They are our children, this is our community

AIATSIS Research Symposium on Bilingual Education

Tom Calma
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

National Museum of Australia, Canberra

26 June 2009

"They are our children, this is our community."
- Yirrkala Action Group 28 April 2009

Good morning friends, supporters, Dr’s Peter Toyne and Lester-Irabinna Rigney and distinguished guests. I would also like to acknowledge my Indigenous sisters and brothers who have travelled here to be with us and to share your experiences and stories.

I begin by paying my respects to All the traditional owners of the land where we gather today. I pay my respects to your elders, to the ancestors and to those who have come before us. And thanks you Aunty Matilda House for your generous and warm welcome.

I’d also like to begin by commending AIATSIS for convening this symposium. It is actions like these that can have an impact on policy and lead to positive change – but more on that later.

The title of this presentation: “They are our children, this is our community” is a quote from Yolgnu parents and community members – spoken in response to the government policy aimed at dismantling Bilingual education.

“They are our children, this is our community” is a powerful statement of self determination – as well as a commitment to take responsibility for the health and well-being of the next generation, and, in fact, all generations of people in the community.

We Aboriginal people should use words like these more often – yes they are our children, yes these are our communities – and these are our futures, our cultures, our languages and our lives – and we want to preserve them for future generations.

Today I am going to extrapolate on this theme of taking control over our lives and valuing our culture – something that I think is exemplified in Bilingual education approaches. The Bilingual approach bestows many educational advantages. We know that it is a language learning medium – and we know that it provides opportunities for students to become literate in two languages. We also know that language is the medium through which culture is transmitted. I will leave it to the linguists to discuss the cognitive advantages of the Bilingual language model – because this morning I want to focus on the cultural advantages that are bestowed by the Bilingual approach.

So, In the first part of this presentation I aim to demonstrate the links between strength in culture and resilience in children. And to use government speak, I will point to this resilience as a key learning outcome.

In the second part of the presentation I will outline the extensive government promises to give our people a say in education, and I will explore some strategies for holding governments to their promises.

So first, let’s consider the importance of resilience in learning and its relationship to Bilingual education. Earlier this month I went to a National Summit at Parliament House entitled: Resilience for Children 0 – 13 years.

The Summit brought together 80 leaders in children's health, education, media and recreation – to develop strategies for establishing a culture that will build children's resilience, mental health and wellbeing.

Resilience was described as the quality that allows us to withstand and rebound from adversity. When we develop resilience in children, we teach them to problem-solve and to accept and address life’s challenges.

A lot of what we heard at the Summit was that resilience can be built and developed in children – but it is most likely to flourish when children are raised in a safe living and learning environment – in the home, the school and the community.

The nurturing environment begins at the pre-birth stage, and follows on through pregnancy, babyhood, early learning and schooling.

We heard that investment in resilience in the early years is investment for adulthood. Speakers at the Summit emphasised the need for the child to develop abilities beyond rote learning, something which is strongly supported by research.[1] Resilience in children is experiential – it requires pre-conditions which allow the child to integrate the skills of communication, negotiation and problem-solving in many environments. The child needs key building blocks to strengthen his or her ability to be resilient, to ‘bounce back’ from adversity. These building blocks can create vital, protective factors.[2]

We heard that resilience is linked to experiences which enable us to take some control over our life and circumstances. It helps when children have consistency in relationships as this creates a secure base for the child.

The child’s sense of identity is a crucial factor in resilience. Young people need to know and understand who they are, where they belong, and to whom they are important. One doesn’t have to go deep into the research to find that support and coherence between the family life and the wider society are predictors for resilience in children.[3] In other words, an integrated environment that links the culture of the child and the family to the wider society will assist children to become emotionally and spiritually healthy and more able to operate in different environments.[4]

So, what has this got to do with Bilingual education? Well we know that Bilingual education is about integrating the knowledge systems of the pre-schooler into the learning environment of the school. It is about creating a fluid learning process where the child begins formal schooling speaking the mother tongue and exploring known concepts of the home before moving to new knowledge areas and introducing the second language. This is scaffolded learning.

A child that is able to make the connections between each phase of learning and development is more likely to be able to transfer the skills from one phase to the next. According to what we heard at the Summit – this, in effect, is a precondition that assists children to develop resilience.

If you separate the world of the home from the school – a consequence of dismantling Bilingual education – you fracture or fragment the relationship between the home and the school cultures. In effect, you reduce the preconditions that create resilience in children. You take away the means for children to have control over their learning and their environment.

