Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Making Indigenous Literacy Day obsolete


Child writing on the floor

Indigenous Literacy Day is an opportunity for governments and organisations to promote the work they are doing to improve Indigenous literacy rates. It is in that sense about raising the profile of Indigenous literacy programs around the country and, crucially, a fundraising exercise to support them.

There is nothing wrong with that. It is how many a 'national day' works. I'm usually happy to support such endeavours with a few Facebook 'Likes' or retweets, the occasional pro bono speech or workshop, or even an impromptu fundraising event. 

As a former primary teacher, I have seen the importance of literacy programs for our young people, and the joy and power that comes from learning to read, especially for older students who thought they would never get to read. 

I have also arrived at the unmistakable conclusion that schools, on the whole, are failing Indigenous students, families and communities, and just as often as not, blaming them for it. If schools were given adequate support, resourcing, staffing and training to better cater for the needs and interests of Indigenous students and families, there would hardly be any need to mark Indigenous Literacy Day. 

While I support many of the existing literacy programs, I think it is also important to look for the voices of families, students and practitioners, amidst the buzz and fervour generated on such occasions. Without dismissing the wonderful work being done by numerous organisations, a simple question still needs to be asked: Isn't it the government's fundamental responsibility to provide quality to education to all, regardless of race, culture, language or location?

If we were to believe the Federal government rhetoric, the issue is simply that Indigenous kids are not attending school – because their parents don't make them go. Attendance is considered a top priority under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy that replaced more than 150 programs in July.

This is a painfully superficial and one-sided retelling of the whole picture of what is going on in Indigenous education at a national level. It is a retelling which conveniently places all of the blame firmly onto Aboriginal students and parents, and positions government in the role of saviour, rather than the more accurate description of having been responsible for decades of ill-informed policies and practices. 

Attendance is of course crucial but it does little to explain the lower results of many students who do regularly attend school, or the many other possible reasons for not attending school. There are factors that come under the direct responsibility of schools and government departments, such as anti-racism strategies, effective teacher training, culturally appropriate pedagogy, bilingual education, and family and community engagement.

Accounting for these factors not only gives a clearer indication of the whole picture, but it also acknowledges responsibility of governments. Ongoing, not just historic, failures must be acknowledged.

Taking an approach that recognises what has led to the ongoing disparities in Indigenous literacy allows Indigenous people to maintain a sense of dignity. It emphasises that improving Indigenous literacy rates is not an issue of charity but of justice.

The Federal government was very quick to point to dysfunction and abuse among Aboriginal communities when it wanted to rush through the emergency legislation needed for the Northern Territory intervention. Politicians seem to think that all will be fixed if 'adults go to work' (though there are not enough jobs) and 'kids must go to school' (though the literacy results of far too many remain poor). Indigenous Australians have one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world right now, which suggests that 'just go to school' is not enough as a solution. 

Generations of broken promises and failed government policies will not be solved with superficial strategies. 

Luke Pearson

Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man from NSW. He has worked in all levels of education from primary school to university, but currently works as a social commentator, consultant, educator, writer and public speaker. He is best known as the creator of @IndigenousX, a widely respected, curated Twitter account.  

Image by Rusty Stewart via flickr under Creative Commons licence.

Topic tags: Luke Pearson, Indigenous Literacy Day, education, reading, Aboriginal students



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for this - your two points, the blame and the need to hear the voices of those involved need to be heard. Superficial responses with no basis in evidence abound, and it is the communities who can least afford it who are suffering the brunt. The model of doing something, without thought and usually at considerable cost, and the blaming the recipients when it doesn't work appears to be the driver for policies relating to both indigenous communities, and to education. I don't know the answer, but this is a discussion we need to have (and much more productive than the blame game).

Liz | 03 September 2014  

As an ex-publisher, I am an ongoing supporter of Indigenous Literacy Day (ILD). The concept started in the book industry with publishers, distributors and retailers donating books, money and time to try and fill some of the gaps in the poorly-provided school system in remote Indigenous communities. I believe everybody associated with ILD would agree with Luke that the sooner we don't need it the better. However with punitive measures like tightened income controls on parents to "make them" ensure their children attend school is not going to encourage learning. And learning is the goal, not classroom roll-calls. A critical point Luke made is that there are not enough jobs in remote areas to encourage broader parental and community support for school education of children. Until that point is met full on, and alternative education goals are emphasised, ILD will continue as a necessary support to children and schools in remote communities.

Ian Fraser | 03 September 2014  

I agree with you Luke, but teachers need specialist training too and I do not believe it is being given. For many years I have been a tutor for the Aboriginal and Torres Straight people through the AITAS scheme in suburban Melbourne and Canberra. I worked one-on-one usually in the student's home and I was very effective. Being just with one person enabled the student to ask questions without embarassment. In every case students have taught me many things. Being in the home I was able to include a parent if the students so desired, but I always gave a report at the end of each session. This was part of my deal. Sadly Kevin Rudd cancelled this programme and in the ACT and NSW Aboriginal students who could have benefited by help do not get it. Could not this programme be reinstated?

Gabrielle Jarvis | 03 September 2014  

"Effective teacher training, culturally appropriate pedagogy, bilingual programs and the engagement of families and communities." Luke you have nailed it. When skilled educators devise policies and strategies and politicians provide funds , these areas may be addressed. I have seen the very best and sadly the very worst of efforts to provide the most appropriate education for indigenous Australians. To embrace the indigenous language and culture of the local area is a good place to start. A wonderful religious sister trained a group of indigenous women who produced books and activities in the local language with local drawings. These were the most popular books in the classroom. Indigenous teachers imparted culture and were supported by other teachers some of whom were skilled in teaching literacy and numeracy.. With the right teachers , principals and community workers the dream could become the reality.

