Educational 'failure' and educational 'success' in an Aboriginal community

Author/editor: Schwab, RG
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 161


This paper is an exploration of the interaction of Aboriginal people with the Western system of education in the remote community of Maningrida in north-central Arnhem Land. Maningrida Community Education Centre is a government facility comprising the hub school in Maningrida and 13 homeland centre schools. In August 1997 it employed over 60 staff. The enrolment figures for both the hub school and the homeland centre schools indicated a total of 557 students in August of 1997; only about 12 students are non-Aboriginal. As in many Aboriginal communities, the school is perceived as one of the most significant institutions, yet there is anxiety over the degree to which education is succeeding or failing in Maningrida. The paper argues that Aboriginal people in the Maningrida region hold a far more complex understanding of education than is often assumed. Their participation in education is structured by a range of particular interests and desires. To interpret the interaction of Aboriginal people with educational institutions in terms of failure is to fundamentally misunderstand the social process of education in this community.

The nature of educational 'failure'

Many of the theoretical approaches to educational 'failure' are problematic in that they are based - to greater or lesser degrees - on the assumption that Aboriginal people are largely reactive rather than active participants in their interaction with Western education. This paper attempts to show that the phenomenon of 'failure' is more powerfully interpretable if the active role of Aboriginal people in the educational system is emphasised, if their intentions, goals and desires are considered as part of the social process of which the school is but one part. It argues that the daily engagement of Aboriginal people in Maningrida with the institutions of Western education is constructed, negotiated, interpreted and enacted through four prominent cultural themes: autonomy, shame, sharing, and care-taking.

Education: what do people want?

Assessing the success or failure of education in Maningrida or any other Aboriginal community according to traditional performance measures such as student attendance, retention and national performance tests masks some subtle and important successes of education. Aboriginal people value Western education but they interpret and use the school in ways that fit their specific needs and their perceptions of themselves, their community and their relationship to the world outside. From this perspective, Western education has proven highly successful.

Aboriginal people appropriate the aspects of Western education they need to and ignore it when it does not suit them. What they desire of education is quite different from what the Western institution expects. I would argue that what they want from education can be categorised in four ways: cultural competence, cultural maintenance, material resources and social resources.

Policy implications

Many Aboriginal people, while admitting some degree of ambivalence about Western education, still believe traditional Western outcomes are important. While I have attempted to show that it should not be assumed education is failing, there are several things that could be done in an attempt to increase student participation, retention, community involvement and the like. Specific policy recommendations include the following:

  • To resuscitate the Community Education Centre vision;
  • promote the coordination of schools and community services;
  • develop training programs for school council members;
  • devolve responsibility for school year and school day scheduling to school councils; and
  • base school funding on numbers of school-age children, not on enrolment or attendance.

In developing policy to address these issues, it is important to keep in mind the aspects of education that Aboriginal people value which are not necessarily the intended outcomes of the Western educational system. Similarly, policy should strive to fit with the, sometimes unexpected, realities of life in Indigenous communities.

ISBN: 0 7315 2596 5

ISSN:1036 1774

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