So there I was in Canberra at this Summit, with some of the biggest thinkers on childhood development, all espousing the value of integrating the learning and development processes of early childhood.... and here we are today, fighting to have these very things retained in Bilingual schools. It really makes you wonder...

And it is not just at places like the Summit that we hear about the importance of retaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in schools. The government’s own studies pile up on this topic. You cannot read a single government policy or document about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education that does not include statements about the importance of valuing and integrating culture in the learning environment.

There is abundant evidence that demonstrates this point. In 2008 a MCEETYA study assessed programs that transition Indigenous children to primary school. It found common characteristics among successful programs. They are:

  • a focus on relationship building
  • a meaningful, relevant and challenging curriculum that makes clear the benefits that school can provide
  • valuing Indigenous culture within the program and school, and
  • recognising the strengths within Indigenous communities and tapping into existing programs and networks.[5]

The transitional periods in education are crucial in developing educational confidence and learning competence in children.

Developing confidence and aptitude at moments of transition is surely an essential educational outcome.

In trying to dismantle Bilingual education – the NT Government has done more than vandalise a program that was teaching children to be culturally literate in two languages and two cultures. It has torn at the fabric of the relationships between Aboriginal people and governments... again... The NT Government has damaged the trust and enthusiasm with which Aboriginal people have offered our languages and culture into school classrooms.

And on that point, I’d like to move onto the second theme of my discussion this morning – and that is the nature and the extent of government promises and commitments to us about education – particularly Bilingual education. I want to explore this issue of trust and consistency in agreements and reveal what is obvious to most of us – the enormous chasm between the rhetoric and the action of Australian governments, particularly the NT Government.

There are many levels of agreement and promises which purportedly support the right of Aboriginal people to retain Bilingual education.

Firstly in the international arena, this government has made some promises to allow us to control our education systems. As many of you know, on the 3rd of April 2009, the Australian Government issued its formal support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In doing so, the Australian Government agreed to the following:

Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

The international promise to respect and value culture in education is reiterated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In signing this treaty, Australian governments committed to, and I quote:

the development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living...

These are big promises, to which, as a state, they are expected to abide.

At the national level the Commonwealth Government has also made firm commitment to reflect diverse linguistic and cultural approaches in education. Paragraph 82 of the Australian Labor Party’s National Platform reads:

Labor supports bi-lingual and bi-cultural education and believes they have value for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Well you can’t be clearer than that.

Now let’s look at the Territory level and the commitments made there. In the first instance there is the Northern Territory’s own Indigenous Education Strategic Plan which says at Priority 3, and I quote:

Incorporate Indigenous perspectives into teaching programs and deliver high quality Indigenous languages and culture programs.

It goes on to say:

DEET believes introducing a greater focus on Indigenous languages and culture programs in NT schools will improve Indigenous student outcomes by... increasing the level of engagement of Indigenous people in schools.[6]

It is hard to know how to respond to this Strategic Plan – are we to believe what we read?

And then there are the Ministerial statements endorsing partnerships with Aboriginal people. In August 2005 the then NT Minister for Education, Sid Stirling said this: overcome the disconnection between the aspirations of the community and the direction of schooling and training... My vision is for a genuine partnership between Indigenous parents, students and those responsible for the education of young Indigenous Territorians with a view to better life outcomes for Indigenous people...

To progress this vision, the then Deputy Chief Minister, Marion Scrymgour was working to establish Community Partnership Education Boards. She said this about the Partnership Boards:

These structures must allow communities to assume more responsibility and accountability for the delivery of quality education and training services by empowering them to coordinate the effective use of resources and expertise. The new approaches to partnerships must allow groups of Indigenous communities to form regional governance structures that can act as consumer representative fund holders with responsibility for purchasing education and training services for their communities.

As we all know, Marion Scrymgour has resigned from the NT Labor Party, saying, amongst other things, that decision to dismantle Bilingual education was a mistake. It’s a sad irony that Aboriginal people have suffered at both ends of this ill-thought and contradictory policy process.

Some of you here were at the signing of the first Remote Learning Partnership Agreement at Garma in 2007. I was a witness to it – the first big broken promise. The Partnership Agreement was to be a contract between the NT Government and the Yampirrpa School Council to establish a self-managing school.

And now we know that the NT Government has reneged on its part of this agreement by attempting to do away with Bilingual education. The status of the Yampirrpa agreement is now in limbo.