Celia | 03 September 2014  

So refreshing to have these truths aired. Bi-lingual education was defunded in 2009 in the N.T and allowed more recently, but with no funding! Last year there were massive cuts to education in the NT. Remote Aboriginal communities lost out. Amongst the cuts 71 ESL staff and linguists! There was an outcry and the gap will widen, e.g. read Yalmay Yunupingu (October 2013) at http://www.fobl.net.au/index.php/au-MU/current-issues?start=10 Today there is a push to boarding schools. What of the rights of the child, family and community? In June 2014 Yalmay said, “Politics, politics, politics. Policy, policy, policy. Changes, changes, and more changes. What’s next? Are we going to keep living like this and keep being used as a Trojan horse? As new Government gets voted, in comes new policy, “bang”, and then follows by the new changes “bang”. New jobs are created, people are put into positions and they often don’t have any idea how to do their job. Bush schools are criticized, and they say that Indigenous team teachers are inexperienced and unskilled to run bilingual and education programs in our own communities.” (full speech at http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/media/NIHRA_2014_Yalmay_Yunupingu_speech.pdf ) First Nations Peoples today call for the right to self-determination, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU_H0oIQy60 aagreements.

George | 03 September 2014  

Like your article Luke, we are an Aboriginal Child and Family Centre in Victoria, Bubup Wilam for Early Learning. Totally agree with your comments.

Lisa Thorpe | 03 September 2014  

Just a couple of weeks ago newspapers in NT made front-page news of the Education Department's annual report completely ignoring the best thing that has been happening in literacy for Aboriginal children — the Honey Ant Readers, by Margaret Jemes.

Gavan | 03 September 2014  

On the positive side, there are now around thirty six thousand (36,000) Indigenous university graduates across the country (that's about one in every nine adults), and commencements are at record levels. 1859 Indigenous people graduated last year. Around 130,000 Indigenous people have been to university at one time or another. The BIG job will be to re-involve people in rural towns, and people in remote communities.

Joe Lane | 03 September 2014  

Great article, Luke. I agree with all you say. My own small contribution would be to say we also need to harness parent power. My long experience with early literacy tells me that the best and most effective learning method for any child is to cuddle up to Mum or Dad and share their parent's enjoyment of a story. Love of reading, and consequent skill, is most pleasantly acquired at Mum or Dad's knee. I hope there are programs that encourage and enable parents with the knowledge that they can supply their children with something no teacher can, however well trained and well resourced.

Joan Seymour | 03 September 2014  

Attendance is the crux of the matter and all too often it is the failure of the principal of the school to make attendance a priority and work with the community to get kids to school. That said parents need to do the right thing by their kids and ensure that they are capable of doing something once they get to school. Until BOTH sides do their bit, nothing will change.

John | 03 September 2014  

The whole education system is failing Indigenous children. For years I have been advocating for the education board to use Steiner Education. After over half a century with Indigeous education, I have seen how capable and keen the young people are to learn when the material is relevant. If a child at five in Central Austral can speak two or three languages and explain cultural practices they are capable of achieving more if the Education System was adapted to their method of learning.

Helen | 03 September 2014  

Thanks Luke Wanted access to Literacy programs to assist indigenous students to learn to read rapidly. Any ideas please !

michael coughlin | 03 September 2014  

Thankyou Luke for your article. I am more confused than ever! i recall a young Aboriginal man who had won the prize every term for his school attendance, of average intelligence and with a solid family. After finishing school he came to me to sign up for CDEP, I gave him the forms and he asked me to fill them out, I knew straight away he could not read. The school was well resourced, had a bi-lingual program in operation and used books written by some of the old women. I spoke to the young fellas father a week or so later and he was shocked. He told me that all the parent/teacher interviews etc. that he was al;ways told how good he was at school. This was in a very remote school. In light of what you have written, I'm saying that the school ticked all the boxes, the family was stable whilst the community itself was dysfunctional. Perhaps the answer in some cases is to look at the external motivating factors - do these kids want to learn to read and do sums? What is it in the community that stymies the pursuit of learning? Certainly there was no end goal for such a young man. All he could aspire to was a job in the store or following some whitefella tradesman around. I suspect that cultural diversity needs to taken into account. These kids come from an Oral tradition and this reinforced when they go through law etc. the same applies when developing strategic economic plans for such remote communities. Of course I can only comment on remote communities and I have no idea what happens in regional and city communities.

Julian | 04 September 2014  

Similar Articles

Ending feminised poverty

  • Kate Galloway
  • 11 September 2014

Despite historical gains for women in terms of formal equality, structural issues - wage gap, superannuation gap, childcare, unpaid caring, inequitable income distribution - have not gone away. I do not see why my older women friends should be burdened with accumulated poverty simply because they are women. They carry a material burden because their unpaid work was considered to be performed 'for love', undeserving of financial security.


Suicide taboos and healing memories

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 10 September 2014

Suicide excludes people from any participation in this decisive act of people's lives, and also prevents them from understanding it. Suicide is always shrouded in silence, and arouses dread at entering the silence. The wrenching cry at the heart of of memories wrestles with the silence, 'Why did you do it?'.