Time for a High Expectations Relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia

Keynote Address
18 October 2011

Strong Start Bright Futures Conference, Darwin

Ladies and Gentlemen let me start today by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land here.

I want to use this time this morning to offer some points upon which to reflect, and to challenge current views and perceptions about the nature of the relationship between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australia and the extent to which this can be perceived as a constructive partnership so far. I don’t intend to throw up a range of graphs with figures about Indigenous education, as I am sure many of you are already across this, and that you will see plenty in the days to come. Suffice to say for now that Indigenous education has for too long been entrenched in a toxic equilibrium of low expectations and poor outcomes. Having said that, I note there are indeed some positive signs of change.

This is not to say for one moment that the data about Indigenous education is not unimportant. We must continue to attempt to punctuate that same equilibrium it describes. Moreover I would like to add that as an Aboriginal educator I welcome accountability in Indigenous education becoming equal to accountability in non-Indigenous education. I am an advocate of NAPLAN and the MYSCHOOL website, acknowledging its limitations and potential to be over-read by some, yet providing the mechanism for transparency and accountability in Indigenous education that has simply not existed previously.

Let me challenge you with some perspectives and hope that you will embrace the points I have to note with goodwill and as useful feedback about things that I think are indeed worth reflecting upon, in the interests of developing and embracing Indigenous Australians in a dynamic and productive relationship and in the interests of delivering on the promise of a strong start which ultimately will anchor the pursuit of a bright future.

In particular I want to discuss the notion of a high expectations relationship with Indigenous Australians. As part of this discussion I want to explore the role of the schools in embracing and nurturing a positive and authentic sense of Aboriginal, or Torres Strait Islander identity. This inevitably will lead into the need to discuss the role of education Institutions and the extent to which we prioritise identity and culture issues for individual students, or the extent to which we prioritise the pursuit of literacy and numeracy outcomes and the development of standard Australian English.

As the basis for this discussion about the challenges let me take some time to articulate what I call the Stronger Smarter Philosophy….

The Stronger Smarter philosophy honours a positive sense of cultural identity, acknowledges and embraces positive community leadership, enabling innovative and dynamic approaches and processes that are anchored by high expectations relationships. High expectations relationships honour the humanity of others, and in so doing, acknowledge one’s strengths, capacity and human right to emancipatory opportunity.

Historically we can never really say there has seriously been a high expectations relationship in which the humanity of Indigenous Australians has been adequately acknowledged. From the very outset colonisers assumed we were either ‘non existent’ or at the very best, savages. We were considered amongst flora and fauna and as our ancestors were shot or driven off our land, with many meandering toward a pitiable existence on the fringes of provincial centres. At this time the best response offered was to assume the full bloods would die out and round up those not of full blood, separating them from their parents, and explicitly teach them how to be less Aboriginal so they could survive in a modern society as assimilated Australians. We cannot call this a high expectations relationship.

Even beyond this time the humanity of Aboriginal people has never been adequately acknowledged. This is why many billions of dollars have been wasted trying to make a difference with such futile efforts.

Why is this so fundamentally important?

When we acknowledge the humanity of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people we can get to a space where we can acknowledge the challenges and complexities we face together. Not just challenges and complexities for Indigenous Australia, but challenges and complexities for all Australians.

Further, we acknowledge a sense of Indigenous human capacity to rise above such challenges, as well as a sense of worthiness; Indigenous Australians afforded the right to an opportunity to rise. The extent to which we have been able to do this remains seriously questionable.

It is true that many millions have been thrown at the challenges in Indigenous policy: it is not true that those millions have been thrown in a way that adequately honours the humanity of Indigenous Australians.

When policy was devised to round Aboriginal people up, place them on missions, make them work, but siphon off their wages into government coffers, this signalled a lack of belief in the capacity of Aboriginal people to spend their own hard earned money. Despite being considered capable enough to work as domestics, farmhands and stockmen, we were not considered capable enough to spend the money we earned.

Such policy was fundamental to engineering the impoverishment of Aboriginal Australians, and today’s generations of Aboriginal people are still confronted by the legacy of dysfunction and chaos.

Up until the mid 1960’s in remote parts of Australia, Aboriginal stockmen were actively engaged in the economy. They could once be justly described as proud men, and they were the backbone of the pastoral industry. This is until the equal wages decision was brought down and decreed that Aboriginal stockman should be paid the same as their white Australian colleagues. The result was many of those proud Aboriginal stockmen, were put out of work and disengaged from that economy that once underpinned their pride. Something about white Australia at the time considered Aboriginal people unworthy of receiving equal wages.

