Aboriginal Learning Centres Are Working

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In 2009, all states and territories signed a national partnership agreement with the Federal Government on Indigenous early childhood development — part of which was a four-year federal funding commitment to establish Aboriginal early learning centres in 38 disadvantaged communities across Australia.

Staff at the centres are now nervously awaiting next week’s federal budget after the Commission of Audit recommended federal funding to Aboriginal controlled early childhood services be cut and replaced with a voucher system for Aboriginal families to use at mainstream providers.

The CEO of a Melbourne-based learning centre, Lisa Thorpe, explains why the cuts will be disastrous for Aboriginal communities.

There was a real need for an Aboriginal Early Childhood Family service in the Whittlesea area, and we began our plans for the centre before any federal funding came down. We had already started talking to the state government and working with the local community about what was required.

With the federal funding, it all fell into place really well. The centre we’ve got is beautiful. We had total input as Aboriginal people about what we wanted to see happen, with all our local content put into the building.

This has been a fantastic opportunity to grow as an Aboriginal community in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne. It’s one of the fastest growing Aboriginal populations in Melbourne. There’s about six or seven babies born in the local hospital every month.

It’s a huge growth population, but we weren’t visible. The local engagement of Aboriginal communities was in Fitzroy or Thornbury, where the Aboriginal services have been established for many years. The population growth of Aboriginal people and housing needs has pushed Aboriginal families further and further out.

What the Bubup Wilam centre has done is made people visible, really pulled us together as a community.

The centre has had a positive impact on education outcomes for local children. Whittlesea Council will tell you that before Bubup was established, they never knew of one Aboriginal child enrolled in kindergarten here. They were asking when we started, “where are you going to find these children?”

We never even had to advertise. After just two and a half years, we now have 74 children enrolled.

It’s not just the children learning here, we work alongside the families as well. Many of the families have had bad experiences in schools themselves. How can you teach your children to feel confident with school system, if generationally your family has not had it?

Now the local schools are filling up with Aboriginal children. Before Bubup Wilam was established there were only one or two Aboriginal children in the local primary school next door. Now there are 20. The families are feeling confident to send their children to the local schools, instead of having to travel long distances. The secondary school is starting to grow with the Aboriginal population as well. The same is true with other schools in the area.

Bubup Wilam for Early Learning is more than an early years centre, it has fast become a local Aboriginal organisation that our families can associate with. The spin-offs for Aboriginal people in the community are huge.

We also act as an intervention to stop children being removed from their families and put into care. In Victoria about 8 per cent of Aboriginal children are in “out of home” care — 12 times the non-Indigenous rate. We have some children in out of home care and some families who are being supported and monitored by outside agencies, or under the notification of the Department of Human Services. They are doing their best to try and get themselves sorted out and these places help enormously to help families to take it to that next step.

We are clear that this is a safe place for the children. If they’re struggling in their own families, they can come here, come to a place where there is trust.

We don’t know who is going to pick up the funding for us to function beyond this next financial year. It looks like the funding will not come federally any more. The national partnership is gone. The Commission of Audit has come down and it doesn’t look good for us.

As an organisation we can survive for a few more months, we get some money for the kindergarten program from the state government, but you get nothing for long day care, only a fees-based service, which we are subsidising. We get nothing for the training and development or the family connected work we do.

We’ve met every requirement. We’ve passed the National Quality Audit, in two areas we exceeded. What more can we do?

The Commission of Audit’s recommendation for a voucher system for Aboriginal families wanting to access early childhood education is absolutely appalling. The government is very happy to keep Aboriginal people down and keep them in a welfare mentality. We don’t want to be treated like we’re hopeless and useless and given another voucher to go and participate.

They don’t want us to have an Aboriginal identity in our own country. They want us to assimilate, the same old history is still alive and well right now.

We know who our families are and have a fair idea of their needs. I can’t sell this to the kindergarten up the road and say, “just put a flag outside your front door, say you’re Aboriginal friendly, maybe put up a welcome to country and the families will come”. That’s not going to work. They are just tokenistic gestures.

Our message is clear for our children — don’t lose who you are as an Aboriginal person. These children grow as Aboriginal people first and foremost, respect their own identity, don’t be put down by the stereotypes. These things are in the government’s own Early Years Learning Framework. Respect who you are in the early years and with that sense of pride and belonging you can go forward. Why is that still denied to Aboriginal people?

What is our identity? If we can’t grow that, how do we participate?

This article is based on an interview with Padraic Gibson, senior researcher at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology Sydney.

New Matilda

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