Aboriginal Education in Rural Australia: A Case Study in Frustration and Hope

By Eckermann, Anne-Katrin | Australian Journal of Education, April 1999 | Go to article overview
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Aboriginal Education in Rural Australia: A Case Study in Frustration and Hope

Eckermann, Anne-Katrin, Australian Journal of Education

THIS paper considers patterns in Aboriginal education recorded over the past 25 years in one small country town in south west Queensland. Data from this longitudinal study are used to illustrate national patterns and trends. Discussion highlights the levels of systemic bias and structural violence which continue to obstruct positive developments adapting the largely monocultural education system to the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal communities. Particular Aboriginal community initiated innovations related to school/community relations and the teaching of Aboriginal studies are examined and analysis is related to general factors influencing these important components of Aboriginal education.


To understand Aboriginal education in Australia, it is necessary to locate it within the history of indigenous people since colonisation. Since 1788, Australian Aboriginal people have been exposed to a barrage of socio-economic-political-cultural influences which have led to rapid and often traumatic socio-cultural change. Such change was marked by a series of specific policy eras including segregation/protection, assimilation, integration, self-determination and self-management.

Until some 25 years ago, these policies were based in and supported by scientific and institutional racism. Scientific racism (Gould, 1988) justified dispossession and land alienation. As government control extended, institutional racism (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1967) entrenched discriminatory legislation intent on controlling, protecting and `uplifting' the minority.

Thus segregation and `protection' directed indigenous life chances on reserves, missions and fringe settlements until the 1930s and the various state native protection acts aimed to `train', `civilise', `uplift' and `Christianise' the `Natives' (Reynolds, 1989; Rowley, 1971). At this time, Aboriginal education was either non-existent or confined to lower primary school grades taught in segregated, poorly staffed `black' schools (Rowley, 1971).

Although assimilation became the unspoken policy (to be enacted in 1951) in 1939 (Rogers, 1973), government control intensified during the Depression when many self-supporting, independent Aboriginal people, who had avoided the influence of reserves and missions, were forcibly relocated on reserves with the justification that they required `training', by segregation and in isolation, before they could be admitted to citizenship and `equal opportunity' (Quinlan, 1983; Rowley, 1971). Education for Aboriginal people continued to be largely segregated and intent on preparing Aboriginal youth for work as servants and manual labourers and to instil in them the virtues of Christianity (Crawford, 1993).

In 1951, the Assimilation Policy was introduced to ensure that Aboriginal people would join the Australian society, `enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and being influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties' (Lippmann, 1992, p.38). In reality, the policy perpetuated the framework of protection and segregation. Thus throughout the 1950s, 1960s and up to 1975, the Native Welfare and later the various Aboriginal and Islander Advancement Acts in Queensland (McCorquodale, 1987) continued to control many Aboriginal people's movements, employment, ability to access and manage their income and raise their children. Similar controls were built into legislation directed towards Aboriginal people in other states, for example, the Northern Territory Welfare and Wards' Employment Act (1953) (Lippmann, 1992) and the activities of various Aboriginal welfare boards (McGrath, 1995).

During this latter period of the Assimilation Policy, Aboriginal children began to enter mainstream schools. Like most western education systems attempting to cope with the needs and aspirations of culturally different children, Australian schools were, at the time, deeply influenced by the deficit model of education which squarely placed the `blame' for minority group children's poor educational attainments on their socialisation, family patterns, cultural traditions and socio-economic situation (Eckermann & Kerr, 1979; Ryan, 1976).

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Aboriginal Education in Rural Australia: A Case Study in Frustration and Hope


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