Aboriginal students' school shock


'Aboriginal education' by Chris JohnstonI 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 demanding new culture. If this occurs, there is a good chance the young person will gradually begin to settle and make new friends.

I realised the students' parents and wider family also need advice and help. Their role is critically important and can easily be overlooked. Schools, at least initially, make life quite demanding for the young people, who are often used to more relaxed family and social surroundings.

Mobile phones can make contact too easy. I remember watching the excitement on student faces when the phone at the home they were visiting would ring and they could talk freely and at length with parents and friends. I could hear their family being similarly excited. These students were trying to settle into a very different social and educational world, but were clearly struggling to leave home. News, particularly involving funerals, adds to their sense of separation.

Eventually, students hear their own loneliness become their parents' call for them to return home. Letting go requires trust in those to whose care they have been entrusted, along with courage to be firm when going home seems the kinder option.

One of the lessons of the Stolen Generations is that the whole Australian community pays a terrible price when any of its children is forcibly removed from loving and caring families. Education cannot be forced. At the same time, the whole community continues to suffer while Aboriginal children cannot access and utilise the education benefits Australia can offer.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, we need to better understand the complexity of choices and experiences involved in these educational transitions. Most involve mixtures of anticipation and fear, hope and anxiety, for the young people and their families.

Easing these transitions for all involved will say more of our country's ability to be reconciled than words. This is the reality of that often and strongly promoted ideal, 'two-way learning'.

I have seen evidence that some students need more than one attempt to achieve an educational transition. After my recent experience, I later heard that most of those who returned home asked to return to the school and have another go. I don't know how long they will stay this time, but I salute their efforts, their families and the school in supporting and engaging a second attempt. 

Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. He is the author of Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men

Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Jenny Macklin, Aboriginal students, education, homesickness, stolen generations



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Thankyou Dr McCoy, at last a breath of fresh air in the debate/issues with Aboriginal people ... I too have been wotking in Aboriginal communities (for about 6 years) and have 'seen' the same as you ...If only govt's could see the same and work accordingly to help Aboriginal people come to understand that it will benefit all of them in the end to accept western culture (and add to/strengthen their own)...

The same 'education' must apply to Aboriginal peoples understanding and acceptance of their responsiblity regarding their health and finances ... James Mason

James Mason | 04 April 2011  

"...we need to better understand the complexity of choices and experiences involved in these educational transitions. Most involve mixtures of anticipation and fear, hope and anxiety, for the young people..." The extreme homesickness and sense of loss experienced by an Aboriginal child in a city boarding school is hard to imagine, particularly for a child from a remote community. Even as an almost-20 year old Anglo-Celtic student coming to Melbourne for tertiary education, my sense of not belonging, and homesickness for my community and rural open spaces stayed with me for my first two years in Melbourne. How much more intense it must be for a 13 - or 14-year old from Amata or Papunya! I am aware of the realities (read 'problems') with attempts to provide education in the remote communities. And Brian has clearly presented the major problem in sending the children away from their communities for long periods to gain an education. Greater emphasis on facilitating education within the communities is necessary for a higher level of education for a broader range of Aboriginal children. And well-supported education in regional and capital cities opens the way to a broader world for those who can survive the transition.

Ian Fraser | 04 April 2011  

The problems go even deeper than Dr McCoy has outlined. Homesickness and loneliness are very real. The experience of many Aboriginal children in the NT's transitional colleges system was unhappy and pointless. However, the real issue is that should the student be successful, this will be a lifetime alientating experience from family and culture.

The cost in terms of identity and personal security and integrity is often enormous. The results can be very destructive of the individuals caught up in this superificial belief in schooling as the answer to the problems facing Aboriginal communities. Great caution and sensitivity is required. The hubris demonstrated by Jenny Macklin and every other true believer in western schooling is often the mirror image of personal dislocation and trauma for Aboriginal individuals.

George Makofski | 04 April 2011  

Excellent article on an age old problem that our urban society is still not coming to grips with.

Peter | 05 April 2011  

It's good to know someone cares. Someone should tell Jenny Macklin that punishment leads to resentment and resentment leads to hatred and hatred leads to violence and abuse.

Greig WIlliams | 05 April 2011  

Thanks Brian for such an insightful comment that opens readers to new dpths of understanding 'other'.
This is helpful for us all!

MARYANNE CONFOY | 05 April 2011  

Why would any self respecting aboriginal teenager want to stay at a big white boarding school? Selecting a few promising black kids and sending them to 'good' schools is a bad policy. The kids know it. Why is it so hard for the post doctoral fellows to understand?

Jason Bryce | 05 April 2011  

Ahem... Jenny Macklin is not a Senator.

Frank Golding | 05 April 2011  

When I speak to friends who went to boarding school, without exception they talk about the desparate loneliness and homesickness they felt. They are all culturally Anglo-Australian, their boarding schools were in their own state and they all spoke English as a first language. Their boarding school experience was not a cultural fracture for them. Yet their misery was their main memory.

It seems to me that there should be a program that allows young people to come once or twice in the preceding year, so that they can begin the process of adjustment in small increments and only make the transfer over when they are ready. They could also have a recognised 'leave pass' (or two or whatever) to use when they felt desparate or in case of death or whatever. As with other young people, the death of a significant person in their lives, or a family illness or trauma is a time when they are vulnerable and need to be part of their family to take part in rituals of grieving. If the right to leave school was recognised then a free choice could be made. The question of whether to stay or go becomes a differnet kind of question. There would be no shame and trauma attached to the choice to go(for students or staff) and consequently a much easier road to returning.

Parents and family could also come down on a rotating basis and spend some time so that for students the two worlds are connected, and parents can believe that the hosts are trustworthy. They would then be able to better judge whether to support a young person stay. After all, they have the parental rights to make that decision as other parents would - don't they?

Obviously this would be costly, but perhaps Jenny Macklin could find a way of constructively and practically supporting the programs. Talk of cultural recognition is cheap. It's practice is demanding and costly, but there is no point in doing it unless we can do it well.

Pauline | 05 April 2011  

Brian as usual speak from personal experience as well as academic research. People in the majority culture always see themselves and their experience as normative and the measuring stick for what ought to be. If we send students from a city setting to a remote Aboriginal community for an immersion experience, much energy and resources are expended on ensuring that they have good preparation, mature accompaniment while they are away, and solid debriefing when they return. Aboriginal communities and schools do not always have the same resources to be able to put these in place for their students.

It seems to me that the receiving schools need to factor into their programs these sorts of support systems for Aboriginal students attending their schools. There are good models around that need to be more widely made known and emulated. Every child has the right to a quality education and to feel safe and secure while undertaking it. As a nation we need to do more to assist these children and their families to access the education that they desire and deserve.

Thank you, Brian, for bringing this to the attention of the wider Australian public.

Shane Wood cfc | 05 April 2011  

I can empathise with these students from personal experience. I came from PNG to an Australian boarding school and can well remember the loneliness and feelings of loss and disconnection. It must be much worse to come from a different culture and be expected to fit in. The Macklin approach is yet another example of Government insensitivity and failure to understand or really communicate with Aboriginal people

Alastair Nicholson | 05 April 2011  

Thank you Brian for continuing to raise awareness of the difficulties in understanding cultural differences and also, the benefits associated with two-way learning for all students.

Rosemary | 05 April 2011  

There is a flourishing Indigenous program at my old school, where I spent my secondary years boarding with over 800 others. The keys to its success seem to be: the adequate preparation of students and families, a critical mass of boarders from the same background, and ensuring that the geographical/cultural distance is not too great. The same criteria were used when I was at school to assess the suitability of overseas students.

Brian, I agree with you but would like to know why schools in the south are encouraging students from the remote areas instead of finding ways to support those same students in schools closer to home? I view programs which take limited numbers of remote students into southern city schools with concern. Schools closer to home seem to have a much greater level of success. In my twenty years in remote communities I have seen far too many failures due to lack of planning and preparation.

Fr Matt Digges | 05 April 2011  

Thank you Brian for a very clear article on some of the issues surrounding this issue. Along with a good number of people who are endeavouring to ‘bridge the gap’, I have spent brief time in some remote schools in western NSW. I say brief because I experience a sense of the dislocation experienced by these young people who are almost ‘beamed into’ a foreign environment that for most students is in fact very foreign - a boarding school.

I have also worked with many teachers in Timor Leste who long for training and a tertiary eduction that will equip them to lead learning in their country.

My belief is that when we introduce people from real poverty (be it monetary, social or educative) and then expect them to settle in to work in areas we ourselves would find challenging, we are not seriously searching for workable solutions.
Assisting people from different cultures and circumstance cannot bear fruit until we engage them in the search for a workable solution. We need to ask different questions.

