My mum dreamt of being an archaeologist when she was a child. It was an ambition she was denied, not because she was intellectually incapable but because she was only allowed to stay at school until year 3. When I asked her why, she replied: “I guess they just thought of us as uncivilised natives, and that we weren’t capable of learning.”
My mother was sold short by low _ or rather no _ expectations of Aboriginal people. This attitude persisted in my time at school. Handing back a test, my year 11 teacher joked: “Sarra got 75 per cent. Must have been an easy test!” I laughed along with the rest of the class, and it was only years later when I was studying to be a teacher that I questioned whether or not my teachers’ expectations had stifled my sense of who I was and what I could achieve. On reflection I was being sold short and I sold myself short.
Thankfully the attitudes my mother and I faced at school are less prevalent today for Aboriginal children. My sense from visiting a lot of remote schools in recent years is that these attitudes are dwindling and a sense of belief is emerging that Indigenous children can achieve as well at school as any other child, given access to good quality schooling with good quality teachers.
Notwithstanding a tendency for low expectations still pervades, often cloaked in a well-intentioned but misguided belief to protect indigenous culture and communities. There’s a romantic view about retaining the traditional languages and culture in remote communities by shielding them from the rest of the world. This in itself reflects a stifled view of such children and their communities. These are very dynamic communities; they’re not insular and disconnected from the rest of Australia.
Whether one supports the national literacy and numeracy tests, NAPLAN, or not, to argue that Aboriginal kids in remote communities should be judged by a different standard or measure than the rest of the community is collusion with the same low expectations my mother and I faced. At best it’s naïve, at worst it’s offensive and racist.
Remote communities are interconnected with mainstream Australia, and have to be. Whether people have to leave their community to go the city for dialysis, or buy in goods and services, they are part of the rest of Australia and need good English language skills.
Speaking, reading and writing in English should not come at the expense of pride in and knowledge of our own culture and languages. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact they must live hand-in-hand in our communities, and in our people.
That’s why we talk about Strong and Smart in our work at the Stronger Smarter Institute. It’s about retaining a sense of culture and at the same time a level of competency in standard Australian English.
The argument that not giving kids access to Australian English lets them enhance their sense of culture and retain their self-identity is a naïve point of view. If remote communities are more competent in standard Australian English, it actually creates the scope for them to strengthen their cultural identity. It enables them to access the internet, to read books about other cultures and compare the similarities and differences. It allows them to record and research aspects of their culture, to capture the stories of their grandparents. All of that requires a level of competence in English and if we don’t offer them that, we could be accused of actually undermining cultural knowledge and identity.
That’s the Strong part. The Smart part is if Aboriginal kids don’t become proficient in Australian English, we effectively shape them as interesting to others as anthropological subjects, functional only in that discrete local community, and completely dysfunctional outside that community. What happens when kids have to leave the APY lands in South Australia to take their parents to Adelaide for dialysis? They’re rendered dysfunctional in a mainstream Australian community because some well meaning expert thought it would be a nice thing just to focus on Indigenous culture in school.
Aboriginal kids whether they’re living in remote communities or in metropolitan areas of our biggest cities deserve access to standards of literacy that will enable them to be functional in any part of Australia. They have to be as competent as anybody else in the community judged by whatever measure of success we choose. The same measuring stick used to judge success at school for white Australian children has to be the same measuring stick used for us as well.
In addition to this, such assessment is enhanced when we develop ways to understand and appreciate the strengths of Aboriginal children. For instance, while NAPLAN can and should give us a sense of where a 9-year-old Aboriginal child is in terms of English competency, it cannot ever appreciate and reflect their amazing problem solving ability, resilience, or the fact they can speak 3 sophisticated Aboriginal languages.
We owe it to the kids to give them the educational opportunities to enable them to be functional in Australian society and at the same time retain their cultural identity. In my travels, I’ve visited many remote communities and I haven’t come across one Aboriginal parent who didn’t want their kids to speak good English.
Every human being should have the choice. If we don’t give them the same skills as the rest of the community, we’re effectively robbing them of that choice, and we have no right do that.
My intent here is not to start or continue and argument about whether schools in remote Aboriginal communities should just focus on making children strong in their culture, or alternatively just focus on making them smart enough to be functional in a modern Australia. My intent here is to stop such spurious arguments by eradicating any confusion. This is not about one or the other. This is about both. As an Aboriginal man and as an educator I am asserting a human right that our schools must be committed to making our children strong and to be smart.
Chris Sarra is an Aboriginal man and educator, and founder and chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute.