Rural and Remote
Education Inquiry Briefing Paper
A. History of Indigenous education
The first school
for Aboriginal children was established as an experiment by Governor Macquarie
in Parramatta in 1815. It soon failed and was closed in 1823. The 1840s
were the years when 'native' schools were first established in Western
and South Australia.
A British Government
Royal Commission in 1837 inquired into the conditions of Aboriginal people
in Australia and recommended that a protectorate system should be established
and that "the education of the young will of course be amongst the foremost
of the cares of the missionaries". By the middle of the century the protectorate
system had failed.
During the second
half of the 19th century Aboriginal reserves were created. Some were set
aside for missions while others were administered by local police. By
1911 the Northern Territory and every State except Tasmania had 'protective'
legislation which established a Chief Protector or a Protection Board
with extensive powers over Aboriginal people. Families who had lived and
worked independently, for example as farmers on land granted by the Crown,
were evicted and forced into reserves or town fringe camps.
In the Territory
and a number of States the legislation made the Protector or the Board
the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. The people were required
to live on reserves and needed permission to leave and to move to other
reserves. Children were separated from their parents to dormitories on
the same or on other reserves. In some cases the children were removed
to specially established training institutions prior to being placed in
domestic (for girls) or labouring (for boys) employment at about the age
of 13 or 14.
The education they
received was organised and provided by the Protector or Board separately
from that provided to non-Indigenous children. Many of their teachers
were not trained and the regular State curriculum was not used.
Some children did
enter the public school system. For example, in NSW in 1880 there were
an estimated 200 Aboriginal children in the public school system.2
In 1883 the NSW Department of Public Instruction established schools on
two of the State's larger Aboriginal reserves.3 A rough census
in 1889 revealed, however, that only 428 Aboriginal children in the State
- 15% of all Aboriginal children - were receiving any instruction at all.4
It was common at
this time for schools to refuse to admit Aboriginal children if the parents
of non-Indigenous pupils objected. To cope with those excluded from the
State systems, the Protection Boards and Aborigines Departments were forced
to establish separate Aboriginal-only schools.5 By 1940 in
NSW, for example, there were 40 Aboriginal schools.6
A national conference
in 1937 adopted the assimilation policy which resolved, among other things,
that the "efforts of all State authorities should be directed towards
the education of children of mixed aboriginal blood at white standards,
and their subsequent employment under the same conditions as whites with
a view to their taking their place in the white community on an equal
footing with the whites".
and their children were more likely to be left to their own devices on
the now-dwindling reserves. 'Mixed blood' or 'half-caste' children removed
from their families mostly continued, however, to be confined to Aboriginal
institutions rather than sharing orphanages and other children's institutions
with non-Aboriginal children.
Witnesses to the
National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Children from their Families reported that they had received "little or
no education, and certainly little of any value".7
was provided generally aimed at completion of their schooling at the level
achieved by a ten year old child in the State education system. It emphasised
domestic science and manual training, thus preparing the children for
a future as menial workers within the government or mission communities
or as cheap labour in the wider community.8
The 1940s saw the
introduction of exemption certificates, commonly called 'dog licences.
These certificates exempted Aboriginal people who proved they were responsible
and could live independently from the rigorous control of the Protection
Boards and Aborigines Departments. They were certificates of citizenship.
Children of exempted parents were supposed to be admitted to State schools.9
The continued to be routinely excluded, however, on health and cleanliness
It was not until
the 1950s and 1960s that the Aboriginal schools were gradually closed
and that State schools were opened to Aboriginal children generally. That
move followed a reformulation of the assimilation policy at a national
native welfare conference in 1951.11
declined from about the 1950s with a greater use of foster care and adoption.
This is not to say that institutionalisation ended, however. For example,
6 institutions were opened in Victoria in 1961 to cater for the growing
numbers of Aboriginal children removed from their families.12
In NSW the Cootamundra Girls Home did not close until 1969. The dormitory
system survived in some parts of WA into the 1970s.13 It was
not until the 1980s that Aboriginal children who could not stay with their
own families were placed with other Aboriginal families as a matter of
In 1989 the Commonwealth
launched the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education
Policy. This was the first policy on Indigenous education formally endorsed
by any national government. It had four objectives
- to ensure Aboriginal
involvement in educational decisions making
- to provide equality
of access for Aboriginal people to education services
- to raise the rates
of Aboriginal participation in education to those for all Australians
- to achieve equitable
and appropriate educational outcomes for Aboriginal people.
Committee of the Legislative Assembly upon Aborigines, Second Report,
NSW Parliament, 1981, page 172.
3 Id, page 173.
4 Id, page 174.
5 See, for example, id, page 175; Commissioner Pat Dodson,
Regional Report of Inquiry into Underlying Issues in Western Australia,
AGPS, 1991, page 563 (part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths
7Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, page 170.
8Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, pages 170-171.
9 See, for example, the NSW Select Committee's Second Report,
11 It was not until 1972, however, that principals' right to
remove children from their school on the ground of 'home conditions' was
finally repealed in NSW: id, page 183.
12Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, page 62.
13 Commissioner Pat Dodson's report, page 564.
updated 2 December 2001.