Aboriginal Independent Community Schools
The Story of 20 years of our support
The network of Western Australian Aboriginal Independent Community Schools is a success story within a wider Indigenous affairs policy environment. The reasons for the success of the school network are complex and varied, but a cornerstone of the effectiveness of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools has been the Support Unit.
Above all, the Support Unit has been effective because of the underlying philosophy of its creation: it is accountable to the independent communities, who safeguard their autonomy at all costs. At the same time it provides a framework of support that achieves two fundamental objectives.
Firstly, it allows the community schools to maintain their autonomy within a network of funding and resource support. Secondly, it provides Government with security that the schools are viable, sustainable and accountable.
The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ Support Unit is a low-cost facility supporting the thirteen Aboriginal Independent Community Schools in Western Australia and is recognised by the schools as necessary to their operations and viability.
There is uncertainty and confusion about the future funding and management of the Unit.
The Unit supports nine independent schools in isolated communities in the Kimberley, Pilbara and Great Sandy Desert, and five that are spread over a vast region of southern Western Australia.
Despite different histories and social settings, the common thread that connects these schools is that each has an Aboriginal governing body responsible for staffing, curriculum, school buildings, staff houses and financial accountability. Notwithstanding their obligations to comply with the State Education Act, curriculum framework and national education policy principles, these schools are independent of government and belong to the communities they service.
This Aboriginal Independent Community School network is largely a Western Australian phenomenon. It does not exist in other Australian jurisdictions. The schools were not created by government policy, nor were they supported by secure public funding in the early years of their existence. Rather, they were established and nurtured by Aboriginal communities and the professional staff they employed. This network is now an accepted component of Western Australia’s schooling architecture and fully engaged in the publicly funded national effort to lift the educational standards of Australia’s Indigenous school students.
The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ Support Unit is the “glue” that holds together this network of schools. Established in 1990, the Support Unit emerged from tensions between Aboriginal communities and government funding agencies over the question of autonomy in the first decade of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ development. The compromise resulted in an innovative collaboration between the communities and government, in the form of the Support Unit, which has suited the needs of both.
The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ Support Unit does not make decisions about staff recruitment. It does not decide on recurrent and capital investment in community schools. It does not speak on behalf of community schools, nor does it monitor their performance. The Support Unit has no authority whatsoever over the community schools, yet its support is a crucial feature of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools network.
The schools are able to focus on their core responsibility to teach children because the Support Unit assists them with many tasks that can otherwise be distracting and potentially overwhelming. The Support Unit helps schools recruit teachers and advises governing bodies about staff salaries and conditions. It is on hand to mediate disputes that arise from time to time between staff and the governing body and also helps with staff and community professional development. The Support Unit helps schools with growing administrative requirements – planning, budgeting, submitting for funds and acquitting public monies – as well as advising about government policy developments. It coordinates literacy and numeracy programs, helps with funding for infrastructure and staff houses and, importantly, convenes conferences and meetings for community members and staff to share ideas and concerns.
Two areas of achievement that the Support Unit is particularly noted for is in re-registering schools and facilitating formal partnership agreements between the schools and their communities.
The Support Unit’s low profile is part and parcel of its role. It does not act in the conventional manner of organisational leadership, or promote itself, because its job is to support the independent status of the schools: their reason for existence. This is why many people in government and the wider education sector do not understand or appreciate its role.
The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools in Western Australia
Western Australia’s Aboriginal Independent Community Schools emerged at a time of profound change in the way governments dealt with Aboriginal people. The 1967 constitutional change, which empowered the National Parliament to make laws for Indigenous Australians, paved the way for significant federal funds to support Aboriginal community development. This change coincided with aspirations by many Aboriginal people to move from congested settlements with all their destructive social problems and to establish independent communities on their traditional lands.
