"Clean, Clad and Courteous" Revisited: A Review History of 200 Years of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales

By Reynolds, Richard J. | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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"Clean, Clad and Courteous" Revisited: A Review History of 200 Years of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales

Reynolds, Richard J., The Journal of Negro Education

The state of New South Wales has, over a period of two centuries, tried policies ranging from indifference, segregation and protection, through assimilation and compensatory programs to the present era where some believe self-determination and self-management will provide answers to education problems due to lack of consultation, inappropriate curriculums, unsupportive environments, racial stereotyping, and discrimination. This article reviews the 200-year history of aboriginal education in New South Wales.

The "clean, clad and courteous" criterion for many years was the rule of thumb for the admission of aboriginal children to government schools. Clean, Clad and Courteous is also the title of a book by J. J. Fletcher (1989) on the history of aboriginal education in New South Wales.


There are two distinct groups of indigenous peoples in Australia: Aborigines, who inhabit rural and remote regions of Australia some of whom have, more recently, settled in the suburbs of the larger cities that dot the coastline, and Torres Strait Islanders, who live on a series of islands off the Northeast coast and the adjoining mainland. This latter group played little or no part in the early history of White attempts to educate indigenous Australians.

Without an examination of the historical context of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education it is difficult to fully appreciate the current state of affairs. The history of the "Stolen Generation," treated at the end of this article, helps one to put in context the aboriginal resistance to 'Western' education. To this day, the educational needs of aboriginal children are still affected by the vestiges of history. Additionally, they are influenced by their culture and a heritage of disadvantage and alienation.


For 60,000 years or more, before the arrival of Europeans in Australia, Aborigines had a form of education that enabled them to successfully transmit their culture and way of life. This was a nonliterate society; therefore, knowledge about the land and survival, kinship, and religious matters was not written down. There was no formal schooling; education took place and was designed to enable the Aborigines to survive as hunter/food gatherers and maintain their social and religious traditions. Knowledge was held and transmitted by the elders and treasured by the recipients. Learning was a matter of observation and imitation and to a lesser extent of verbal instruction (Select Committee on Aboriginal Education, 1985).

Aboriginal society was disrupted and almost destroyed by the arrival of Europeans in the latter years of the 18th century. From that arrival, the settlement of Eastern Australia by Europeans led to conflict among the indigenous population, the settlers and the convicts (Keneally, 2007). Working from the British legal principle of terra nullius - meaning, no one's land - settlers erroneously assumed that because the land was neither used for grazing nor agriculture, it was unclaimed and, therefore, available for settlement. British sovereignty was proclaimed and Aborigines were dispossessed (Keneally, 2007).

Early hostilities developed, leading Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the colony of New South Wales (NSW), which at that time covered all of Eastern Australia, to attempt some form of pacification. Because there was violence on both sides, harsh punishments for recalcitrant natives were not favored by Phillip or the colonial administration in London. In 1814, when the uproar again flared in the colony, Governor Lachlan Macquarie entertained the idea of establishing "a native institution or school for Aboriginal children" (Fletcher, 1989, p. 14).

From their early experiences with Aborigines, the colonists came to differing conclusions. There was considerable ideological speculation of 'nature vs. nurture': Was aboriginal nature inherited or environmentally determined?

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"Clean, Clad and Courteous" Revisited: A Review History of 200 Years of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales


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