Issues in Educational Research, 4(1), 1994, 19-26.

Aboriginal children in urban schools

Helen Lawrence
Aboriginal and Intercultural Studies
Edith Cowan University
In this essay I examine the situation of Aboriginal children in urban schools, the reasons why these children are not achieving in a mainstream education system, and how to avoid the "marginalisation" and "invisibility" that occurs in urban classrooms. In doing so I explore the inequalities of the Australian education system and why the education system is failing to cater for Aboriginal children. I also comment on the cultural backgrounds of Aboriginals as compared to that of mainstream Australians, and how unawareness of this on the part of educators can affect and severely retard the learning abilities of the Aboriginal child. Finally, I analyse Government policy in an effort to find solutions for problems that, in spite of countless recommendations being given to governments over the years and these problems being acknowledged by governments of both denominations, the changes to the education systems have been slow in coming.

Racist practices

One of the issues mentioned in the Education Department of WA's Social Justice in Education Policy states: "It is equally important that the school system addresses the issue of racism". It also says that the Ministry of Education is firmly committed to eliminating racism, both overt and convert, from educational practice (Social Justice in Education, p.12). The following stories suggest that this commitment is warranted.

In the staff room of an urban primary school the teachers were having a function to farewell the principal. He was given a gift and as he unwrapped it, there emerged a large, curly haired, black doll. The Aboriginal Education Worker who related this story immediately recognised the doll as an effigy of one the Aboriginal children who was considered a "problem" and a "troublesome" child.

It wore a ninja turtle T-shirt and black football shorts, similar to the ones worn by this "troublesome" Aboriginal boy. There was no mistaking who the doll was intended to represent. In its body was stuck what appeared to be long needles, similar to knitting needles. All the people in the staff room, nearly all of them teachers, laughed, but the Aboriginal Educational Worker was so disgusted he resigned from his position and went to work elsewhere.

At another school a male teacher was showing other teachers in the staff room a work sheet which depicted an Aboriginal and a dead kangaroo, having just been run over by a semitrailer which was disappearing into the horizon. After handing out the worksheets and explaining what he wanted the students to do, a certain boy in his class raised his hand and said, "Sir, which one is the Aborigine?" at which everyone in the room laughed. Furthermore, when asked why this incident was not reported to the principal, it was pointed out the principal was among those in the staffroom laughing at the worksheet. When it was suggested to these teachers that they were in need of cultural awareness courses, some of them replied that the Aboriginal culture was too complicated and they couldn't understand it and had no desire to. This school has a large number of Aboriginal students attending.

One could be forgiven for thinking these occurrences took place in South Africa or in the deep south of the United States of America. The first incident happened in a Perth metropolitan primary school in 1992 and the second occurred in an urban High School in 1993 . Other Aboriginal Education Workers have reported that similar incidents occur with monotonous regularity.

Cultural differences: Home and school

As many teachers are unaware of the cultural differences that exist between Aboriginal children and the rest of the school population, their task becomes difficult and they are confronted with problems they are unable to handle. When teacher expectations of Aboriginal children are low, this gives rise to the child developing low self esteem, and in many cases the self fulfilling prophecy materialises. Thus labelling of children may make them behave in ways appropriate to the label (Biggs & Telfer, 1987, p.411).

Many Aboriginal children are being ignored in urban classrooms and the types of behaviour found in Malin's (1990) study of Aboriginal children in a South Australian school is by no means the exception to the rule. According to Malin the children under study were ignored and invisible when they wanted feed-back on the work they produced. However, when they did something wrong they were made very visible. One interesting aspect of Malin's study was not only her observation of the teacher's responses to the Aboriginal children but the reaction of their non-Aboriginal peers, which reflected the teacher's attitudes to the Aboriginal children (Malin, 1990, p.312). The attitude and behaviour of the teacher in this case encourages the non-Aboriginal children to copy her and so reinforce and perpetuate racial discrimination and stereotypes towards the Aboriginal children, and Aboriginal people in general. In this manner racism is becoming entrenched into the Australian culture and is being transmitted from one generation to another. The Aboriginal children in this classroom are left with the feeling that not only is the teacher against them but whole class is as well.

When Aboriginal children arrive at school they bring with them a wealth of knowledge of their culture. For five years they have been totally immersed in the Aboriginal ways of their parents and their parents before them. It has been said, and with a degree of truth, that good teachers learn from their students. Eagleson et al (1982, p.169) state that the difference between an Aboriginal child succeeding or failing in school is an understanding teacher. The school places too much emphasis on what the child doesn't know, rather than on what the child does know.

The non-Aboriginal teacher usually arrives at the school with the same cultural background as most of the non-Aboriginal children. This makes the task of teaching the non-Aboriginal children so much easier because the school is seen as an extension of their home experiences and values, and the transition from home to school is undertaken with a minimum of trauma. However, the child from a different culture is expected to go through a deculturation process. In spite of the abolition of past assimilation policies the Australian education system seems extremely reluctant to change.