Education emerged as an important priority for many Aboriginal people as they reclaimed independence after decades of working on pastoral stations and farms for little or no wages under a regime of government paternalism. This was a time of great optimism and innovation among Aboriginal people. In 1976, the Strelley community in Western Australia’s Pilbara region established the first enduring Aboriginal Independent Community School in Australia. Two years later the newly established Yungngora community at Noonkanbah station in the Kimberley opened an independent community school, with initial support from Strelley.
As the movement back to country gathered pace, particularly in northern regions, the Strelley and Noonkanbah community schools inspired other emerging communities to establish their own schools. They also provided initial guidance and resources. Noonkanbah’s Kulkarriya school set up a school annexe to teach children in the Kadjina community on adjoining Millijiddee station, which the community named Wulungarra years later, when it become a registered independent school in its own right. In 1981 Gooniyandi people established Yiyili community on Louisa Downs station, half way between Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek, and employed a teacher and built a school, initially funded from philanthropic sources. In that same year Punmu was established in the Great Sandy Desert and a year later its Rawa independent community school was formally registered, with a full-time teacher. In 1985, Manyjiljarra people, mostly from Jigalong, set up the Parnngurr community in the far south of the Great Sandy Desert, and within two years had established their independent school.
The five schools in the more southern regions also emerged through Aboriginal people’s determination to engage the world from the strength of their cultural identity; in addition, these schools owed much to their community’s Christian backgrounds and commitment. In the early 1980s, Karalundi Aboriginal Education Centre near Meekathara, Culunga Aboriginal Community School in outer Perth and three Christian Aboriginal Parent-directed Schools in Coolgardie (1981), Kurrawang (1988) and Wongutha (1990) in the Eastern Goldfields, were all established as independent community schools with Aboriginal governing bodies.
By 1990 ten Aboriginal Community Schools were operating in Western Australia, with the number growing over the next decade to include Yakanarra in the Fitzroy Valley (1991), Purnululu based at Frog Hollow in the East Kimberley (1991), and Nyikina Mangala in the Jarlmadangah community (2000). Of the fifteen Aboriginal Independent Community Schools established since the 1970s, only one – Perth’s Aboriginal Community College, Gnangara – no longer operates.
The success story of these schools is in their capacity to deliver mainstream education in an environment where learning is nurtured by cultural identity, traditional language in many instances, and a sense of belonging to place. Vastly improved literacy results for students in these schools over the past decade are an obvious measure of their achievements. Harder to measure but clearly evident, community well-being and social functioning is also an important product of these schools.
Establishment of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ Support Unit
It is easy to say that the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools owe their achievement and endurance to the commitment of the communities that own them, yet much lies behind that assertion. What comes from ownership is a sense of responsibility by community members to make their schools perform for their children’s benefit. In recent years, much has been written about individual and community responsibility, particularly in areas of social policy. The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools are an example of how both individual and community responsibility is encouraged when people have control over matters that affect them.
Yet community ownership of schools was a real challenge to the Commonwealth Government in the early period of the schools’ development. There was no national policy or funding program for Aboriginal Independent Community Schools because they emerged from circumstances peculiar to Western Australia: geography, remoteness and a history of exclusion. Initial funding in the 1980s came from the general Aboriginal Affairs budget, and schools competed against other needs such as electricity, water, housing and municipal services. The schools operated on quarterly funding releases with no long-term security. The attitude of the Commonwealth Aboriginal Affairs administration was that the Western Australian Government should take responsibility for services that were a citizenship right, which included education.
The schools felt more secure when funding responsibility was passed to the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Training (DEET) in 1988, accompanied by a serious government commitment to improve Aboriginal education under a national Aboriginal Education Policy. But the question of community school autonomy remained contentious.
For Aboriginal communities, their right to decide on curriculum content and who should be employed to teach their children was and is a firm principle. DEET, on the other hand, was concerned about the educational and financial viability of isolated individual community schools and wanted to place them in an organisational structure where decision-making responsibility for the running of the schools and employing staff was spread beyond the Aboriginal community.
This tension led to the creation of a supportive, state-wide Aboriginal Independent Community School network, as school board members and staff collaborated to develop policy positions from which to negotiate with government. Through this network, the schools articulated their philosophical commitment to community independence and strongly rejected the centralised, hierarchical model that underlies the delivery of education services by the State Government and the Catholic Education Office.
Creating the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ Support Unit in 1990 was an innovative response to this tension. The schools’ autonomy remained intact, yet a supportive structure was offered to the schools, which alleviated government’s chief concern about school vulnerability and community capacity to maintain schools that would deliver quality education.
In setting up the Support Unit with two offices – one based in Broome to service the northern schools and the other in Perth to support the southern schools – the community schools negotiated two fundamental conditions. The first was that the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools would select the staff for the Support Unit, reinforcing the principle of community independence from government. The other condition was that the Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia (AISWA) would be the body to manage Commonwealth funds for the Support Unit.
These two conditions tell much about the real significance of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools. The schools see themselves as members of the broad independent school sector of Western Australia, making Aboriginal culture, identity and history part of that mainstream education framework. Furthermore, the Support Unit operates within the mainstream institutional independent schools’ support structure.
The Challenges of Education in an Aboriginal Social Environment
To describe what the Support Unit does in linear terms does not adequately explain its proactive and responsive role. The Support Unit has to be flexible to be able to respond to challenges and the inevitable crises that all schools and their communities face from time to time. But it manages its crisis response role within a framework that requires it to achieve measurable outcomes: namely, improved literacy and numeracy levels, quality teaching, good school infrastructure and staff accommodation, high levels of school attendance, sound school governance and effective partnerships between schools and their communities.
The Support Unit has set itself several challenging objectives, in collaboration with the schools. The performance reports to the Commonwealth Government shows that key benchmarks are achieved beyond expectations. Yet it is difficult to account for the success of the Independent school system – the school, the Support Unit and the community – by conventional evaluation methodology, for it is the quality of the relationship that equips the Aboriginal Independent Community School to be a successful education provider.
Without the Support Unit operating as an integral and respected part in that relationship the success of the independent schools would be placed in jeopardy. In three independent reviews of the Support Unit since it was established in 1990, the communities and school staff have consistently argued that, without the Support Unit, every school would have to employ an additional staff member to do all the administrative and school development work that is currently catered for by the Support Unit.
A brief outline of the main areas of work of the Support Unit shows how important and cost effective it is to the operations of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools.
Good staff housing is fundamental for recruiting and retaining quality teachers. The Support Unit was proactive in commissioning a comprehensive audit in 2007, which showed the inadequacy and inequity of teachers housing, and successful in securing significant funding to improve it.
Following this audit, funding from the Building the Education Revolution Program has provided significant school infrastructure, including twelve new staff homes in ten communities. Through a submission based on the audit the Support Unit has also been successful in accessing an additional $5million to allow a further seven houses to be built as well as renovations and refurbishments to be made to staff housing in six more communities. Securing and coordinating capital investment on this scale could only have occurred through the Support Unit. If schools were left to negotiate capital investment on their own the process would be inefficient and the outcomes inequitable.
Literacy and Numeracy
All Aboriginal Independent Community Schools have a demonstrated long-term commitment to substantially improving the literacy and numeracy of the children they teach. This is consistent with the priority of the Aboriginal communities, who place a high value on their children attaining good English and Maths capability alongside Aboriginal cultural and social learning. The Support Unit has been able to respond to this community priority by securing significant funds for additional literacy and numeracy investment in the schools through specialised consultants.
The Support Unit has assisted the schools in a long-term English literacy strategy using a methodology known as Accelerated Literacy, formally referred to as “scaffolding”. Accelerated Literacy is a fluid teaching model where teachers move in and out of stages depending on their students’ development. Although not a “magic bullet”, its consistent application has resulted in quite remarkable literacy development with many poorly performing students, particularly in remote Aboriginal communities.
In Western Australia Accelerated Literacy was first introduced at Wongutha CAPS in 1999, following a successful pilot in a number of South Australian schools. In the early 2000s the Support Unit coordinated funding through the Commonwealth-funded Scaffolding Literacy Intervention Project for the method to be taught throughout the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools network. Such was the demonstrated success of the method that in 2004 the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools became participants in the National Accelerated Literacy Project (NALP), along with a range of schools from other Australian jurisdictions.
The Support Unit is highly visible in the national scheme to improve Indigenous children’s literacy, particularly through its extensive contribution to the National Accelerated Literacy Project. It is a member of the NALP Steering Committee, the Teaching Guides Writing Team and the Resource Development Group, and it contributes to ‘Existing Accelerated Literacy Sites’ forums. The Support Unit Accelerated Literacy consultancy team has also developed more teaching resources for community schools under the National Accelerated Literacy Project than any other contributing entity.
The Support Unit has carefully and creatively assembled the dedicated literacy consultant team, all of whom have had teaching experience in Aboriginal Independent Community Schools. The five highly professional consultants are managed by the Support Unit and are held up as national leaders in the field. Their productivity has been described by independent evaluators as “striking”, and their relationship with the schools they work with is positive and constructive. The consultants have also been trained in the ‘Reading to Learn’ methodology, a creative adjunct of Accelerated Literacy, which broadens the scope for teachers to improve student literacy skills.
Comprehensive measurement of literacy standards in the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools over the last ten years shows that the investment in innovative literacy development has produced highly positive results. The longitudinal trend of the Junior Primary 6-8 yr olds demonstrates impressive improvement in students’ reading since 2001, when 100% were assessed as non-readers. In 2009 those assessed as readers in that age group had risen to 76%. In that same time period, for Middle and Upper Primary students (9-12 year olds), the longitudinal trend improved from 4% of students assessed as readers in 2001 to 93% of students assessed as readers in 2009. For Secondary students (13 to 17 years old) the improvement in those assessed as readers rose from 56% in 2001 to 97% in 2009.
Despite these impressive results, both the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools and the Support Unit are wary of complacency, as NAPLAN testing shows that many students at Aboriginal Independent Community Schools are still performing below national literacy and numeracy benchmarks. However, it is heartening that literacy performance is improving in these schools, which offer an instructive model for other Aboriginal education environments.
The Support Unit is also investing in a long-term strategy for numeracy development in all Aboriginal Independent Community Schools, using consultancy teams modelled on the literacy methodology. The Support Unit has negotiated $1.8m in funding, which employs five specialist numeracy consultants. The numeracy strategy is a relatively recent initiative, so longitudinal trends cannot yet be measured, but the quality relationship the numeracy consultants are having with the schools is already evident and positive results are anticipated.
It is widely accepted by education providers and public policy advisors that quality teaching is fundamental to achieving good educational outcomes. It is also acknowledged that the provision of quality teaching is a particular problem in Aboriginal environments because of remoteness, overwhelming social problems that affect the running of schools, and inadequate training and professional development capacity within remote Australia.
The Support Unit plays a critical role in ensuring the provision of quality teachers to the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools in a number of ways. It assists the schools to recruit good teachers through advertising and tapping into national networks, and in the selection of applicants. Importantly, the Unit assists in a myriad of ways to help teachers live happily in Aboriginal community settings. The Support Unit invests in teacher professional development through induction strategies and state-wide and regional conferences, where teachers can share experiences and learn from experts about educational developments that are relevant to the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools.
An important consequence of the literacy and numeracy consultant team approach is its positive contribution to the professional learning and growth of teachers in the schools. The consultants have been described as ‘models of commitment to good education’, whose role has assisted the development of a culture of teaching excellence in the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools network. This growing culture of high standard teaching is increasingly attracting teachers to the community schools and encouraging them to stay longer.
The retention of teachers in Aboriginal communities has been identified as a major problem throughout remote Australia. The Support Unit understands that teacher retention is affected by a complex array of factors and pursues its objective to retain quality teachers by developing a network of social and professional support, high-quality conditions and good community/school relationships, and promoting a culture of professional excellence. In Northern Territory remote Aboriginal communities, the average period of employment for a teacher is approximately seven months. This contrasts with the Kimberley Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ network, where the average teacher period of employment is twenty months.
Under the Western Australian Education Act, non-government schools must demonstrate that their educational program, premises, resources, qualifications of teaching staff, management practices, and so on, meet acceptable standards. Registration is a pre-requisite to the provision of funding and other support services provided by the State and Commonwealth Governments. Non-government schools can be registered for periods of between one and five years. Once registered, schools must periodically apply to have their registration renewed.
The re-registration process entails the Department of Education Services (DES) visiting each school where it examines all aspects of the school’s operation, including policy and procedures, staffing, curriculum and arrangements for duty of care. The DES is then required to formulate a judgment about the viability and quality of the school and its conformity with state regulations.
The Support Unit plays a vital role in assisting both the schools and the DES in the re-registration process. It assists the schools to prepare documentation for assessment and prepare school staff to engage with the DES official. It also provides logistical support for the process and assists DES to have formal access to members of the schools’ governing bodies and other community members.
The work of the Support Unit has ensured that school re-registration is a constructive process, which helps portray the Aboriginal Independent Community School network as an institutional and permanent part of the non government education sector. The process has also highlighted to the State Government elements of endeavour in which the community schools excel, namely its consultant team approach in literacy and numeracy, and the formal partnership of all schools with their communities.
School and Community Partnerships
Formal school and community partnerships became national education policy in 2005, with the intention of encouraging the notion of civic responsibility among students and fostering ownership and greater participation in the running of their school. The Support Unit and the schools viewed these partnerships not as a condition of funding agreements but as an opportunity to detail roles and responsibilities by schools and communities within a strategic plan.
All the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools, their governing bodies and other community members have constructively participated in the development of the partnerships, which have been facilitated by the Support Unit. The school/community partnerships have produced useful strategic plans whereby the schools and the communities have been able to formalise their priorities for the benefit of the children’s overall development.
The partnership agreements vary from community to community but there are some common themes. For instance, most partnerships emphasise the importance of school attendance as a community priority, which helps explain why student attendance is often far higher at Aboriginal Independent Community Schools than in government remote community schools or Catholic schools. Most partnership agreements emphasise the importance of traditional language and culture, and identify community members and resources that can be engaged by the school for children’s Aboriginal cultural development.
The schools, community and government recognise the importance of these partnerships and also understand that they would not have been developed in the constructive way they have been without the influence and facilitation skill of the Support Unit.
Government policy makers, funders and senior managers of education resources often underrate the challenges of running independent community schools in Aboriginal social environments, particularly in remote regions. Many of the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools are located in places that have the highest levels of social and economic disadvantage in Australia.
Many people in those communities have experienced many phases of government policies over the last few decades, ranging from severe paternalism, benign neglect, self-determination and shared responsibility. Many of those communities have seen their stores and other enterprises collapse and be reinvigorated at various times, and changing governance entities. Programs such as CDEP and the provision of municipal services have come and gone.
One constant in many Aboriginal communities is the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools, some of which, such as Strelley and Noonkanbah, are in their fourth decade of operation. Many others have been operating for nearly as long. All fourteen of the schools are well established and most are going from strength to strength.
In an era of evidence based public policy, Aboriginal communities and governments are endeavouring to determine what works and what doesn’t work in the area of Indigenous development. Implicit in the national commitment to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage is government recognition that positive outcomes will only be achieved when there is a genuine partnership between government and Aboriginal communities and families.
Building and maintaining partnerships is hard work. The relationship between the Australian Government and the Western Australian Aboriginal Independent Community Schools is a rare example of an enduring partnership between government and Aboriginal people. That partnership would not have been achieved without an understanding by the Aboriginal communities that the Aboriginal Independent Community Schools’ Support Unit belongs to them as much as it belongs to government. Every effort should be made by government and the communities to ensure the continued effectiveness of that partnership.