Brian alluded to this when he spoke of more interaction with the parents and families. How many of us are who we are today because of all the second chances we have been afforded?Change at this level is challenging because it is messy. It is messy because we are dealing with people who - to put it quite bluntly - are suffering the devastating effects of cultural trauma. Offering punitive responses does not work, and we know it.
While working out west, my wife Liz and I produced a video that for many is quite inspiring.

If you wish to see how some people are working in to change attitudes to education, go the the following website http://www.wilcannia.catholic.edu.au/

Vic O'Callaghan | 05 April 2011  

As a former Principal of a Brisbane Boarding School, I could not agree more with the points raised by Dr Brian McCoy and add the point that instead of punishing parents, the Government might consider increased opportunities to inform families of the value of education and where it could practically lead. Family support is critical for a student's success.


Narelle Mullins | 05 April 2011  

Thank you Brian for opening this much needed debate. I concur with the cross cultural concerns you have in the transition of remote Indigenous students . I also wonder why our affluent nation fails to offer excellent education locally.

Many questions remain unanswered. Why it is e.g. that remote area ‘learning centres’ are not allowed to claim school status despite communities repeatedly calling for this over decades? With this failure communities lost the benefits of having full -time permanent teachers, appropriate up to date resources, a school building, access to school grants and appropriate funding/ ESS teachers etc. Why is it that in the last 3 years in the NT we no longer allow teachers to teach in the local language, in the bi-lingual schools, a policy that goes against all the evidence of students learning best and first in their mother tongue? We lost committed teachers who understood the needs! No wonder parents are so disheartened.

Does wider Australia also understand the effects of the withdrawal of Indigenous CDEP positions/ jobs and programs and its effects in Indigenous schools over the last 3 years? There are many other factors involved.
The punitive and hard line approaches of Jenny Macklin (and Tony Abbott) are certainly not the answer and will continue to cause further resentment , reinforcing an increasing sense of hopelessness & reduced self worth. If you read the recent closing the gap report you will again see there are less Indigenous students attending schools despite millions being poured into harsh and disempowering policies. We blame and shame Indigenous people yet it is our government that is failing.

In the mean time we must get cross- culture transition right for Indigenous students but we must also open the debate about resourcing excellent local education that respects language and culture, too.

Georgina Gartland | 05 April 2011  

For young Aboriginals to transition from 'family' and community to the non-Aboriginal world is one of the hardest things imaginable. In health care we had extraordinarily low success in taking promising young Aboriginal people and sending them away to train as health workers. Their family soon would jibe.." so you want to be a white fella" and in no time they would have abandoned the training to sink back into the 'go-nowhere' world from which they nearly escaped.

We saw the same thing with promising young Aboriginal sportsmen and women. It mattered little how promising or attractive the outside prospect, the result was the same.

graham patison | 05 April 2011  

Some educational programs for Aboriginal kids have had some degree of success. Can't the kids, parents and teachers who've experienced this get together and share their view of the foundations of successful Aboriginal education? What worded, what didn't, what we should do more of. Perhaps Jenny Macklin et al could develop a theory grounded in the experience of the people themselves, rather than imposing practices with no proper theoretical base.

Joan Seymour | 05 April 2011  

Oh dear we really do need the religious who accepted being sent to the outback for a greater good ....using modern methods of course and respecting culture other than their own.

Perhaps there is hope - the first graduates could return to their country and in turn educate their own people in situ.

Which century does Jenny Macklin think we are in? It would make more sense to educate the parents so they don't feel inferior to their children and can support them with understanding, instead of all parties feeling they have to struggle for inclusion and respect.

hilary | 06 April 2011  

A similar experience occurs with Asian children who are sent to Australia for schooling. As a teacher (now semi-retired) I saw this often. These students need supporting. They will also be called home for 'sorry time',when a family member dies. This could be for a number of weeks of mourning.

Some whites have named 'sorry time', walkabout, as they do not understand. We should where possible encourage the aboriginal students to keep in touch with their family practices as well as providing them with white education. A group of Aboriginal adults could act as an advisory 'board', or mentors, on these occassions for the children. Our white children become homesick too in boarding schools, especially in the first year or when 'something'is happening at home.Perhaps a group of past , graduated students could also help out in these cases.

We should not label all aborigines as one. There are many clans - and each is different and may handle the matter in a different way.

Bev Smith | 06 April 2011  

Up to the 1960's we had the 'stolen generations'. Now in this century we have the "sent away generation". Brian McCoy has identified an emerging problem with many faces.

