Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Community Education Officers' Fight for Agency and Equality: A Historical Overview

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Community Education Officers' Fight for Agency and Equality: A Historical Overview

Article excerpt


Aboriginal Community Education Officers (ACEOs) have significantly shaped Indigenous education in Australia, despite the absence of literature on their impact in schooling and educational policy. Arguably, this significant contribution is limited to oral accounts of which only certain narratives have gained publication. This paper draws on ACEOs' personal narratives and outlines a history of their struggle for recognition and appropriate working conditions in South Australia since the 1940s. While work has been published on the role and work of ACEOs in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, the main focus of the paper is on South Australia, but it refers to some of the comprehensive literature across the various jurisdictions.

ACEO roles include care and educational support for Indigenous students in schools, classrooms and the community. These specific roles have only been officially recognised recently. However, their unofficial role began with their employment by the Presbyterian Church at Ernabella Mission School, as outlined in the first section of this paper. The second section addresses their official period of employment by the state from the 1960s when ACEOs were funded through the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs under the Whitlam government in 1972 (Buckskin and Hignett 1994:26).

Throughout the 1980s the recommendation of the value of ACEOs in schools was embedded in shaping papers for policy, such as the Report of the Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force (Hughes 1988). This was followed by other significant documents throughout the 1990s that changed ACEOs' working conditions, including the Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects (Buckskin and Hignett 1994). The Australian Education Union and the South Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee research for these projects draws on the oral accounts of ACEOs from South Australia. These oral accounts highlight the way in which improved working conditions of ACEOs was achieved as a result of negotiations with the Education Department (Woods 1996) and made significant impact across other educational jurisdictions, such as Western Australia and New South Wales. Oral history in this context has been an effective approach to highlight Indigenous political agency in education.

The written record about ACEOs is scant and secondary sources by ACEOs regarding their working conditions between 1940 and 2008 raise a range of anomalies. From 2008 to 2016 increasing attention has been given to ACEOs' work in school but, as outlined by Gower et al. (2011), ongoing dissonance between education staff and ACEOs remains. This paper therefore argues for a framework that privileges oral accounts as a means to develop receptivity between historically dissonant partners, such as ACEOs and teachers, policy makers and principals. Deep listening is active and creates opportunities through affective relations to develop a deeper understanding of the social, political and cultural context in which ACEOs operate. The oral accounts reveal the 'educational systems and structures' that reinforce inequality for Indigenous people in education (Rigney 2002:79) and therefore offer segue into creating equality of recognition of ACEOs' voices and agency.


The overview of the literature concerning ACEOs stems from the author's doctoral thesis, which used a qualitative ethnographic methodology. Grounded research was conducted while working with ACEOs as a teacher in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. The collection of primary interview data included 27 interviews with ACEOs from over the whole of South Australia, including metropolitan Adelaide, Port Lincoln, Port Augusta, the Riverland and Murray Bridge. The interviews also included senior leaders in the Aboriginal education movement and are detailed throughout the paper. The misrecognition of ACEOs is evident across all jurisdictions in Australia, but due to the location of the data collection the focus is on South Australia. …

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