In Aboriginal affairs, you often hear of doom and gloom. In Aboriginal education, students who do well are seen as almost the exception rather than the rule, particularly if they come from remote communities where resources are scarce and barriers to learning are plenty.
But there has been very few studies conducted into why some Aboriginal students are achieving well academically, even when coming up against similar barriers, and even in comparison to their non-Aboriginal peers.
Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman Lynette Riley has had 30 years experience as an educator and recently interviewed 123 students, parents and educators from four regional schools, and three metropolitan schools across New South Wales.
The findings are part of her thesis ‘Conditions of Success for Aboriginal Students’ at the Australian Catholic University (ACU).
Ms Riley spoke to students who had achieved the top 10-25 percent of NAPLAN year five tests, students who succeeded academically in a mainstream arena.
“We do need to focus on the problems and the gaps because there are a large number of students that aren’t getting through – but why aren’t we also looking at the kids that are doing well, and trying to work out the conditions supporting them, and how we can replicate that,” Ms Riley told New Matilda.
What she found was not surprising, but far removed from the current political direction on Aboriginal education.
Every Aboriginal student who performed well in NAPLAN also had a strong sense of their cultural identity; a strong pride in their Aboriginality.
It raises questions about how denial of Aboriginality can affect a child’s success at school.
And it answered a question Ms Riley was confronted with when she first began the research.
“I actually had a colleague ask whether the reason these kids are doing so well in school was perhaps because they were more assimilated,” Ms Riley told New Matilda.
“It wasn’t specifically a question I looked at, but I did suss it out. I wanted to see what the kids thought, but all of them said that it wasn’t that they were assimilating into the school, it was that schools were being accommodating to them and were helping them to understand their Aboriginality.
“These kids had a strength in their identity.
“It was exactly the opposite (from assimilation). There were a whole host of different reasons why some schools had success with Aboriginal students – some might have been because of the teachers, some because of the principals, some because of the community’s engagement with the school.
“A whole host of factors, but in every single case, kids who were already performing well academically had a strong sense of who they were.”
Ms Riley’s research is important because it comes against a backdrop of a political discussion that favours punishing parents and children for truancy over creating environments in which Aboriginal students thrive.
The controversial Student Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) was rolled out in Northern Territory communities under the NT intervention, and links welfare payments to school attendance.
Earlier this month, the Australian National University’s Nicholas Biddle published research which called on the government to look at other incentives rather than punishment, and analysed the numerous other factors that affect school attendance, like health, safe homes, health, transience and bullying.
Ms Riley said the current focus on punishing parents was the wrong approach.
“If schools actually put the energy into helping parents work out how they can be engaged with their kids, they will probably find the kids want to go to school.
“When you get a situation where parents are being disenfranchised in their children’s lives, why would you want to send your child to school? That’s the message that is coming through.
“The message is that what their parents are teaching them is worthless. That’s plain stupidity.
“… One of the parents in my research moved their child from a school where they were being bullied because of their Aboriginality. Once that child was moved to a new school, they achieved the top 25 percent in the NAPLAN scores. What a difference.”
Ms Riley said all of the children who achieved well had parents who were engaged in their child’s schooling. These parents came from “across the spectrum”.
“There were single parents, kids brought up by their grandparents, parents who were highly educated and parents who had dropped out. I profiled parents across the full spectrum and all of them had acquired, at some stage, a way of feeling comfortable in going into the school and engaging with what was happening to support their kids, but not to the detriment of their culture.”
The schools with successful Aboriginal students also had teaching staff or principals who were culturally competent and invested in supporting the kids in their Aboriginality, Ms Riley said.
“I found that successful students are taught by long-term teachers who are competent in their craft or are taught by competent new career teachers with greater world experience who, therefore, understand cultural difference.”
Many of these principals had long associations with Aboriginal communities, or had grown up with Aboriginal people, Ms Riley said. They fostered a strong sense of community by organising cultural activities and also engaged with community.
Ms Riley said she hoped her research will be used in formulating new programs to support Aboriginal students. She hopes to send her research to regional and state education departments and organisations like the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group.
Ms Riley’s research recently won the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition at the ACU, as well as being voted the People’s Choice Award.
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