Chris Sarra, Director of the Institute for Indigenous Leadership in Education and Development, responds to
Gary Johns’s


that schooling should be compulsory for Aboriginal children, and
that Aboriginal culture shouldn’t be taught in schools


Johns plays his part in feeding the media frenzy which seems intent on
demonising Aboriginal people. Such commentary is anchored by racist
beliefs that imply Aboriginal culture should be relegated completely to
the history books while the rest of us are assimilated. The more they
deny this… the more they underline the truth of it.

He sounds authoritative when he says schooling should be compulsory for
Aboriginal children. The fact is, schooling is compulsory for
Aboriginal children. As a principal of an Aboriginal community school for almost seven years I
don’t recall meeting any Aboriginal parents who didn’t want their
children to attend school and get something good out of it. Most
parents did their best to send kids to school, but unfortunately at the
time the school was not particularly interesting or challenging for
them … so why would they stay? We cleaned out half of the teaching
staff and assembled a new teaching team that was prepared to reflect on
their own practice and ask, “What is it that I need to change so the
children I am responsible for can get hooked on learning and coming to
school every day?’

Attendance improved to 93%, which is pretty good for any school. It is
really hard work, but there are lots of exceptional teachers out there
who can really cut it with Indigenous children. I do recall some police and magistrates who were too gutless to
exercise their responsibilities to support the school in relation to
matters of chronic truancy of those few who remained disengaged from
schooling. This is part of the dysfunctional mindset existing among
service providers who suggest that somehow it is OK to deliver second,
or third rate, or no productive outcomes in Indigenous communities.

As for teaching Aboriginal culture in schools… clearly there is
enough evidence to underline the extent of misunderstanding and
ignorance about who we really are as Aboriginal people. We are not to
be feared, but rather warmly embraced. It is in Australia’s best
interests if we can do this.

For Indigenous children, schools can play a part in developing their
understanding of who they are, so that our young children do not think
they have to embrace the negative stereotype that mainstream Australia
offers us. This way Indigenous children do not aspire downwards to
reinforce their identity, or think that it is somehow an Aboriginal
thing to grow up and drink alcohol and flog your woman.

Being Aboriginal is such a great thing… and would be great if all Australians recognised and understood this.