“It’S paradise. I’ve been to these communities lots of times ... Why would you go to school when you can go turtle hunting?”
Jon Faine put this question to me when we were discussing remote Aboriginal education on ABC radio in Melbourne.
It’s Faine’s style to be contrarian and I know he doesn’t excuse truancy, but his question reflects a common attitude that places different expectations on indigenous communities than others. Can you imagine the suggestion that a non-indigenous child not attend school because they live on a beach and love to swim and fish?
One often hears reasons an indigenous person can’t do something instead of why they can. Wayne Bergman and Noel Pearson call this attitude “the tyranny of low expectations”.
Overt discrimination is typically — and rightly — quickly pounced on with revulsion, but as a community we rarely bat an eyelid when different standards are expressed for indigenous people.
Every indigenous leader I have met wants to see full school attendance at their local school.
I vividly recall the elders who sit on the Families Responsibilities Commission at Aurukun on Cape York Peninsula achieving the largest growth in school attendance in Queensland to get to 76 per cent. I asked them: where to next? “One hundred per cent attendance, of course!” a senior woman boomed, as if I were asking the most ridiculous question in the world.
Attending school is the law. We do not have a different rule for Aboriginal students, nor does any Aboriginal leader advocate this.
The damage caused by low school attendance is enormous. In the Northern Territory, only a quarter of Aboriginal students attend often enough to learn. Many leave school barely able to write their name, destined to live on welfare and see the same cycles repeated for future generations.
We make two mistakes when we succumb to expecting lower standards of indigenous people. The first is to think indigenous Australians are less capable. The more common mistake is to believe we’re being culturally respectful. Celebrated Aboriginal education leader and former school principal Chris Sarra says: “Sometimes we think we are being ‘culturally sensitive’ when we go easy on indigenous students or lower the bar for them. The truth is that this is simply colluding with low expectations.” If you keep telling someone they’re not good enough to do it, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lower standards don’t just occur in education. An indigenous friend with a master’s in business administration from Melbourne Business School once joked that he could walk out of his corporate job and straight into Centrelink and be assessed as a stream 3 or 4 Newstart recipient, the most disadvantaged category. In many places, Aboriginal people aren’t expected to pay normal rents, let alone aspire to home ownership.
The government does not accept indigeneity means lack of capacity. We should never lower our standards for anyone based on who they are. An indigenous person with a good education is as likely to gain employment as a non-indigenous person.
Through the government’s reforms in indigenous affairs we will give a hand up, not a handout. School attendance is our top priority. The challenge is to change the mindset of so many who have low expectations of indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are just as able to achieve and succeed as non-indigenous Australians in any endeavour if given the opportunity of a good education and employment.
It may be fun or even important for a kid to go turtle hunting or swimming on the weekend, but unless they are at school during the week their future is bleak — no matter who they are.