Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in remote areas lagged three to five years behind other school children by the time they reached Years 5 and 9 – an “unacceptable” situation, according to Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar said.
In an address to the Garma Festival education forum last week, Ms Oscar said about 80 percent of Indigenous children in Australia did not go to school once they reached the age of 12.
She said the educational achievements of children in remote Australia were well below national averages.
“I have often said that our peoples endure conditions that would be intolerable to non-Aboriginal Australians,” Ms Oscar said.
“And I believe that at least in the sense of remote education that this is true.”
She said children in the Northern Territory were among Australia’s worst affected.
A Bunuba-Warangarri woman from the Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia, Ms Oscar was the first Aboriginal woman to be appointed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission.
She said human rights and education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were intertwined and that education was a fundamental human right.
“Of course we know that the benefits of education are crucial to our development as Indigenous peoples, our life opportunities and our ability to fully participate in society,” Ms Oscar said.
“We know that it is vital to addressing the significant challenges we have in relation to health, wellbeing and socio-economic status.
“We also know that the right to education is crucial to realising our rights to self-determination and the broader goals of our people to pursue our own economic, social and cultural development.”
Ms Oscar said home life played a big role in children’s learning, as did teachers, who should be trained in Indigenous ways of learning and knowing.
“We know that learning begins at home and that parents should be given every opportunity to create an environment where their children can thrive,” she said.
“This is about recognising that efforts focused on the classroom alone and not the broader environment a child grows up in are flawed.
“If basic supports and the employment opportunities simply do not exist locally, this can make it very difficult to see the benefits of gaining an education.
“Similarly, I can also understand the reluctance of many families to send their children to boarding schools to complete their secondary education when that means moving away from home and their connections to community.
“However, the reality is that in many remote communities, these services simply do not exist.”
Ms Oscar said the onus was on learning institutions to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to deliver education that meets Indigenous children’s needs.
Curriculums and teachers also needed to deliver the right kind of education for Indigenous children.
“We need teachers that approach their work in a way that places non-Indigenous knowledge alongside Indigenous knowledge and allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to incorporate western ideas on their own terms, from a position of strength within their own culture,” she said.
She said Indigenous children should not become “cardboard cutouts” of a western system.
“I know that one of the biggest balancing acts in education is about providing our children with culturally secure learning frameworks that bring together the wealth of Indigenous and western knowledge systems,” she said.
Ms Oscar said Indigenous people should also determine their own version of success, independent of western values.
“We need systems that draw on the strengths of both Indigenous and western systems so that we can still retain who we are and our connections to our languages and culture that have kept our people strong for millennia,” she said.