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For tens of thousands of years our world-view, spirituality and practical survival skills have been handed down to successive generations. But many of us understand that today our children need to complete a western-style education to be able to reach their potential. More of our youth are completing Year 12 and going on to vocational or tertiary studies.

Nearly every university around the country has an Indigenous studies centre that provides courses about Aboriginal or Indigenous life and culture. These centres also support Indigenous students by helping with accommodation and other issues in adjusting to life as a tertiary student.

There is constant government dispute and revolving policy about the best way to engage our students in education. The delivery of ‘bilingual education’ in particular is regularly debated by government. Bilingual education refers to teaching people to read and write in their mother tongue or first language for the first few years and then switching to literacy and instruction in the national or mainstream language. Not everyone agrees with bilingual education. Some people believe Australian schools should be English-only all the way through.

Today, Australia’s schools, universities and technological colleges are developing courses that acknowledge us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, just as Australia has embraced and respected the European and Asian cultures of immigrant Australians.

man with his three children

Indigenous Project Officer at University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Commerce, Jade Kennedy and children, at his graduation in 2007 Photo © Jade Kennedy.

Many Indigenous people see education as an important way of gaining better control over their lives and recognise the benefits from gaining a good education. Indigenous students are graduating from universities at an increased rate, prompting hope that a new generation of Aboriginal leaders will bring fresh ideas and broader experience to efforts to close the economic and life expectancy gaps between black and white Australia. Of the total 813,896 domestic students enrolled in university in 2009, 10,440 identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

young boy wearing headphones

Taris Wagilak, a student at Ramingining School in Arnhem Land, 2008. Photo © Polly Hemming.

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Improving our children’s education.

a group of students holding certificates

Clontarf Casuarina Academy graduates celebrated their year 12 graduation in Darwin in 2011. The inaugural Northern Territory Leaving for Work Dinner was a celebration of the outstanding achievement of sixty four NT Clontarf Year 12 students in completing their Secondary School studies. Photo © Clontarf Foundation.

Clontarf students from nine Academies across the NT from Alice Springs in the south to Yirrkala in the east attended the event supported by Academy staff whose ongoing commitment has been so important in assisting the young men through the challenges of Year 12 completion.


One of the biggest challenges for Australia’s Indigenous children, and their teachers, is the widespread idea that they won’t achieve anything. Government officials seem to care less about Indigenous students failing than they do about other students. It’s easier to blame failure on the children or their communities.

It can be challenging to make changes, but the success of Dr Chris Sarra, former Principal of Cherbourg school in Queensland, proves that this is possible.

His rules for students (reinforced by staff and Principal) are: come to school every day, work hard in the classroom, be nice to the teacher, be nice to other children, work together, be proud to be Aboriginal and stand up for yourself.

His suggested tasks for teachers and principals as leaders are: supporting (best staff; teachers aides to broker relationships with parents), developing (teachers’ professional development and leadership opportunities), monitoring (scrutinising what happens), challenging (asking the hard questions: would you accept this result for your own children?) and intervening (doing the hard things).

Source: Chris Sarra, Indigenous Education Leadership Institute.