Printer Friendly

Aboriginal Community Education Officers' fight for agency and equality: a historical overview.


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.

Although interview data is included in this paper, the primary focus of the argument is the need to contextualise ACEOs' agency within schooling and sites of political interventions by ACEOs and Aboriginal education leaders. ACEOs' voices are scant throughout the literature and therefore bridging the link between the policy history of Aboriginal education with oral and published accounts reveals insight into ACEOs' agency and educational and political work.

The data gathered from the literature were obtained through systematic key word searches in relevant databases and Google Scholar of the nomenclature associated with ACEOs, such as AEW (Aboriginal Education Officer), AEO (Aboriginal Education Officer), ATA (Aboriginal Teaching Assistant) and AIEO (Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer). Desktop research included the analysis of the Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects, interview data from the Same Kids Same Goals (2007) work in the Dusseldorp Forum, The review of the Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer Program (Gower et al. 2011), Victoria Skills Gateway, Indigenous education workers: a special case of Educational Assistants (Funnell 2013) and The report of the review of Aboriginal education (NSW AECG and NSW DET 2004). This systematically collated quantitative and qualitative literature was correlated with the oral accounts from the primary data collected through in-depth interviews for the thesis. The ACEO role has not changed significantly over these decades of research, despite increasing evidence of their value in documents such as The review of the Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer Program (Gower et al. 2011) and the move to embed culturally responsive schooling with the expertise of ACEOs (Department of Education 2015:14).

Employing an oral history approach allows both the interviewer and the interviewee a space for receptivity where openness and ongoing relationships inform the encounter. The interview process allows for 'a form of normative responsiveness that is both spontaneous and reflective, which is to say a form of agency through which we are responsive to something or someone in an attitude of answerability' (Kompridis 2013:20). Oral history as a methodological approach (Hajek 2014) provides the space to reach a clear understanding of the local and specific lived realities of ACEOs' work and support of Indigenous students in the school and the community. The choice of an oral history methodology, correlated with the literature, maps the ongoing misrecognition of ACEOs and provides an alternative space for receptivity and understanding.

Mobilising oral history as a means to understand the site-specific lived realities of ACEOs' work provides insight for teachers and other relevant stakeholders about their complex work and is necessary in order to achieve opportunities for deep listening that contextualise a complex racialised, gendered and classed occupation. An oral history approach offers possibility for deep listening at the cultural interface (Nakata 2004) enabling possibilities for change at the policy and personal level.

The role of oral history

The dearth of documentary evidence of the history of ACEOs is in stark contrast to the volumes of government records that have been kept over the years 'about' Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under a long period of regulation and control by the authorities. This is possibly due to a number of factors. For example, records on the work of ACEOs might shed light on the valuable service they provided at minimum wages. ACEOs' working conditions and absence of recognition in the literature also illuminates the Eurocentric conceptualisation of education that has dismally failed to include Indigenous knowledges and ethics of care in schools (MacGill 2008). Furthermore, this gap in knowledge attests to the lack of appreciation of the use of oral history as a legitimate and valid record of events.

The 'politics of information control' (Goodall 1987:20) in colonised countries has been addressed more in relation to what has been written, rather than what has not. Racism and discrimination can be gleaned from legislation designed to manage and control Indigenous people (Wilton 1991:1). In this instance, it can also be gleaned from the absence of records that would demonstrate ACEOs' positive contribution to schooling for Indigenous students. Indigenous knowledges and pedagogy conducted by ACEOs are erased through a failure of recognition of the work they do in schools and the community. Arguably, the 'withholding of recognition can be a form of oppression' (Taylor 1994:36) that contradicts the fundamental rights of Indigenous people according to Article 14 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN 2008). However, a framework for establishing appropriate and safe ways to listen and hear these unheard positive contributions is required.

The voices of ACEOs who seek to fill the gap in the record by lending their own voices to their campaign for equality have to date generally not been heard by key stakeholders involved in advancing Indigenous education. Professor Paul Thompson legitimated oral history within academic research as a valid methodology for capturing the 'unheard' stories. His 1988 statement remains equally applicable today:
oral history certainly can be a means for transforming both the
content and purpose of history. It can be used to change the focus of
history itself, and open up new areas of enquiry; it can break down
barriers between teachers and students, between generations, between
educational institutions and the world outside; and in the writing of
history... it can give back to the people who made and experienced
history, through their own words, a central place.