It has become a major struggle for Aboriginals to maintain their cultural identity while having their children taught under a different cultural system. This is especially so for urban Aboriginals. Schools, as agents of socialisation, can be a powerful positive influence in helping Aboriginal people maintain their culture. On the other hand the schools can also be a powerful and potentially destructive force for Aboriginal culture (Harris, S. 1990, p.1).

The Aboriginal child rearing practices differ greatly to that of non-Aboriginal people. For example the Aboriginal child will not be aware of authority to the same extent as the non-Aboriginal child who is taught to pay attention and obey orders from adults. Aboriginal parents watch their children without a lot of verbal interaction and the child is not punished for doing "wrong". They are expected to get it right the next time (Kearins, Video).

In traditional Aboriginal learning systems there appears to be no gulf between the cultural learning and formal learning. They appear to merge together as there is no clear cut distinction where one ends and the other starts. Rather it is an ongoing daily activity. Grouping according to ability and age is not practiced in Aboriginal learning and children proceed at their own pace. It is not unusual for an Aboriginal male to be initiated at the age of twenty five, while the rest of the group may be sixteen or seventeen. This person is not a lesser person. He "went through the law" when he felt he was ready.

In Aboriginal culture the children are encouraged to develop their observational skills to a high degree. In an urban classroom in most of the Australian school system listening skills and attentiveness are what the teacher demands (Kearins, J. 1985, p.66). Many Aboriginal children will not look directly at the teacher when the teacher is speaking. In some instances this is a cultural trait and it is considered disrespectful to look an adult in the face when they speak, depending on which cultural group the child is from. This is not an indication that the child is being inattentive. In an Aboriginal situation even adults, when they are spoken to, will continue whatever they are doing. This does not mean they are not listening.

Labels such as shyness and timidity are labels applied to Aboriginal children because of their reluctance to talk in a classroom situation and most classroom teachers find this reluctance very difficult to comes to terms with. By the time the Aboriginal child comes to school she is fully aware of all her extended family relationships and obligations and the expected behaviour in these situations. However, on arriving at school, she may find that all the learning that has taken place at home is of no use to her and she may become the target of ridicule, criticism or antagonism.

Communication in the classroom

As the Australian school system is an extremely verbal one in comparison to the Aboriginal learning environment, in order for learning to take place the language of the teacher and the student needs to be compatible. Therefore, the urban classroom teacher speaking a standard Australian English to an urban Aboriginal child who is from an Aboriginal English background is creating a confusing situation from the point of view of the Aboriginal child. In this situation it is impossible for effective learning to take place.

Urban classroom teachers with Aboriginal children in their classes should develop a working knowledge of Aboriginal English. A teacher in a country school, while giving a picture talk, was surprised to have an Aboriginal child point out some "flour" in the picture. The child meant a vase of flowers. In many Aboriginal dialects there are no plural inflexions and they tend to structure their Aboriginal English in the same way (Eagleson et al, 1982, p. 189).

Language is an essential component of the human context. Speech is a part of an overall behaviour pattern. Communication takes place between people who accept one another as communicative partners, and as such coordinate behaviour to each other. Language is much more than just speech, it is a means by which behaviour is regulated (Eagleson et al, 1982 p.165).

It can strike fear into the Aboriginal child's heart when asked to talk in front of the class. She probably thinks, "Why is the teacher asking me this question when he already knows the answer?" In some areas it is culturally inappropriate to be asked a questions in front of a group of people. Teachers encourage children to talk. It is a means of measuring if learning is taking place. But is this necessary? When teaching Aboriginal children a teacher must decide when to talk and when not to. While this technique is basic to European style teaching, it is not basic to all learning (Eagleson et al, 1982 p.181). Teachers may see questioning as a method of encouraging discussion. In an Aboriginal context this may have the reverse affect. The Aboriginal child may then become frightened to say anything as she feels she is constantly being evaluated on what she says.

The Aboriginal child at home knows to be careful about inquiring after knowledge that is adults' knowledge and waits to be told this knowledge. In the school situation children who are curious and ask questions are praised and rewarded. The Aboriginal child who waits for knowledge to be given to him is often said to be lazy or slow. On the other hand if the Aboriginal child comes home asking questions and pestering adults he may be severely chastised and called cheeky by Aboriginal adults.

Coghill and Taylor (1991) go to great lengths to explain Aboriginal communication methods and state that Aboriginals are unlikely to debate an issue and have other ways of dealing with issues with which they do not agree. They go on to state that repetition of information is one method of disguising disagreement (1991, p.3). Given that this is the manner in which Aboriginal people communicate, it would be very difficult for a child from this environment to succeed in the European education system as most teachers expect elaboration, debate type situations and definite statements that reflect a student's mastery of facts (Coghill and Taylor, 1991, p.3).

