's successful. I think our curriculum areas are sort of okay but there are other areas that we can be trying to improve.

I personally don't think our front office is a terribly welcoming place, especially for the first point of call for any sort of cultural group let alone Aboriginal people who have some hesitation in coming to the school anyway. (Herbert et al., 1999, p. 19)


Quintessential to having a sense of personal and group identity is pride in culture, pride in your people. This is the issue which lies at the heart of so much of the Aboriginal struggle today. It is in the area of the social construction of identity that many believe schools have an important role. To establish a strong identity, Aboriginal people need to be positioned within a world which has meaning for them - where being Aboriginal is valued and where they can relate meaningfully with others. This is an important understanding for those in schools who, while recognising and valuing cultural difference, also know that their Aboriginal students must learn to operate within two worlds - their own and that of the dominant culture. Where schools are sensitive to this fact, they will consult with the local communities to determine what constitutes group identity within their area. It is through the sharing of such information that teachers will acquire the knowledge they need to build strong and valuable relationships with their Aboriginal students. Once students are able to place teachers within their worlds, their perceptions of where they belong within the school will change. Aboriginality is to do with belonging.

Good teachers have always known that much of their success within schools can be directly attributed to the way in which they interact with their students. This research has highlighted that truth and revealed an urgent need for schools to reflect upon the nature of their relationship with their Aboriginal communities - both students and their families.


Aboriginal Education Unit. (1996). Aboriginal education policy. Sydney: New South Wales Department of School Education.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). (1995). Recognition, rights and reform: Report to government on native title social justice measures. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Carrington, K. (1990). Truancy, schooling and juvenile justice: She says she hates school. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 23, 259-268.

Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). (1995). National review of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: Final report. Canberra: Commonwealth Go vernment Printer.

Equal Opportunity Commission (WA). (1990). Second review of the provision of public education in Western Australia. Perth: Equal Opportunity Commission (WA).

Groome, H. (1995). Working purposefully with Aboriginal students. Wentworth Falls, NSW: Social Science Press.

Herbert, J., Anderson, L., Price, D. & Stehbens, C. (1999). If they learn us right: Study of the factors affecting the attendance, suspension and exclusion of Aboriginal students in secondary schools. (Report of the 'Keeping Our Kids at School' Project funded by the Department of Employment, Education and Youth Affairs and the Australian Youth Foundation). Sydney: Australian Centre for Equity through Education.

Kirkness, V.J., & Barnhardt, R. (1991). First nations and higher education: The four R's - respect, relevance, reciprocity and responsibility. Journal of American Indian Education, 30 (3), 1-15

New South Wales Board of Studies. (1997). Making a difference: A guide to the education-related recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Sydney: New South Wales Board of Studies.

New South Wales Department of School Education. (1998). The Aboriginal Languages Interim Framework. Sydney: New South Wales Department of School Education.

Ngarritjan-Kessaris, T. (1994). Talking properly with Aboriginal parents. In S. Harris & M. Malin (Eds), Aboriginal kids in urban classrooms. Wentworth Falls, NSW: Social Science Press.

Ryan, W. (1976). Blaming the victim. New York: Vintage Books.

Author details: Professor Jeannie Herbert
Chair of Indigenous Australian Studies
James Cook University
Email: jeannie.herbert@jcu.edu.au

Please cite as: Herbert, J. (2000). Getting to the heart of the matter: The importance of the Aboriginal community voice in education. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 16(2), 130-146. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer16/herbert.html

[ Contents Vol 16, 2000 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 27 Dec 2004. Last revision: 27 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer16/herbert.html