You can’t get away with reneging on a contract in business without consequences. So what can we say then about the capriciousness of the NT government – what is the worth of their contractual commitments? Is this a lack of planning or incompetence?

In dismantling Bilingual education – Australia is in breach of its international obligations. Our international report card reflects this.

In May this year, the United Nations assessed Australia’s compliance with Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and had this to say:

The Committee notes with concern that according to the National Indigenous Languages Survey, only about 145 of the original estimated 250 indigenous languages exist in the State today, and most of them are critically endangered...

The Committee recommends that: a) the State party strengthen its efforts to guarantee the indigenous peoples' rights under articles 1 and 15 to enjoy their identity and culture, including the preservation of their traditional languages ... [through amongst other measures] ... preserving and promoting bilingual education at schools...

I sincerely hope the governments of Australia take heed of this UN recommendation.

It was somewhat of a cruel irony for me to read last week that NSW schools are to offer bilingual education in Asian languages. Yes, the NSW government is funding a four-year $2.25 million program starting in 2010.

The NSW Education Minister Verity Firth was reported as saying the program was vital to the state's future economic and social prosperity and the language lessons would start in kindergarten. She said:

...students will learn the grammatical components of Mandarin and will also be taught other subjects such as creative arts, health and technology in that language[7]

These policy inconsistencies and hypocrisies are extremely disheartening for Aboriginal people. Unfortunately we are all too familiar with promises that are not kept – and government’s seem to think they can get away with it.

So how do we hold governments to their promises?

One way to do this is to develop powerful coalitions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are prepared to stand up and question bad policy, and more importantly, be involved in creating better policy.

While we do not as yet have a representative body at the national level – though we are working on it – we do have some forums for guiding and developing policy. I’ll give you an example about a process to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice in health policy.

In my annual Social Justice Report to Parliament in 2005 I proposed a new approach to achieve health equality within a generation. I proposed that there be a target to achieve equal life expectancy rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples within 25 years. I argued that we needed to have equal access to primary health care and health infrastructure within a decade.

I proposed that there be targets set to measure progress and to hold governments, and other service providers, accountable for their obligations to Indigenous peoples and to ensure that health (and other) policy was realistic, and capable of meeting the level of need among our communities. And I did this by articulating a human rights based approach to health.

This eventually grew into the Close the Gap campaign, a non-government and community led initiative that began in 2006. The Campaign was developed by a coalition of Indigenous and non Indigenous health experts from peak bodies across the nation. It became a voice that was hard to ignore – though the previous government managed to do so.

Today it is a standard government policy, agreed through the Council of Australian Governments and backed by significant commitments of new funding and with reporting mechanisms. The Prime Minister himself delivers a Close the Gap progress report on the first day of Parliament each year.

More relevant to our concerns here today, I am pleased to say that there have now been preliminary discussions about how the ‘Close the Gap’ approach can be applied to Indigenous education. Already, the Australian Education Union, the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU, the National Indigenous Higher Education Council and senior Indigenous education professionals have started this conversation together. I hope we will see further developments in this regard in the coming year.

I will keep you posted and we may need the voices of people here to assist.

We can be powerful when we join our voices. While we may want different things in different places – we all want self determination. We all want to manage education in ways that best suit the needs of our children. And in saying that, can I go back to one of my opening statements and reiterate my appreciation that AIATSIS has brought us together at this symposium. This symposium may well lead to further action – and this is where we see change.

We have to be able to hold governments to account for bad policy. In my view the policy to enforce four hours of English in all Northern Territory schools is bad policy, It is bad on a number of levels. It is bad because it is simply impractical. How can you teach English to a majority of students who speak another language? It is bad because it reduces the capacity for Aboriginal children to develop resilience. It is bad because it erodes the potential for the continuation of our languages and cultures. It is bad because it reduces the potential for students to develop a second language literacy. It is bad because it has damaged relationships between Aboriginal people and governments. And It is bad because it was conceived in bad faith and it contradicts existing agreements between Aboriginal people and government.

When governments make bad policy they should own up to it. To keep implementing a policy that is practically, educationally, ethically and morally wrong is absurd.

This approach is what Lieutenant General John Sanderson, Chairman of the Indigenous Implementation Board in Western Australia calls, ‘riding a dead horse’. In a recent speech at the University of Western Australia, the Lieutenant General urged that “if you find yourself riding a dead horse, the best policy is to dismount”[8]. I agree entirely.