In the preface of Coghill and Taylor (1991, p.1) there is mention of the formation of Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness committees, a government initiative to assist Aboriginal children having difficulty, both socially and culturally, fitting into the education system. While much mention is made of the Aboriginal children's needs in helping them fit into the education system, not much mention is made of the system changing to suit the Aboriginal child. This then leads to the questions, "How are the needs of the Aboriginal students defined?" and "Under what terms, the Aboriginal's or the European's learning system?"

Policy directions

Teacher Education departments and schools of teacher education within Universities should make a conscious effort to introduce into their Teacher Education programs units on Aboriginal education and encourage non-Aboriginal trainee teachers to major in Aboriginal education. The Education Department of WA has released a media statement declaring that after 1995 graduates will need to have undertaken Aboriginal Studies to obtain positions in Western Australian schools. Universities should take up this challenge. And the teacher educators who teach non-Aboriginal teachers to teach Aboriginal children should be Aboriginal. These Aboriginal educators could act as mentors for not only undergraduates but for teachers already in the system. While policies and statements are being made, and it is generally felt that the intentions are meaningful, the present approach is fragmented and uncoordinated.

Problems in Aboriginal education in Western Australia have been recognised as far back as the 1930s, when a delegation lead by William Harris presented a petition to the Western Australian Government asking that their children be allowed to attend a State School (Haebich, 1992, p.126). But it took a long time for Aboriginal education policies to be developed in Australia. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy of 1989 states that the need for a national policy arises from "...long expressed educational aspirations of Aboriginal people that have as yet not been realised; and persisting low levels of education participation and attainment of Aboriginal people." (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy, 1989, p.6).

In 1988 the Commonwealth Government had established an Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force to review and bring together all the findings of previous reports (such as the Miller Report of 1985). It made somewhere in the vicinity of about three hundred recommendations relating to education, employment and training. Recommendation 1.2.7 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Task Force states, "that the most challenging issue of all is to ensure education is available to all Aboriginal people in a manner that reinforces rather than suppresses their unique cultural identity" (p.7).


While some progress has been made in the schools such as Aboriginal parents committees, the progress is slow and entrenched racism and stereotyping embedded in the school systems are proving hard to eradicate. Many schools with ASSPA committees are making genuine efforts to address the problems of their Aboriginal students.

Because Aboriginal children come from a culture where reading, writing and mathematics is not a part of everyday life, teaching is a difficult task, and the Western teaching methods are just not suited to the Aboriginal way. While Christie (1987) talks of the children in Milingimbi, and in particular teaching these children reading, the same assertions could be made of teaching Aboriginal children in any urban school.

It is almost ten years since the Miller Report was launched and there have been some changes in the education system, but in spite of policy formulations and statements made by politicians, from the Prime Minister to State Executive Directors of Education, promised changes pertaining to Aboriginal education, racism, discrimination, marginalisation and invisibility have still not occurred.


Biggs, J. B. & Telfer, R. (1987). The process of learning. Australia: Prentice Hall.

Christie, M. (1987). What to do until the reading specialist comes. In M. Christie, & D. McClay, (Eds.). Teaching Aboriginal children: Milingimbi and beyond. Institute of Applied Aboriginal Studies, Mt Lawley: Western Australian College of Advanced Education.

Coghill, E. & Taylor, A. (1991). Language arts objectives and accompanying notes. Derby District High School: ASSPA funded project.

Eagleson, R. D., Kaldor, S., & Malcolm, I. (1982). English and the Aboriginal child. Canberra: Curriculum Development Centre.

Education Department of WA. (1991). The Education Circular: Social justice in education policy. Perth: WA Government Press.

Haebich, A. (1988). For their own good: Aborigines and government in the South-West of Western Australia 1900-1940. Perth: University of Western Australia Press.

Harris, S. (1990). Two way Aboriginal schooling: Education and cultural survival. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Kearins, J. (1985). Cross-cultural misunderstanding in education. In J. Pride (Ed.). Cross-cultural encounters. Communication and mis-communication. Melbourne: River Seine.

Kearins, J. Video, Ministry of Education, Western Australia.

Malin, M. ( 1990). The visibility and invisibility of Aboriginal students in an urban classroom. Australian Journal of Education, 34(3).

Ministry of Education. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy, 1992/1993.

Report of the Committee of Review of Aboriginal Employment and Training Programs, (Miller Report) (1985). Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra.

Author: Helen Lawrence is an Aboriginal mother and grandmother and her interest in Aboriginal education goes back to the days when she had her children in school. Helen works part time for the Disabilities Services Commission as an Aboriginal Employment Development Officer and is a part-time lecturer in Aboriginal and Intercultural Studies at Edith Cowan University.

Please cite as: Lawrence, H. (1994). Aboriginal children in urban schools. Issues In Educational Research, 4(1), 19-26.

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