National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012

Why do so many indigenous children
fail at school? Seven wrong answers

by Geoffrey Partington


1) Folk memories persist among children of ancestors being deprived of lands and badly treated by white government and colonists.

For example, the Department of Social Work in the University of Queensland indicted earlier generations of Australians of “numerous acts of genocide” which “decimated” and “all but eradicated” the Aboriginal population, and asserted that many Aborigines are so badly affected by the loss of their traditional lands many years ago that they “choose to deaden the pain by resorting to substance abuse”.

Yet the Aboriginal communities with the highest incidence today of substance abuse and family violence are also often those who were never dispossessed of land or who have since gained land rights. When young Aborigines are constantly told that their ancestors suffered terrible wrongs, many wonder why they should invest their time in study to gain wealth and living standards that should already be theirs.


2) On average, Aboriginal children have schools with inferior equipment and larger class sizes than other Australian children.

Taking into account the problems of supplying distant communities, this is the opposite of the truth. Class sizes are smaller, even when all the children are present.


3) Schools that Aboriginal children attend do not teach them enough about traditional customs, beliefs and skills.

Yet they will not be able to support themselves in life without modern knowledge. In any case, teachers often know much less about Aboriginal customs in the areas in which they teach than the parents (or indeed children) know.


4) Most Aboriginal children are too stupid to master modern knowledge.

A typical euphemism is that the curricula of schools that Aboriginal children attend are irrelevant to their true needs and that the teaching methods are alien to their Aboriginal identities. Here are the words of two supposed experts.

Michael Christie claimed:

“All Western notions of quantity — of more or less, or numbers, mathematics and positivistic thinking — are not only quite irrelevant to the Aboriginal world, but contrary to it.... A world view in which land, spirit beings, people and trees are all somehow unified does not lend itself to scientific analysis.”

Stephen Harris held that Western science must remain alien to Aborigines, because it is “directed at controlling nature”, whereas “in contrast Aborigines try mostly to leave the environment alone, and fit in with what is happening in nature”. He warned that “aspects of Western education such as what we call ‘critical thinking’ perhaps should not be taught as a universally good way to think”, since this might result in “unwittingly widening any generation gap and undermining Aboriginal ways of thinking and problem-solving”. Harris asserted:

“Aborigines do not encourage young people to ask why things happen — they are expected to believe the religious history of how they happened.... [I]f Aboriginal people learn a lot about industrial scientific questioning and start asking for proof for things believed inside their culture, then Aboriginal world view is undermined.”

One Aboriginal teacher with whom another specialist in indigenous education, R.G. Smith, worked refused to use a computer because it was “Balanda stuff” (Balander being a corruption of “Hollander”), and another woman colleague scorned a “rather sophisticated new telescope” acquired by the school, because “she wanted to teach her children Aboriginal science, not Balanda astronomy”. R.G. Smith lamented that mainstream education “in its formalising and timetabling of educational processes, its preoccupation with literacy and largely mainstream concepts and skills, repudiates much of the current Aboriginal world”. Out with literary, numeracy and science that do not feature much in “the current Aboriginal world”!

Very few indigenous people will ever become physicians, airline pilots, plumbers, electricians and mechanics without an early introduction to modern knowledge.


5) Aboriginal children learn only as members of a group, not as individuals.

The Australian economist and public servant H.C. “Nugget” Coombs cited approvingly “a Yirrakala elder” who said, “We have to hold that young man back. He is going too fast and too smart.” Coombs agreed too with “an elder” who told him, “The young women are going too quickly”, when they put forward their own plans for activities on an outstation.

Christie maintained that Aboriginal children “hate activities directed at their personal learning and development, and love those directed at group unity”. This seems odd when we consider Aborigines who are successful in sport, the arts or politics.

Canadian psychologist Merlin Donald has shown that, although the brains of the very young are sufficiently adaptable to develop in many ways, within a specific culture only those potentialities actually utilised have adequate opportunity of realisation. Experiences in the most formative years may well reconfigure the sensory cortices of individuals. . Thus, unless children are introduced to knowledge and skills early enough, it may prove immensely difficult to acquire new ideas. Groups with restricted and uniform experiences may develop rigid belief systems that are highly resistant to new ideas and concepts. Donald argued, “Cultures restructure the mind, not only in terms of its specific contents, which are obviously culture-bound, but also in terms of its fundamental neurological organisation.”


6) Aboriginal children should be taught in mother-tongues as much and as long as possible.

But there are several hundred different Aboriginal languages, while teacher-training institutions have little idea which Aboriginal languages student-teachers will require in their professional careers. There are few teachers with formal teaching credentials who are also capable of and available to teach indigenous languages. Furthermore, many Aboriginal families demand English-only education, and very few Aborigines are willing to be taught in an Aboriginal language other than their own. In any case, how can non-Aboriginal teachers who have had a short crash-course in a given Aboriginal language effectively teach that language to children who know it better than they ever will?

Often the written form of an Aboriginal language has no currency in the community and has only been devised recently by white scholars. It should be easier for Torres Strait Islanders to be taught in their own languages than for Aborigines, since there are only three main languages spoken by Torres Strait Islanders: Torres Strait Creole, Meriam Mir and Kala Lagaw Ya. However, Shnukal found that the Thursday Island and other high schools include “students speaking a number of different language varieties and with very different levels of oral and written English”.

