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Aboriginal students' school shock

  • 04 April 2011

I recently spent time with a group of young Aboriginal students from a remote community who had been at school down south. They had travelled across the length of the country to receive secondary education but only stayed for a short time. After a fight, involving other Aboriginal students, they all wanted to go home.

Their experience mirrored many I have witnessed over past decades. Aboriginal parents wish their children to spend time outside their community and develop skills of engagement with the wider society. A number of schools offer places for these students. Principals, teachers and residential carers respond generously. Yet, for many, that hoped-for transition often doesn't work.

For most Aboriginal children who attend boarding school, the honeymoon period wears off after a few weeks. Becoming homesick is common. Parents can become more anxious, teachers more frustrated and no one is quite sure what to do. Seemingly good intentions and careful preparations become unstuck and returning home, despite all the investment, can seem the only option.

Getting into a fight would seem to be one way of drawing attention to either the desire or the need to go home.

Recently Senator Jenny Macklin spoke about the importance of education for Aboriginal children, even suggesting punishment for parents who did not support their children attending school.

In my experience, it should be less about carrots and sticks, enticing or punishing, than about understanding how young Aboriginal students and their families can be better supported into transformative and rewarding educational experiences. 

When I met this group of students I was reminded of the challenges they bring with them. English was not their first language and most had rarely spent long periods of time away from their family and community. They were now in an urban world where it is unusual to find anyone who can communicate with them in their own language. Most of the people around them speak a fast brand of English with a confident use of the culture that comes with it.

They can experience a sense of shame and alienation. It was easy to imagine them as a highly visible but vulnerable and voiceless minority.

While receiving schools try to sensitise their staff and students, those first weeks after arrival are critical. As each new student is invited into the life of the school, they need to experience some confidence in negotiating a very different and