Again this lack of belief in the worthiness of Aboriginal people played a significant part in engineering the impoverishment that still bears its legacy today… A legacy that somehow we as Aboriginal people are often blamed for by some white Australians who have no understanding, or no will to understand, the complexities of our joint past.

In subsequent times we saw the rhetoric of self-determination, with Aboriginal people supposedly able to make decisions about their lives. This is what some commentators like to refer to disparagingly as the ‘Coombs agenda’. Some critics would have us believe that the self-determination movement is responsible for all the ills that afflict Indigenous Australians. The inference is that if only we had stayed under the missionaries all would have been well. The reality, however, is that beneath the rhetoric of self-determination those decisions Indigenous communities make are only taken up if they are approved by the white people who sit above us. This is a reality even in the loftiest of heights for Aboriginal Australians.

We can hardly call this a high expectations relationship.

More recently the NT Intervention continued the pattern of signalling a lack of belief in the sense of capacity and worth of Aboriginal Australians. Thus it failed to acknowledge and honour the humanity of Aboriginal people in the NT. Aboriginal people in remote NT communities were considered so incapable that the army had to be sent in from the outside to fix them. Howard and Brough presented the facade of consultation, but in reality they were only in search of views that matched their thoughts about how despicable Aboriginal people in remote communities were. The result was policy process that did things to people, not with them. This is an approach that reveals a very limited belief in Aboriginal humanity. Today we see the Indigenous Affairs Minister making the same mistakes by fishing for incidental anecdotes from a few people here and there to validate such a diabolical and dishonourable policy processes.

We can hardly call this a high expectations relationship that signals a belief in the capacity and worth of Aboriginal people.

Admittedly the very concept of a high expectations relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia might seem extraordinarily complex, but my experience suggests it should not be. There are some profoundly fundamental aspects of such a relationship which are easily understood by many decent Australians. Let me give you some examples from a schools perspective.

Teachers who accept without question that black children are usually absent on Thursdays and Fridays collude with low expectations…

Teachers collude with high expectations when they challenge such behaviour and consistently visit parents to find out why they are away… when they make the effort to explain that they don’t want their children to be missing out on so many opportunities… when they engage in an authentic dialogue with children and parents to discover what they might need to change… when they reflect on their own classroom practice to consider what they might need to do differently… This is a marker of a high expectations relationship!

A teacher, whose first move when they encounter challenging behaviour from a particular child, is to find a way to stick a special needs label on them, is colluding with low expectations… The teacher signals a high expectations relationship when they reflect on their own classroom practice and learning environment to consider what they might need to adjust, before going down the route of special needs labels.

At Cherbourg School I introduced a curriculum reform package known as Dimensions of Learning led in Australia by Professor Richard Smith. One of the neat things about this is that it was the same curriculum reform being applied at Brisbane Grammar. I believed absolutely that whatever was good enough for students at the very flash Brisbane Grammar was just about good enough for children at Cherbourg.

This signalled a belief in the capacity of our children and that Aboriginal children deserve the very best that will enable them to develop to their fullest potential.

A very scripted curriculum program like Engelmann’s Direct Instruction would never be embraced at Brisbane Grammar, or any other high expectations learning environment, because it can only go as far as the script, written by some old guy in the USA, allows. This is a pedagogy for the poor that might deliver results that enable us to take up roles as domestics, farmhands or relatively unskilled workers, but can never seriously deliver an education that enables our children to be excellent.

It undermines the learning potential of children… and it severely undermines the teaching potential and professional integrity of teachers. It is an approach pursued only in places where we have surrendered our ability to attract quality teachers, and relinquished, if it existed at all, our capacity to perceive Aboriginal learners as potentially excellent.

This approach bears the stench of a low expectations relationship.

At Shepherdson College in East Arnhem Land.. under the leadership of Bryan Hughes, he has established an arrangement in which he is mentored by several old men from the community.

When he has a problem.. he goes to them.. says here is the challenge I am facing.. what do you think I should do?

They talk in their own language… and come back and say here is what we think is a solution.

This is an approach that signals belief in the capacity and worth of Aboriginal people.

Imagine how easy such approaches are…. and now imagine how consistently we have failed to do things like this…

Again here in the NT… in an effort to purge lazy and incompetent teachers who would struggle to get teaching positions in mainstream schools… under the leadership of Gary Barnes… the slogan to attract much required exceptional teachers has shifted from .. Come and teach in the territory and have an adventure.. with some vague reference to teaching in there somewhere.. TO… a slogan that says…

Are you good enough?

This is a marker of a high expectations relationship with Aboriginal communities… It is a catchcry that says Aboriginal children deserve the best… and we will not take anything less on their behalf… It is an approach that injects a much needed sense of integrity in our profession.