But the solution of sending Indigenous students to interstate schools is no solution. The rate of population growth of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory far outstrips the non-Aborignal rate. Each year there are more and more Indigenous kids to educate. Well-meaning Catholic and other private schools down south can never accommodate this surging population.

Rather a massive effort must be undertaken in the remote communmities and indeed in the urban centres of the NT, Queensland and Western Australia to develop an appropriate and effective edcuation for this new generation, which if we do not will not be 'stolen' but simply 'lost'.

Michael Bowden | 09 April 2011  

Dr Brian McCoy has raised key issues relevant to Indigenous children attending southern schools. Based on thirty years experience in Indigenous education in remote Indigenous communities, I would say Brian has got to the core issues.

Parents have specific criteria to decide on the school of choice and reasons for sending their child, who must also desire to attend the school.

The social, cultural and educational impacts are monumental. The parents, local school and the receiving school need to be well informed, fully supportive and have appropriate protocols in place. As well, a third party known to the community or family living close to the school can be a valuable asset in supporting students.
For parents, especially on low incomes, their determination can be gauged by the scrimping and saving required to enable their dream to become a reality.
All those involved in this situation will find Brian’s article well worth reading.

Vince | 09 April 2011  

Ideally, wouldn't it be good if great education 'came to them' in Aboriginal communities? Revisionist history has been critical of the Catholic missionaries who worked in Aboriginal communities, but these men and women gave Aboriginal people access to education in their own communities. Catholic religious lived and breathed the Aboriginal pace of life, and - when things went well - became a part of their communities. No amount of money or incentives can attract good teachers to remain in difficult and sometimes dangerous remote communities. I wonder whether the Holy Spirit would raise up a new generation of men and women to bring great educational opportunities into the homelands of Aboriginal people.

Cathy Ransom | 16 April 2011  

I am an experienced WA educator, most of which has been within the safe halls of the Catholic Education schools system. This enabled my access to the best resources and participation in professional development and practice that brought a nomination for the National Excellence in Teaching Awards. The time came for me a few years ago, to share this experience with Aboriginal youth and their families. I now appreciate the immense and often insurmountable mountain they face of gaining authentic equity in everything I take for granted as normal. Education is a marketable commodity. I, like many others have the financial power that brings Voice, to keep our children in our own homes (culture and Spirituality), to choose for our children the best education' and to access the resources that maintains our status quo. I now must sit in a sincere awareness that this is a real fight to make sure that 2 Way learning is perhaps not an option, but a requirement, that excellence is achieved for the Aboriginal Peoples, and 'preferential option' could be legislation for accountability that monitors an ongoing decline in the overall well-being of our Custodians. In 2011, Brian McCoy's article still needs to be written.

