• Too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people find it difficult to participate in everyday activities as a result of their low literacy. (NITV)Source: NITV
Is the disconnect between policy makers and communities responsible for the low literacy levels in Indigenous Australia?
By
Natalie Cromb

27 Jul 2017 - 7:29 PM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2017 - 7:42 AM

When considering literacy, the focus is largely on the performance of Indigenous children and the importance of getting this right, because reading and writing gives vital opportunities. The 2016 NAPLAN results indicates that only a quarter of Indigenous children in very remote areas are at or above national minimum reading standards, compared to 91 per cent for non-Indigenous students - and we don’t have an accurate measure of our adults.

Literacy is often taken for granted in the non-Indigenous community, something many of them have access to. But the reality is - as statistics demonstrate - it is difficult to attain parity on because the western education system is not designed to educate in the unique manner required for many Indigenous children and this system has left many of our community behind, who now – as adults – find it difficult to participate in everyday activities as a result of their low literacy. Reading bills or bank statements, using an ATM, getting the news, voting - literacy is a cog in the wheel of mainstream society. 

The western education system is not designed to educate in the unique manner required for many Indigenous children and this system has left many of our community behind, who now – as adults – find it difficult to participate in everyday activities as a result of their low literacy.

Fundamentally, our education system is failing Indigenous people and has done since 1788. By only following a pedagogical and epistemological approach to education that is devoid of Indigenous content – either historical, linguistic or cultural - that speaks to the cultures and identities of Indigenous people is always going to end in failure because it is exclusionary.

In 1988 the Australian Government established an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy Taskforce (chaired by Paul Hughes) with a view to developing a comprehensive long-term approach to Indigenous education. Following the report of the taskforce, the then Federal Minister for Employment, Education and Training announced that a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy would be jointly developed by the states and territories and the Commonwealth during 1989.

Upon the formation of the policy, the Australian Government stated that the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy aims to improve the availability, responsiveness and effectiveness of education services as a means of achieving equity of access to and participation in education, and equitable and appropriate educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Since then, a further review of the declining literacy statistics has resulted in a new strategy entitled, ‘The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy’ which was endorsed by education ministers in September 2015. Under the Strategy, education ministers have agreed to a set of principles and priorities that will inform jurisdictional approaches to Indigenous education.

Once again, the governmental approach is underpinned by the tenet of bringing Indigenous people in line with non-Indigenous children through their focus of:

  • Attendance and Engagement
  • Transition Points (including pathways to post-school options)
  • Early Childhood Transitions
  • Workforce
  • Australian Curriculum

There remains a disconnect of understanding between those making policy and the communities in which they are implemented. Grassroots organisations that are focusing on literacy are achieving great success through community-based learning that is both culturally appropriate and, where possible, bilingual.

Related reading
Why more schools need to teach bilingual education to Indigenous children
Bilingual education has proved to be an effective tool for learning so why is it not used more widely?

The government and policy makers remained focused on issues where there is a possibility of laying blame at the very feet of the people being failed by the education system – Indigenous people. By focusing on attendance and the forceful education of a curriculum that is not culturally appropriate – the government is sending a clear message that the approach remains unchanged – Indigenous people need to assimilate or ‘be left behind.’

Indigenous literacy is a critical element of ensuring that Indigenous people are able to not only participate in the current educational system and post-education employment – but flourish and have opportunities. The government needs to understand that denial of Indigenous people from fair participation and inclusion in the curriculum appropriately serves only to continue failing on literacy targets.

Indigenous communities have been proactively taking it upon themselves to self-educate in culturally appropriate ways and sometimes bilingually and this has had tremendous success not only on the community’s literacy, but confidence and cohesion as a community.

If only the government would pay attention. 

Like the content? Follow the author @NatalieCromb


 

In My Own Words tells the story of a remote community teaching adults to read and write. Part of NITV & SBS' #YouAreHere series airing on Sunday, 30 July 8.30pm on NITV Ch. 34