Decolonising the classroom, the Koori Curriculum is dedicated to bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into early childhood education.

Based in Sydney’s inner west, the Koori Curriculum is an Aboriginal early childhood consultancy. It has a plethora of resources that educate and encourage teachers to include and empower Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons.

The woman behind the work, Jessica Staines is the Director of both the Koori Curriculum and Aboriginal Early Childhood Collective.

“My father is a Wiradjuri man and our family are originally from Molong and Parkes in New South Wales. I grew up [on] Gadigal Country in Sydney’s inner west and now live on Darkinjung Country on the New South Wales Central Coast,” said Staines.

“My Mum is non-Indigenous; she is the head teacher of Child Studies at our local TAFE so that set me on my pathway to be passionate about culture and early childhood.”

Staines is also an early childhood teacher, TAFE NSW Teacher, current member of the Inner West Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reference Group, a board member of the Social Justice in Early Childhood Group and the Boolarng Program Ambassador for Educational Experience.

In 2016, Staines was sponsored by Education Experience to take part in the Global Leaders for Young Children Program as part of the World Forum Foundation. She then became the World Forum Foundations National Representative for Aboriginal and Torres Islander Children.

With impressive experience, Staines developed the Koori Curriculum to address a need she noticed that was unfulfilled.

“I worked for a range of different services … mainstream not-for-profit regional and urban and I found there was a real need for educators—predominantly non-Indigenous educators who wanted to include culture in their program but just really struggled to know how to do that respectfully and meaningfully,” she said.

“We are required in our early years framework to connect with local community and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A lot of educators don’t really know how to start or how to find their local community or who it [is] they should be talking to.”

Staines believes inclusion in the classroom is crucial for Reconciliation.

“I always say to educators that even if all the children in your class are non-Indigenous and you don’t have any Aboriginal children attending at all—it is still important to be including Aboriginal perspectives in your program because it is about anti-racism and anti-bias and social justice,” she said.

“It is about Reconciliation … we want children to grow up to be in a more socially just and fair world than what currently exists now.”

“I think for many educators, Aboriginal culture and history wasn’t taught well to them during their schooling, so they really lack the confidence and capacity to know how to do that. I think a huge part is education for teachers as it is for children to really grow their confidence in doing this work.”

Staines spoke of the importance of early childhood education to establish strong education pathways for Aboriginal children.

“We know that Aboriginal children are more likely to end up in jail than what they are to finish high school,” she said.

“[We know] the statistics of one in six Aboriginal children being removed from their families and so forth—but we know that Aboriginal people [who] receive a tertiary level education, there is no gap in life expectancy, socioeconomic status, social participation, all of those things.”

With huge diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, ensuring perspectives are taught respectfully is of key importance in education.

“Every community has their own protocols and their own culture. We are our own peoples in our own right,” said Staines.

“What is okay in one community, or the culture in one community, is not the same as the next. This is why, when I travel all over Australia, I never assume to teach a culture that is not my own.

“I really focus on the process and strongly encourage educators to develop relationships with local communities and give them strategies as to how they can do that to find local context.

“We strike a balance between local perspectives, contemporary, traditional, urban and regional.

“[We make] sure that if we are including perspectives about an Aboriginal culture that is not the local culture of that area that we are specific about that mob, that nation, where this knowledge comes from, where that language comes from, where that story comes from so we are also teaching about the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Changing the teaching in classrooms is a big commitment, but Staines takes pride in seeing progress.

“It is really rewarding to see the change that is happening within our profession, to see educators become more passionate about the way that they privilege culture in their program and really understand why this work is so important—rather than that tokenistic, tick a box approach,” Staines said.

“When people understand why, the work is so much more meaningful and the effects of that pedagogy and practice is as well.”

To learn more about the Koori Curriculum, visit: https://kooricurriculum.com.

By Rachael Knowles