Stephen Harris considered that the structure of Aboriginal languages “inhibits the speaker’s ability to perceive and therefore to exercise personal control or personal responsibility over his or her behaviour”. Were this so, it would seem a powerful reason for a switch to English in formal learning to take place as early as possible.


7) Regular attendance cannot be enforced on Aboriginal children.

If this were true, we might as well close most of the schools down and save some money. . Yet Coombs advised, “It is generally accepted among Aboriginal teachers and parents that attendance cannot be compelled and that the options chosen by those who do not attend may at least possibly be educationally valuable.”

R.G. Smith claimed that many “local indigenous children do not appear to see Balanda-style [mainstream Australian] knowledge as a priority in their scheme of things” and that their “attendance is almost impossible to enforce”, partly because of “the many, usually unpredictable, events such as ceremonies, shopping days, visits and deaths which punctuate almost every week of the school year”.

Smith could have added larking about at petrol-bowsers and other undesirable places.


The current crisis in Aboriginal education

Here are typical statements from leading defenders of the present system:

Hilary Colman-Dimon: “Western education for Aboriginal people on remote communities” has been a failure.

Terry Wooltorton: Current Aboriginal education as a whole is “characterised by low academic success, low retention and high rates of discipline breaches”.

Stephen Harris: “School attendance in most remote communities is poor and the vast majority of Aboriginal children still plateau at about grades 3 or 4”. Aboriginal children were “doing poorly”, not only in conditions of physical deprivation but also “in schools in communities which suffer fewer of these socio-political conflicts”.

Michael Christie: Aboriginal “educators are sitting in empty classrooms all over Australia”.

Arrente elders Veronica Dobson, Rosalie Riley, Jeannette McCormack and Debbie Hartman: “Problems arose in irregular attendance … and that alcohol abuse among parents is a problem. One consequence is that drunken parents cannot tell stories to their children, who instead sit in front of television screens and absorb ideas alien to traditional Arrente ways.”


Ethnic immigrants in Australia

In contemporary civil societies such as Australia there is an inner circle of shared activities and practices that must be mastered if a group or an individual is to flourish. Then there is an outer circle of private or group activities and practices in which vast divergences of values and interests are acceptable. Most members of successful immigrant groups have tried to ensure that their children master the skills and knowledge to succeed in the inner circle; they trust themselves to instil their own cultures and languages. They do not expect schools to teach what few teachers know as well as do the students on such matters.

In inner-circle activities Australians have to be able to work easily with a multitude of others: men with women, homosexuals with heterosexuals, blacks with whites, Serbs with Croats, Greeks with Turks, Tamils with Singhalese, and so on. In the 21st century nearly every job which is prized and sought after demands mobility, substitutability and, especially, effective communication between individuals who have no familiarity with each other beyond that required for specific co-operative acts.

Very many jobs in contemporary advanced civil societies require not only immediate understanding of the spoken or written words of many others but a shared ethos of responsibility and commitment. Men and women have to be punctual, sober at work, reliable when they make commitments, and, preferably, willing to tackle new tasks as and when these arise, as frequently they do. They also have to be able to leave jobs without accusations of apostasy or treachery, unless they infringe highly specific requirements about insider knowledge. Whether the job is in the “private” or “public” sectors, success in advanced civil societies requires particular attitudes of mind and qualities of character, as well as a range of skills and understandings.

Some skills and understandings needed for successful participation can only be acquired in full after entry into the inner circle of public activity, but formal education is also very important in equipping potential entrants with the necessary language skills, technical expertise and cultural understandings. Several ethnic groups in Australia make a considerable effort, by way of Saturday and Sunday clubs and the like, to ensure that their young people retain the language and some of the culture of their lands of origin, but these ethnic groups do not demand that the schools their children attend should be charged with a task of cultural maintenance. It is impossible to question the importance attached by other families to the acquisition by their children of inner-circle competence in English and in relevant instrumental skills and understandings, or to doubt the success of most ethnic groups in entering fully and equally into every key sector of Australian life.

In recent years one group of non-English speaking migrants after another has successfully adjusted to life in Australia — and most of them have done so without too much violence to many of their most treasured cultural traditions — whereas there is almost total dissatisfaction with indigenous standards of living and education among both the indigenous people themselves and the rest of the Australian people.


Seven do’s and don’ts

1) Teach balanced history instead of cultivating a culture of resentment.

2) Don’t blame educational failures on lack of equipment and bad student-teacher ratios. Existing provision is very good compared with national and international standards.

3) Concentrate in schools on modern knowledge in a similar way that one might choose for all Australian children.

4) Don’t blame Aboriginal stupidity or different sort of brain from those of other Australians.

5) Don’t assume that Aborigines’ minds are genetically disposed to group activities in a way that those of other people are not.

6) Introduce English language teaching as soon as is practicable.

7) Enforce regular school attendance with as much vigour as possible.



It is just and fair that indigenous students understand that their traditional culture contained many features worthy of respect. It is also vital that they should realise that they cannot achieve genuine equality and autonomy unless they master a range of skills and understandings unknown to traditional Aboriginal societies. We should ensure that Australia’s indigenous peoples can participate fully within the inner circles of mainstream Australian life, whilst maintaining as much of their traditional culture as they wish within the outer circles of community and family life, as so many immigrant ethnic groups have succeeded in doing.


About the author

Dr Geoffrey Partington was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education; has taught history in secondary schools; and has lectured on education at Flinders University and overseas. He has twice been awarded the George Watson Prize for the best essay on a political subject published in Australia.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012