We observe collusion with low expectations in high schools where Indigenous students turn up at the school with hearts full of hope and then drop out after a few months. There is no fuss, there is no enquiry. Yet if this were happening to non-Indigenous students then heads would roll.

This is collusion with low expectations… a kind of toxicity that should not be tolerated.

It is always interesting to observe the sense of place of Indigenous people in Education. In schools…. it is sometimes the case that if you want to find Indigenous people, you have to go out the back… As blackfullas we have a saying that we are resilient enough to laugh about… Blacks out the back…

Amongst ourselves we laugh about this… but we also notice what it says about the extent to which we are regarded…

It is not only a sense of physical ‘place’ that lets us reflect on whether or not we are engaged in a high or low expectations relationship… A sense of ‘positional space’ can also signal the extent to which we are regarded in our sense of place in Education. To this end it is worth reflecting on whether or not Indigenous people are represented right across a broad spectrum of our sector… or indeed just pigeon holed into the ‘Indigenous area’ … as if this is the only place we can be utilised effectively.

At a higher level the Commonwealth’s National Partnerships program introduced by our Prime Minister when she was Education minister, and coupled with NAPLAN and MYSCHOOL, invests in complex schools and says that regardless of the complexity of your communities, you deserve the right to a good quality education.

This is a marker of a high expectations relationship.

In a high expectations relationship one must start by acknowledging and honouring the humanity of others. To reiterate, this fundamental first step in a relationship does two things. It signals a belief that one is worthy of that ‘fair go’ that many hold dearly as an Australian article of faith. It also signals a belief that Aboriginal people are capable of lifting themselves given the right opportunities to do so.

Honouring the humanity of others by signalling a belief in their sense of capacity and worth is the very basis of a productive relationship in which positive outcomes can almost be guaranteed. As a school principal I always set out to connect with the humanity of Aboriginal children and parents, regardless of the complexities they were located in, and even if they were coming to the relationship in a somewhat hostile manner. Clearly I was paid to be in the relationship and it was incumbent upon me to reach out positively. As we keep reaching out in an effort to connect with the other’s humanity, eventually they reach out to us and the potential for a positive partnership emerges.

In engaging the humanity of others, we also come in touch with our own humanity. As we connect at such a level we take our work more seriously and more personally.

In the words of Ian Mackie… when we make our work personal the question shifts from ‘What do we do with this child?’ to ‘What would I want done if this was my child?’

If we can connect with each others’ humanity we come to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people… are Australia’s people. At this point a high expectations relationship can and does emerge.

In such a relationship we must be sophisticated enough to understand and appreciate that at some levels we will have differences, all of which is great, and at another level we will be the same, which is also great.

Some however seemingly just can’t get this.

They will argue the need to somehow be ‘same’ at every level; that we should all just be Australians… the same… with none of this “divisive us and them” mentality. This is a view often promulgated by those fearful of difference and the ‘same’ they speak of is really … ‘same as them’.

This type of sameness they yearn for is not only impossible to achieve … it is dishonourable to pursue.

On the surface there might even appear some logic behind those same people who argue almost piously that it is not right to separate Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The inconvenient reality is … Health, education, justice and participation data has seen us unfairly separated for many decades now … let’s stop pretending here that we have enjoyed some sense of togetherness.

And in the past those same people were usually silent about the appalling degrees of separation in such statistics. It was a discrepancy that was either ignored by them… or confirmed their stifled belief about who Aboriginal people were, and what we were worthy of.

Being silent about shocking data that clearly revealed a sense of separation and ‘us and them’ back then … must surely stifle their right to be noisy today.

In simpler terms … If they shut their mouth about notions of ‘us and them’ in the past…. then really they should shut their mouth today.

A high expectations relationship requires policies, programs and processes that are both fair and firm. Being fair in a relationship requires time to observe and acknowledge the strengths of an individual or community. This enables us to contemplate ways of supporting, developing and embracing existing capacity, as opposed to assuming it is not there in the first place.

Let me remind you here of the example of Brian Hughes’ leadership at Shepherdson College.

Being firm in a relationship requires us to have courage and be prepared to challenge and intervene at times when individuals or communities are clearly not exercising their responsibilities appropriately.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when we only set about supporting and developing, without the courage to challenge and intervene. Such approaches allow governments to announce how much money they are throwing at particular challenges, with very little to say when it comes to announcing tangible outcomes.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when the only strategy we deploy is intervention, without a belief in individual and community strengths worth enabling and investing in. Such approaches allow governments to engage in the politically sexy approaches that see millions of dollars wasted on big stick approaches that offer little positive returns in terms of positive outcomes, compared to much cheaper and effective measures that see investment in positive high expectations relationships.

