Indigenous parents have the power to transform Indigenous education

Indigenous parents should exercise the self-determination we talk so much about. They can make  the most effective protest about school quality – simply by sending their kids to school.

In 1962, a group of parents in Goulburn participated in one of the most successful protest actions in Australian history. Their actions triggered a fundamental shift in Australian education policy that continues to this day.

And they did this simply by sending their kids to school.

In the 1960s, Australia still harboured sectarian divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and Catholics experienced widespread discrimination. The Catholic Church offered non-government education to all Catholic children. Catholic schools received no government funding but had begun to lobby for funding to help with rising costs. However, all political parties believed providing direct funding to non-government schools would cost votes.

A dispute between the NSW Education Department and Goulburn’s Our Lady of Mercy Primary School broke this impasse. The department threatened to deregister the school because it didn’t have enough toilets. However, the school couldn’t afford to build more. The bishop informed parents the school would have to close until it could afford new infrastructure. The general meeting of parents and friends went further, resolving to close all Goulburn Catholic schools and send their 1300 or so students to public schools.

One Monday, Goulburn’s public schools were flooded with students they weren’t resourced to accommodate. The parents had made their point. If the government had to educate all Catholic students, it would have to supply more teachers, resources and buildings to public schools, which would cost much more than providing some funding to Catholic schools.

All political parties eventually embraced state aid to non-government schools and the policy has continued to this day, including in the Gonski reform proposals. What years of negotiation failed to achieve was delivered through a simple and lawful action – parents sent their kids to school.

School attendance is the No. 1 priority in indigenous education. In some areas, school attendance is woefully low and some kids never attend school. It’s a national disgrace. Without education, indigenous people living in poverty will remain there, and if kids don’t attend school, they won’t get educated.

I’m astonished by the excuses used to justify poor attendance. Parents are poor; schools don’t teach indigenous languages; the government has cut funding; schools aren’t resourced to handle all the kids; their parents experienced racism.

I get particularly annoyed when people use the excuse that the mainstream education system isn’t suitable to indigenous children, especially those in traditional communities.

The universal public education of children is one of the greatest social developments in history. All over the world, in both modern and traditional cultures, kids attend school. Are we to believe indigenous children are the only humans on the planet who can’t be educated and attend school? Anyone who believes this should look at the school in Yilpara (Baniyala), a community of about 150 people in East Arnhem Land in the Yolgnu homelands. There aren’t many indigenous communities in Australia more traditional than Yilpara.

Yilpara School

Clan elder Djambawa Marawili AM spent years agitating the NT Education Department for a proper school in Yilpara. The school has now been in operation for over four years with two full-time teachers living in the community. It teaches a mainstream curriculum that incorporates culture and language. It has 100 per cent attendance. School attendance has become a habit and children know going to school is what is expected of them by their parents, community and elders.

All indigenous parents have the right to demand quality education and qualified teachers and that children are taught their traditional languages as well as English. But they don’t have the right to let their kids skip school.

I’m well aware of the problems in many schools that are supposed to educate indigenous students. But accepting these as excuses misses the point. If kids don’t attend school, these problems remain invisible. The best way to expose these problems and force departments to address them is for indigenous parents to send their kids to school.

Many condemned the NT government’s recent cuts to remote school funding. But these happened because funding is based on attendance and attendance was low. NT parents have the power to force the government to reinstate funding by sending their kids to school.


Door of the Yilpara Primary classroom

If 1300 Catholic kids in Goulburn could trigger such a radical change in Australia’s education system, imagine the impact if on the first day of term one in 2014, the tens of thousands of indigenous kids currently absent from school actually showed up; and then the next day and every day for the rest of the school year. The flood of students would compel a response.

The only thing stopping our kids from attending school is us. Indigenous parents should exercise the self-determination we talk so much about. They can make the strongest statement about the importance of indigenous education and the most effective protest about school quality – simply by sending their kids to school.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine is executive chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 25 January 2014.


Read more about the Federal Government’s push to get all Indigenous children to school every day.

Local action to boost school attendance kicks off in WA 

Getting attendance up is just part of the picture

Minister Scullion urges parents and carers to get their children to school

Yolngu Nations Assembly declares that parents’ cultural responsibilities should extend to sending their children to school

Government unveils plan to get remote Indigenous children back to school




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