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New report finds racism at Victorian schools is impacting Indigenous children in care

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous children in care in Victoria are facing barriers - including racism - that maintain the gap in education outcomes, a new report has found.

The 'Let us Learn: systemic inquiry into the educational experiences of children and young people in out-of-home care' report, tabled in Victorian parliament Thursday, found Aboriginal children were overrepresented in out-of-home care and that many have experienced racism in school.

The report highlighted a 21 per cent increase in Aboriginal children and young people in the care system between 2018 and 2022, with Indigenous children representing 29 per cent of all children and young people in care.

It said data from the Department of Education showed Aboriginal children experience racism and low expectations which has helped contribute to substantial disparities in educational outcomes, compared to non-indigenous children in care, as well as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children out of care.

The hurdles can also lead to educational disengagement. The experiences for those children living in care is exacerbated because of their removal from their family and country.

Data shows Indigenous people are less likely to graduate from high school, receive tertiary education and/or trade, and are - partly as a result - often less likely to find consistent employment.

Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Meena Singh, said experiences of racism at school can often lead to a disengagement with schooling, with ongoing negative outcomes in the long term.

"We heard how much Aboriginal children and young people, their families and carers value education and want support to do well," Ms Singh said.

"We need to challenge and ultimately dismantle damaging negative stereotypes about Aboriginal children and young people's lack of education potential and aspiration if they are to flourish, especially for Aboriginal children and young people in care.

"It is crucial that schools are culturally safe and racism is addressed in order for Aboriginal children and young people to excel."

Ms Singh told National Indigenous Times many conversations were had after the 'horse had bolted,' whilst the report and the Commission aimed for preventative measures to strengthen Indigenous voices and safety into the future.

"The experience of racism itself is traumatising, and if it's left unaddressed or not responded to, it can leave emotional scars for Aboriginal children and young people that will impact on how they engage in spaces as they grow up and into the future," she said.

"I want to talk about how we present and stop racism for children…We need a zero-tolerance approach to racism, because it is at the forefront of their experiences."

The report detailed Indigenous children's experiences of racism in schools including their interactions with fellow peers and teachers.

Stakeholders argued Aboriginal students do not feel supported to speak out when they were on the receiving end of racism.

One Koori staff member at a secondary school told the report some staff "often don't want the Aboriginal kids all together".

"(I've been) trying to say that it is about the unconscious bias. Aboriginal kids with their cousins get called a gang, for white people in a group it's different," they said.

Another Koori staff member said there was a constant need to break down and explain systemic racism, as many teachers did not understand it, "because they have benefitted from it."

"They need critical self-reflection to understand unconscious bias," they said.

When asked if they could change one thing about their schooling, 11-year-old Sindey in Kinship care said: "That people don't call me names about my skin. That people, other kids, don't judge you for who you are and what you like".

Another child, Drew, told the report that he felt like he was experiencing a "race war" at school.

"Basically, the people at the school don't like Aboriginal people. My teacher is racist, she says the 'n' word, says racial slurs like Abo… There's videos that people have taken of racist teachers saying the 'n' word… This school is one of those places where you encounter racism, but you don't get any response," he said.

The state is required to implement the Victorian Child Safe Standards and comply with Ministerial Order 1359, a framework to provide safety in schools.

One of the standards is to provide a culturally safe environment that fosters respect and value for the unique identities and experiences of Aboriginal children and young people.

On the issue of racism, it states:

"...measures are adopted by the school or school boarding premises to ensure racism is identified, confronted and not tolerated, and any instances of racism within the school environment or school boarding premises environment are addressed with appropriate consequences."

Ms Singh said she didn't see a consistency in these standards being implemented, with Indigenous children and young people telling her about their experiences of racism in school.

"There is just such inconsistency of experiences for children and young people, and racism is a big issue," she said.

"We ask children to deal with a lot, especially when it comes to racism. We ask them to just 'deal with it,' we tell them 'it's just a joke' or 'they didn't mean it' or 'you're just being too sensitive.' We see millions of excuses for racism.

"The burden is always on the child or the young person to deal with it. We don't see enough of an urgency that racism is a horrendous thing to experience and that it's both interpersonal and systemic racism that our kids are experiencing in schools and that it absolutely needs commitment and understanding, but it also needs incredible self-examination and self-reflection of people in educating roles and people with power.

"How racism plays out in a multitude of ways needs to be deeply understood, and we need to be prepared to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations because the discomfort of an adult talking about racism is nothing compared to the pain and discomfort of an Aboriginal child experiencing racism."

Of the 101 consultations with children and young people for the report, around a third were Indigenous. Ms Singh said she couldn't recount a single story where a child believed their experience of racism had been dealt with in a positive way.

"Children and young people, carers, and Workers. A whole range of people all tell us there is no consistency in approaches to how racism is responded to," she said.

The report includes 40 findings and makes 47 recommendations for government action to improve the child protection, out-of-home care and education systems.

Amongst these is a call for better support for Aboriginal children and young people to report racism, and respond appropriately when they do, and an audit of the Report Racism Hotline to improve its effectiveness.

"The education system is among the most powerful tools at our disposal if we are to break the entrenched cycles of disadvantage unjustly imposed on Aboriginal children and young people – especially those in care," Ms Singh said.

"It demands greater attention and resourcing to respond to the unique needs and backgrounds of all children and young people, Aboriginal or not, in out-of-home care or not."

National Indigenous Times has contacted Victorian Education Minister Ben Carroll for comment.

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