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The fourth 'r' in schools: reconciliation in education

Rudi Maxwell -

Teachers walking around the playground of Winterfold Primary School are thrilled when they hear students using Noogar language words.

For more than five years, Noongar language teacher Sharon Gregory has been working with students - and teachers - at the school in Beaconsfield, southern Western Australia, on Noongar boodja (country).

Winterfold principal Kim Calabrese and teacher Fern Vallesi believe it's helping foster reconciliation between First Nations and non-Indigenous people, which is vital for their school community.

"It's the future that we need and to do that we need to change," Ms Calabrese told AAP.

"I think it's the space that needs the most amount of work and that it's fundamental to providing success for all students."

Ms Vallesi said, after the unsuccessful referendum on a First Nations voice in October, reconciliation was even more important now.

"Aboriginal kids can see just how important we think their culture and language is," she said.

"We're quite a multicultural school, we teach Noongar language and Italian and have trilingual signage.

"It is really about celebration of language and the heritage of the area because there were a lot of Italian migrants who moved to the area after the Second World War."

The Narragunnawali: Reconciliation in Education Awards, held every two years, bring together Australian schools and early learning services chosen for their outstanding dedication to reconciliation.

Wyong Preschool Kindergarten in NSW is trying new ways of promoting reconciliation. (HANDOUT/WIRRIM MEDIA)

Finalists for the awards, including Winterfold, which won the schools category, were selected from 100 applicant educational institutions.

Reconciliation Australia director and chair of the awards panel Sharon Davis said advances in education-based reconciliation have meant that schools and early learning services are increasingly becoming places that are welcoming for First Nations students and families.

"We're seeing more and more instances of teachers having a crack, which is what we want to see," they said.

"People are doing some really good work in this space, which is exciting because when you talk about reconciliation education or incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, or discussing racism, some teachers have been scared to make a mistake or say the wrong thing.

"And so now we're seeing a rise in teachers having a go, which I think is a bit of a turning point."

The judges were impressed by the finalists' use of local Aboriginal languages, embedding of reconciliation and Indigenous histories and cultures into the curriculum and their strong relationships with local Elders and communities.

Reconciliation in Australia is based on the five principles of race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity and historical acceptance.

Sharon Davis said it was a big change from the approach to education last century, when the dominant narrative was really colonial fiction.

"With access to other people's lives literally in our hands on our phones, I think young people are starting to think a bit more critically about what they're taught," they said.

"Hang on, those things I learned about Aboriginal people, that they were just nomads who roamed the land and happened to come upon a kangaroo and pick a few berries.

"Now, that's actually untrue, and you can see the different lives of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples from around the country."

Sharon Davis said all children benefited when reconciliation is considered in education.

"For Aboriginal kids to get to see reflections of themselves in learning is so important, but it's also pride when other kids recognise the importance of it too," they said.

"So if you have your non-Indigenous mates saying 'Hey, wow, that's amazing, Eddie Mabo was fantastic' or they learned about Aboriginal scientists creating fish traps or Aboriginal people being the first bakers or they learned about famous Aboriginal sportspeople.

"It's that shared pride in yourself as an Aboriginal kid in the classroom, but also being able to see non-Indigenous peers and friends being super proud of your own culture is pretty deadly."

At Winterfold, the school formed a reconciliation committee, made up of local Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people, meaning the broader school community is involved.

They make sure everything in that space is led by local Aboriginal people, ensuring cultural safety and respect.

Attendance rates are strong and the school's Noongar language and cultural program has the support of local Aboriginal parents and the broader community.

"That great work is happening from the grassroots," Ms Calabrese said.

"It's happening in the classes, it's happening with the community, it's happening from the bottom up.

"Someone asked me the other day 'What's the magic formula at Winterfold?' and the answer is that our reconciliation program is being driven by the grassroots."

Sharon Davis hopes more schools continue to develop strong and innovative approaches to reconciliation, which they hope evolves to help combat racism.

They said they appreciated the finalists' efforts to address anti-racism in their settings and to build strong and respectful relationships with their local First Nations communities.

"Kids in classrooms are the next police and the next nurses and the next teachers and how great it would be for them to be able to be anti-racist in their approach to their practice when they come out of school and out of university?" they said.

"It will be more and more important because they're impacting the lives of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples so I think there definitely needs to have a larger focus on anti racism within education."

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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