As we know, education theory changes over time. There are no real orthodoxies – even for the teaching of English. There are still arguments over the whole word and the phonics approach. You may have seen the 7.30 Report recently – and a two part interview with one of the architects of Blair’s education revolution in Britain – Sir Ken Robinson. He argues that education systems around the world are too narrow, backward looking and too often ignore the talents of students. He said a couple of things that I found very interesting.

Firstly, he said this, and I quote:

... every education system in the world currently is being reformed. I know it's true here in Australia, but it's true wherever you go – Asia, Europe, America. And it's happening for two reasons. One of them is economic; everybody's trying to figure out – as parents and as employers and as students – how on Earth do you educate people to find a productive life in the 21st Century, when all the economies are shifting faster than we've known them. So the economic thing is really important. But it's also about culture, about how do you give people a sense of identity and what do they need to know to be literate and fluent in these extraordinary times as well. The thing is that most reform movements are looking backwards; they're looking back to the old system that was the result of the industrial revolution.

And then he goes on to say:

You can't achieve educational improvement for everybody with a standard template. In the end, every child goes to a particular school, works in a particular classroom with particular teachers. You know, this doesn't happen in the committee rooms of Canberra. This happens in these neighbourhoods with these kids. And great head teachers always knew that. And what I would like to see is politicians giving teachers room to breathe and do the job they're being paid for. And instead what they aim to do is to try and make education teacher-proof, as if it's all machine minding.

What policymakers tend to do is focus on the curriculum and then they focus on maths, science and languages, and leave the rest. And then they go to assessment and they do standardised tests, as if the whole thing were like pumping out widgets. And the bit they leave is the only bit that will ever make a difference which is the quality of teaching. (end quote)

So what this tells me is that there are no certainties in education, except for the need for good teachers who have room to breathe. Given that governments do not have all the answers, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we need to be certain that we keep the things that are valuable to us. We mustn’t bow under the pressure of the latest policy. Governments can keep arguing about the approaches and pedagogies but if we want language and culture – we should hold fast.

I’d like to conclude with some definitions from the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC). The definitions are taken from a continuum of protective factors in culture. At one end of the cultural proficiency spectrum we have:

Holding culture in high esteem: seeking to add to the knowledge base of culturally competent practice by conducting research, influencing approaches to care, and improving relations between cultures. [This] promotes self determination

At the other end of the continuum, – is cultural destructiveness – that is characterised by:

Intentional attitudes, policies and practices that are destructive to cultures and consequently to individuals within the culture[9]

The Northern Territory Government would do well to read this publication, along with the hundreds of education policies, including its own – and come to grips with what makes a healthy learning environment for children – one that values their identity and their potential to make a unique contribution to the world.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, guardians and children have to feel part of the system, if we are to benefit from the system.

Remember, from self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes hope. And if we can engender hope we build resilience and resilience is essential for our kids to thrive.

Thank you

[1] Grotberg, E., Resilience and Culture/Ethnicity, Examples from Sudan, Namibia, and Armenia, Paper presented at the Regional Conference, International Council of Psychologists, "Cross-cultural Perspectives on Human Development," Padua, Italy, 21-23 July 1997. At (Viewed 22 June 2009)

[2] Dent M., Real Kids in an Unreal World: Building Resilience and Self Esteem in Today’s Chaotic World, extract at: (Viewed 22 June 2009)

[3] Utsey S., Bolden M., Lanier Y., Williams O., Examining the Role of Culture-Specific Coping as a Predictor of Resilient Outcomes in African Americans From High-Risk Urban Communities, Journal of Black Psychology 2007 33: 75-93. Extract online at: (Viewed 22 June 2009)

[4] Maclean K., Resilience: What it is and how children and young people can be helped to develop it, CYC Online, Issue 62 March 2004 At: (Viewed 22 June 2009)

[5] Dockett S, Perry B, Mason T, Simpson T, Howard P, Whitton D., 2008, Successful transition programs from prior-to-school to school for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Melbourne, MCEETYA Publication

[6] Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training, Indigenous Education Strategic Plan 2006-2009, Northern Territory Government. At (Viewed 22 June 2009)

[7] Schools to offer Bilingual Education, 15 June 2009

[8] Lieutenant General John Sanderson, AC. 29 April 2009. Speech at the Local Government and Indigenous Communities Conference, University of Western Australia.

[9] Bamblett M., Protecting Culture and Protecting the Future for Our Children, Secretariat of National Aboriginal, and Islander Child Care (SNAICC). At (Viewed 23 June 2009)