Anne P DeSouza | 20 April 2011  

Congratulations to Father Matt D for clear mindedly explaining what results he saw of striving for higher levels of southern education for northern & or remote indigenous students. Thus I have little truck with others who choose to ignore history. I need to background the situation by attempting a brief history lesson for readers ,based on our 7 years working with & for the Kukatja people of Balgo WA through mid 60's to early 70's .Thus in the whirlpool of massive changes created by '67 granting of citizenship (what a joke that our society made this "benevolent "gesture to those who had reportedly resided here for 32,000 years.) Throughout the 60's Balgo was re-located & totally re-constructed under the Superintendency of one amazing man, Father John MacGuire (actually Pat but stole John from his older brother because of his dedication to St John Vienny.) The principles by which he developed Balgo resulted in the healthiest community in the North & I may suggest the best possible education for majority of children & young adults of that period. I seriously doubt if it has ever been repeated. If alive he would repeat his oft made comment of being impossible task without dedication of amazing St John of God sisters such as Francis, Veronica, etc., along with teachers such as David & Maree Heath, Mark Neville, Enrico Cavoli & general Mission staff. This was in the days of negligible Federal Govt funds (except NT communities) & not that much from State Govt sources either, though Father's charisma seemed to loosen purse strings of some Ministers. Thus all Balgo development was seriously branded with Frugality. On Fathers departure based on suspected health issue (Multiple Sc),Canberra commissioned a Perth accountant (? Michael Barry) to audit the development budget for Balgo which my memory suggests was $ 1,190,000. I can assure you that such productivity under arduous conditions would make Managers of developers such as Leightons look like a mob of Jackeroos. Michael suggested the budget for Federally funded Yuendumu (NT) was $9M over the same time frame. Yet it was already the saddest, most dysfunctional community one would rather not see. We had coined a descriptive phrase for any system with similar traits as "doing a Yuendumu" Every able bodied person on Balgo was expected to avail the community with their labour, however complex or simple the task. The adolescent school graduates moved to employment in Mechanical workshop, building construction, staff & community kitchens/dining rooms, very productive Vegie garden,stock camp& laundry etc (children went to school each morning,showered & in clean uniforms). Only a few understood Father M's dream that we were there to work ourselves out of a job. The basic schooling of youth was extended into their work ie kitchen girls had practical application of counting 3 cups of flour, spoon of salt, 2 spoons of sugar to help activate yeast etc, stockmen/fencers could count & mark positions of chain apart steel fence pickets & 20 of these to a strainer post hole or count a few head of cattle to tell me they mustered 15 head of cattle into the tailing mob instead of "little bit big mob " The children & young single women slept in supervised dormatories (mild intervention), thus hygene & zero school truancy were achieveable & habit forming. Sadly the naive young man replacing Father Mac lacked the wisdom & will to understand all the interwoven aspects of why there was such a healthy, vibrant community. Unfortunately he removed the locks & supervision of the schoolboys dormatory, so it was not long before the Bundu (teenage youth) were sourcing "a bit of boy". During a Cattle delivery/freight return trip to Alice Springs I sought counsel on issue with Sacred Heart, Father Dwyer, who listened to facts & supportive eventuality of ceasation of courting & marriage by young adults, to which he replied "Why keep a cow when milk's cheap". I unsuccessfully challenged this stratergy with the instigator & when on a subsequent trip east ,arranged to discuss it with president of "Mission's Affairs", Bishop of Bathurst, A R E Thomas, hoping for action ! result ZERO. As brief as I have tried to be, it is a long journey to get to the point of saying that the young people who the same "enlightened" man sent South for broader education pre-deceased their peers who stayed at home, having been also seduced by the ills of our society more rapidly. Some time after the Federal Govt unwisely usurped the authority of Church administration & Superintendents. An excellent coverage of this is recorded by Paul Toohey in "Fruits of Political Correctness" printed in The Australian, if it is still viewable by interested readers. Thus Balgo eventually "did a Yuendumu", though maybe it was tempered by the presence of the surviving few of those youth from the "good years". Extra length approved by the editors

John Kersh | 27 April 2011  

Good article with ideas and sentiments that have been in our heads and hearts for decades. Are we doing enough as a nation or as states to provide adequate and appropriate education to remote students as well as urban students. Not all mainstream isolated students go to boarding schools and probably fewer now.

Kay McPadden | 04 May 2011  

A wonderful article. I have given up sending many of our students from Daly River to schools in the N.T. It seems like the honeymoon period is over in relation to boarding schools. We are now trialling a homestay program. We have students in Lismore, NSW and Melbourne, Victoria, living with families. The schools involved have supported our children by offerring them programs to bring them into mainstream as soon as possible. After 3 years in Lismore the students are happy and confident young people, succeeding in a mainstream system and currently deciding their career paths. The Melbourne students are in their second year and already talking about desires to go to University. Families visit them as often as they can and stay a week each time and teachers accompany them backwards and forwards for holidays, taking the opportunity to talk to their parents. Parents talk to the teachers when they visit the schools. The schools have regular meetings with the homestay parents about the students' progress. Our children are involved with local sporting clubs and camps and community groups. The teachers and other families of school students take turns to host the students for weekends and provide new experiences for our children. In this way of community participation, the students make friends and are really exposed to western world experiences. This contributes immensely to their confidence to succeed in another culture. When I visit my children in Melbourne, it is they, not the homestay family, who are the tour guides around Melbourne, even taking us to footy matches via tram! The southern schools involved are highly supportive of this project and do all they can to foster success, having chosen the homestay families carefully and implemented a transition program for staff and students. This year is the 125th anniversary of the Jesuits arrival at Daly River. Brian, how come the Jesuits didn't think of this first? Happy Anniversary!!! Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, Nauiyu Community, Daly River, NT

Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann | 05 July 2011  

Thank you for your article. I coordinate a support program [Future Footprints] for Independent schools residential colleges in WA. We have very succesful Indigenous programs in our participating schools. please take a peek. www.ais.wa.edu.au and click on the Service & Programs and then Future Footprints.

Roni Forrest | 29 January 2016  

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