A relationship is anchored by high expectations when we have the compassion to be fair, by engaging in acknowledging and enabling processes when we can, as well as having the courage to be firm, by challenging and intervening when we need to.

In the lead in to this paper I promised I would address the role of education Institutions and the extent to which we prioritise identity issues for individual students, or the extent to which we prioritise the pursuit of literacy and numeracy outcomes and the development of standard Australian English.

I have seen some schools get distracted by the pursuit of Indigenous identity and language to the extent that we have rendered less important, the pursuit of improved outcomes in literacy and numeracy as well as functionality in Standard Australian English.

The casualty here of course is unfortunately… Aboriginal children, who may have a ‘nice’ experience at school, but not one that enables them to be functional and successful beyond their own community.

Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying here. I am not advocating a circumstance in which those leading in the schools should be closed minded and culturally insensitive.

All I am suggesting here is the need to be culturally sensitive without being professionally crippled, and the need to be open minded, but not so open minded that our brains fall out.

At this point let me refer you to the research of Professor Sven Silburn of the Menzies Centre for Child Health and Development who has recently completed a review of world’s best practice in teaching successfully in complex language environments.

Conversely… I have seen in places… schools focussed solely on improving literacy, numeracy and other conventional education outcomes, without the courage, commitment or ability to nurture a positive sense of identity.

Again this is a challenge that need not be so complex… It seems to me it has evolved as one of the binaries created for us… usually within the context of scarcity around resourcing… but also scarcity around professional capacity and knowledge.

It should simply not exist as a binary.

It is a bit like saying do we want practical reconciliation … or do we want symbolic reconciliation…. when the answer is … what is so hard and complex about having both?

In a schools context… do we want children to be strong culturally…. or do we want them to be smart academically… the real answer is… they have a human right to be strong and to be smart…. strong in their sense of cultural identity… and smart enough to be functional in any modern society.

Today I have articulated what I think are some challenges… with some seemingly complex at some level, yet profoundly basic at other levels.

There are many exceptional people in the room here today… and it was never my intention to come here and give you all the answers… as I am quite certain many of you know what you are doing..

Rather… my role here this morning was simply to inject some issues for consideration in your subsequent discussions for the remainder of this conference.

I hope you have found some of these insights useful.

Let me conclude by touching upon the necessity for hope.

A stronger smarter future for Indigenous Australian children is possible and we should offer them nothing less.

As leaders in education we must deliberately to turn our backs on the narratives of despair. Chief among these is the narrative “We’ve tried everything and nothing works”. These prophets of despair are usually never convincing when they tell you what they actually have tried, they simply repeat that tired old mantra that is so lacking in integrity, “We’ve tried everything and nothing works”.

If we must be guided by people from the USA, let us be guided by people like Martin Seligman and instead learn and inspire optimism. In Australia let us be guided by school leaders such as Bryan Hughes of Shepherdson college.

Let us be guided by school leaders such as Jane Cameron from Glenroi Heights in Orange NSW, who has successfully engaged parents in early learning processes;

– By Michael Hansen at Cairns West offering benchmark guarantees to Indigenous parents and students;
– By Richard Barrie whose leadership has seen the most dramatic improvement on NAPLAN in Queensland;
– By Simon Cotton of Yarrabah who is determined to deliver excellence;
– By Paul and Donna Bridge, leading on a stronger smarter agenda for excellence across the Kimberly.
– By Dyonne Anderson who transformed Cabbage Tree Island Public School in Northern NSW.

I have seen enough now across Australia to know that when school leaders and teachers believe they can make a difference … they make a difference!

Acknowledging the humanity of Indigenous Australians means we must begin with the assumption that parents are willing to support us; that children are willing to learn; that teachers are capable; and above all that we can and will provide a quality education to all Indigenous Australians.

In a high expectations relationship we can do this.


4 Responses

  1. Beautiful, beautiful! Am sharing this one around. Inspiring words.

  2. Fantastic. I couldn’t agree more. I especially empathised with the observation of schools where cultural emphasis over-rides academic achievement. I am thinking of some campuses in the Torres Strait, where this thinking underpins a low expectations relationship. Unfortunately, between culture and sport, many children don’t seem to learn a great deal to equip them for higher learning and far too many end up at high school on the mainland struggling until they fall pregnant or are expelled. It is very sad and so unnecessary and a waste of human potential.

  3. Excellent work Chris, great to see Stronger Smarter institute starting to speak the language of people and country!
    I would also like to acknowledge the strength and determination of the women elders from Fitzroy Crossing, for there commitment to confront the communities issues.
    Peter D
    Kununurra WA

  4. […] written off Alex as too hard to manage and has agreed to send him to the Learning Support Team. Chris Sarra argues that: “a teacher whose first move when they encounter challenging behaviour from a […]

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