Indeed, from the 1970s oral history was a tool for bringing about social change, providing formal empowerment for the marginalised or excluded, and a voice for the voiceless and it remains at the intersection of academia and politics (Abrams 2010:154). Oral history provides a space for 'living memory' (Perks and Thomson 2006:ix) to be shared through story, providing listeners with an opportunity to connect with the contextual, social, historical and political location of the storyteller. A historical analysis of the work of feminist oral historians by Berger Gluck (2011:63) concluded that 'despite the different political trajectories of the second and emergent generations [of feminist oral historians], there is still a tradition of viewing/treating oral history narrative as a "discourse of oppositional consciousness and agency"'.

Read (2007) takes this concept further, to suggest that it is only through the oral expression of Indigenous people themselves that non-Indigenous people can begin to understand Indigenous perspectives. It is at this nexus that a dialogical understanding of ACEOs' positionality is required. As Battiste (2000:21) argues, it is crucial that we develop new transformative practices that relocate Indigenous voices at the centre. Oral history, while both old and new, provides through the narratives of storytelling a legitimate framework for recognition. It is within this framework that the following history of ACEOs is couched.


This history canvasses the transformations of ACEO working conditions over the past six decades. The nomenclature for ACEOs has changed considerably over this period. For example, the title given to ACEOs at the Ernabella Mission School in the 1940s was Anangu Teaching Assistants (Edwards and Underwood 2006: 108). Aboriginal Teaching Assistant was first used in the Northern Territory in the 1950s, then South Australia (1969), Queensland (1972) and New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia by 1974 (Winkler 2006). ACEOs were then called Aboriginal School Assistants, terminology that was used interchangeably with the term Aboriginal Teacher Aide in the 1970s. In the 1980s the name changed to Aboriginal Education Worker (AEW) and the latest change to Aboriginal Community Education Officer occurred in 2008. Across the states and territories, names include Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer, Aboriginal Teaching Assistant and Indigenous Education Worker. However, for the purposes of this paper I use ACEO throughout the body of the paper, and AEW in the interview transcripts according to the nomenclature used by the interviewees.

ACEOs' complex role in schools

ACEOs play a significant role in the wellbeing of Indigenous students and provide a connection to the family within an Indigenous community context. Although the school-based ACEO role is diverse, they are required to respond to the needs of the school, as well as to maintain cultural obligations with parents, the extended family and the child. As ACEO Cher Lore (interview, 3 May 2004) says:
An AEWs role is very complex because your role is to be a liaison
person between home and school and to gain the confidence of
Aboriginal parents within your school community to be able to come in
and meet with teachers, and meet with principals and discuss their
child's education and so you are that link. So it is a very complex
role and one of the things I said... to these two people [leader and
other staff member] was that I live in this community; most AEWs live
in the community that they are working in, and seldom you will find
that they don't live in the town they are working in.

ACEOs are the conduit for students and family engagement and provide the site of intersection with the school. This is unquestionably a most critical role. Lore highlights the complexity of ACEOs' roles as they are required to be located in two routinely conflicting sites of loyalty. ACEOs face racism in schools and are challenged by community members over intractable conflicts in the school. This complex space of navigating racism is outlined by an ACEO whose pseudonym is Mary Johnson (interview, 2 February 2006):
You pulled me into the office and you said, if those two over there,
the Bursar and the people over at the canteen and they talk about the
Aboriginal staff and the Aboriginal kids and how they get money--try
not to worry about it too much--you know--they just don't mean it. And
I said--you pull me in and explained to me and you didn't once pull
them in and say how dare you--and explain about that funding and
explain about the need for it--but no, it is better for you to pull me
in and explain to me to be silent and not to worry about their racism.
I have never forgiven you for that. I did a good job and I have never
forgiven you for that. He said, for what? I said you reinforced their
racism. You didn't demand that they know... and that is what I have
been talking about at every school I ask, where is the anti-racism
policy, what's the stuff you want taught and I did it every day.

Buffering racism is routinely a silenced aspect of ACEOs' work within schools. The anti-racism policy in this context is not upheld by the principal, further demonstrating the complex status and role of ACEOs. