Courier Mail March 09, 2008 11:00pm

THE determination of the Rudd Government to support indigenous education in remote communities must be applauded. Yet, in all the publicity surrounding the projected millions to be spent on initiatives, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that schooling alone will not create a literate community.

There has been little discussion about the importance of the indigenous community in the education equation. It would be a tragedy if these well-intentioned initiatives only resulted in the employment of more non-indigenous staff in remote schools, with little tangible difference to community learning and literacy. In the new-found enthusiasm about “closing the gap” there is an assumption that everything that went before failed. This is too simplistic.

The taken-for-granted nature of literacy in mainstream Australian society and its primacy in everyday life masks its complexity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the remote indigenous context where literacy was introduced to a previously non-literate society, in some cases only within the past 40 years.

Despite this, the current generation of school children in these communities is expected to learn literacy and reach parity with mainstream benchmarks. Being literate also depends upon a web of associated social habits and routines that are acquired and transmitted over successive generations.

Much of the present discussion is based upon the assumption the only valuable literacy is English literacy. There is no acknowledgement of the importance of the bilingual/bicultural learning environment and the important role local indigenous staff employed on award pay and conditions can play as teachers and language workers in bilingual and non-bilingual programs.

Even if we take the perspective that schooling is the primary site for literacy learning, we must recognise the short history of schooling in remote regions.

In many remote indigenous families the current generation of children may be only the third, second or even the first to experience schooling, and few home literacy practices have evolved. Research informs us children from literate school-oriented families start school more ready for learning than those who have not been participating in pre-literacy activities at home.

In addition to targeting institutional early childhood education and childcare, support to expand home and community literacy is also needed. This could involve community-based play groups operated by indigenous caregivers (inclusive of home literacy activities in tandem with community or mobile libraries for outstations or town camps). Such a non-institutional approach could also incorporate the development of a remote community stores policy for the provision of affordable stationery, storybooks and educational toys for indigenous families.

In addition to formal education, alternative learning pathways are required to give literacy a meaning, purpose and application beyond schooling. This is particularly crucial in remote communities where literacy was introduced relatively recently and is not yet taken for granted cultural practice. People experience a good life without actually needing to read or write very much at all.

For literacy to take hold in remote communities, youth need to see reading and writing as elemental to everyday life, and not just as something done by non-indigenous experts. Youth need to be engaging in community-based activities that incorporate written text and literate processes.

Increased spending is also needed for initiatives that stimulate the maintenance and development of literacy in the post-school years. These may include providing on-the-job literacy support for CDEP and other workers; providing governance training with literacy mentoring; supporting arts centres, music and media recording and broadcasting studios; and establishing community history archives and libraries, such as the Library Knowledge Centres provided in remote communities by the NT Library.

In other words, we need to be spending money on community initiatives that successfully engage youth in learning and literacy in out-of-school domains.

– Dr Inge Kral is an ARC Post-doctoral Research Fellow in indigenous literacy at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at The Australian National University.

1 Comment

  1. Trevor Stockley
    January 19, 2009

    All too true. The loss of Bilingual schools in the NT will mean that the relevance of literacy slips further away from the world of traditionally oriented Aboriginal people and will continue to be seen as something that is important to non-Indigenous people but has no role in the lives of (employed or unemployed) Indigenous youth. These NT languages are literally the last fully spoken languages which are passed onto the children in the next generation. The last ones left in Australia! So we are losing one of the most important factors of relevancy in literacy to Indigenous language speakers. The fact that the literature is in your language.