• File image of Indigenous students in classroom. (Tracey Nearmy/AAP)Source: Tracey Nearmy/AAP
Private schools have put forward a controversial proposal to the Federal Government to create Indigenous-only campuses in return for extra taxpayer funding.
NITV Staff Writers

The Point
20 Apr 2017 - 5:06 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2017 - 5:59 PM

In a pre-budget submission, the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia has proposed satellite campuses for Indigenous students for funding purposes. 

If it goes ahead, some of the country’s most elite schools would create separate campuses for Indigenous students, in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra tax-payer funding, attracting maximum government subsidies.

Critics say the proposal could lead to segregation, while backers say it would help close the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

Could this proposal hit the target, or is it missing the point? 

“What I do fear is a prescriptive form of education that puts Indigenous kids into set outcomes and sees them being forced to assimilate into a western education style.”

Jennifer Newman, a Doctoral Candidate at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Social Justice working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders adult learners in universities, told NITV’s The Point she believes it’s hard to determine if the plan could deliver better results for Indigenous students.

“I could see how it could improve some education outcomes, but in a holistic picture of education, I can’t see it happening in a satellite campus."

Ms Newman fears that 'hothousing', the practice of providing students with intense, special training, does not work well in all cases.

“The problem with ‘hothousing’ as an idea, is that it takes away some of the full preparation for life that students need. That in turn could limit their education,” she said.

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To her, an all-inclusive, multi-disciplinary education model is more likely to help strengthen and improve education outcomes.

“Essentially, what we need are lots of options that fit a diverse group of people and communities,” she said.

Ms Newman says there’s not a ‘one size fits all education model’, especially given the complexities of the Indigenous student body.

“Teaching to cater to some of life’s aspirations for the student and the community is important. But there are other models that see kids kept on country, or education models that are based on country.  Some boarding school models also work quite well,” she added.

“What I do fear is a prescriptive form of education that puts Indigenous kids into set outcomes and sees them being forced to assimilate into a western education style,” she said.

Funding woes vs quality of teaching

Some critics of the Indigenous-only campuses proposal fear private schools could shift the funds they receive from the government for the Indigenous campuses and invest it into their other campuses.

Ms Newman told NITV’s The Point that school funding is a contentious issue that is constantly debated in the education community. She says there are often suspicions over reasons for funding.

“How any institute uses their money should always be transparent.”

For Ms Newman, if an institute prides itself on its honour and values, they should also spend their money honestly.

“My hope is that these schools and institutes act with integrity,” she said.

But she recognises that it’s also possible for schools to spend the money “for the right manner, [to then] test it out, and discover that Indigenous-only campuses don’t work, and then shift the money to be used elsewhere".

"At least that would be a tried and tested manner”.

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Money isn't everything

Ms Newman believes that when it comes down to it, school funding isn’t all that matters – investing in better quality teachers is equally important.

“I grew up in the public system and I think that public schools could always do with more funding, but better teacher education is very important as well. Better courses to prepare for teaching and better access to course outcomes are important to help create quality teachers,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter how well designed the curriculum is or how good the school is, if the teacher isn’t a good teacher, then the education of a student will suffer.”

When it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Ms Newman says that current requirements for teachers to learn more about ATSI history, as well as cultural training, are helping today’s teachers’ confidence and ability to better deal with Indigenous students.

“Cultural understanding and the use of language is critical in having good communication between students and teachers. Teachers who can utilise good language in reference terms and semantics on things like the invasion or settlement.”

Ms Newman commends the efforts of highly dedicated teachers who go above and beyond and take the time to further develop their cultural knowledge and language skills.

“It’s particularly great, especially if they are able to differentiate between dialects that students use. Knowing these differences can help teachers communicate on a local level, and that’s just so important. You need cultural understanding of the community that you are also teaching in.”

When asked if Indigenous teachers should be teaching Indigenous students, Ms Newman believes it’s not just about ethnicity, but ability.

“I wouldn’t advocate for only Indigenous teachers to teach only Indigenous kids. Indigenous students don’t live in an only Indigenous world, so they should be able to be taught by any quality teachers, and if that teacher of quality is an Indigenous teacher, then that’s even better.

“Your circumstances really need to reflect the world in which you are living, and we need to have students that are being taught by quality teachers that have a good cultural understanding.”