• Kids play at Darkinjung Barker College. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
A partnership between one of Sydney's most elite schools and Darkinjung Aboriginal Land Council is bearing fruit for Indigenous kids.
Laura Murphy-Oates

The Point
2 Jun 2016 - 3:52 PM  UPDATED 3 Jun 2016 - 3:28 PM

The alumni of Barker College, an independent Anglican school, reads like a list of the nation's sporting stars, politicians and media personalities.

Darkinjung Barker, its new kindergarten-to-year five campus, is only an hour's drive north of Sydney, nestled in a small rural setting in the heart of the NSW central coast, but the situation for many Indigenous kids growing up there is starkly different.

"When we look at the results not just in education, but employment, and the number of kids on the central coast in out-of-home care, there's a significant disparity gap right across the central coast," says Sean Gordon, CEO of Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Late last year Mr Gordon partnered with Phillip Heath, head of Barker College, to develop the Indigenous campus of the school which was launched in January 2016.

The kids have access to many of the benefits of Barker College, sharing specialist teachers, camps and sporting events. There are also two permanent teachers, two teachers' aides on site and access to the latest in education technology.

"It's highly resource intense but why shouldn't it be? It matters, this really matters," says Mr Heath.

The annual running costs of $400,000 a year are predominantly covered by donations from Barker, with one third outlaid by government and parents pitching in $100 dollars a term per child.

The school also has a focus on culture and family, with brothers and sisters learning together and Darkinjung language forming a regular part of daily school life.

Education gap a 'reality check'

Campus coordinator Jamie Shackleton left his post at Barker to head up the new campus and he says initial testing of some of the kids at the start of the school year was a 'reality check' for him.

"We found that some of the children were a number of years behind where they should be," says Mr Shackleton. He says watching a 10-year-old reading at a six-year-old level was "tough to see".

"That's why we're here, to fill those gaps and to make sure the children are getting everything they can, just in a small school setting, so more attention to the one-on-one work to give them a real boost," he says.

While it's early days, with the school only in its second semester, for students like 10-yr-old Tjanarra Ah-See, the difference is clear.

"For mathematics I wasn't really that good, but now I'm actually really good!" she says.

Mathematics is now one of her favourite subjects, behind art. "Art calms you and mathematics gets my brain working," she says.

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Mr Shackleton recognises that the reasons for the education gap can be complex.

"We've got children from up here who've come from good, solid backgrounds, or they might've come from tougher backgrounds," he says.

"There are some tough times at home for some of the students, but also not a positive outlook on school as a whole and that might've come from previous generations where it might not have been a positive experience for them." 

The schools bus driver JD is also a Darkinjung Land Council board member and local dad.

He says undiagnosed cognitive or behavioural conditions mean some kids get left behind in large school settings, and Darkinjung Barker is proving to be a haven for some of these kids such as those with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Asperger's Syndrome.

He says he and the parents are impressed by the work Mr Shackleton has done to aid the kids so far.

"I have daily contact with the parents and the feedback is very positive, they're thrilled, they're excited, they can see future benefits for not only their family but for their children and the community around them."

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Central Coast a 'forgotten community'

Mr Gordon says the 12,000 strong Indigenous population on the Central Coast, spread across the coastal suburbs in between Sydney and Newcastle, is a 'forgotten community' regarding investment in education.

"The reality is we're not creating safe environments for Aboriginal kids to get through the school system and to come out of it with a reasonable education that gets them a job or gets them into university," he says.

Both Barker and Darkinjung Land Council hope to open up two more schools along the Central Coast in the coming years, with 90 kids attending all up.

While Mr Gordon admits this isn't an overall solution to close the education gap, he believes they can make a difference.

"We're not saying that those systems aren't working for all of our kids, but all we've done is provide our community and our kids with choice, choice of an alternate education, partnering with an elite school," says Mr Gordon.

"I think it's time for independent schools to develop new models so we can take our share, in what in my view, is a national challenge, a challenge that belongs to everybody," says Barker's head Phillip Heath.

"I also dream that in a generation Darkinjung Barker won't be necessary."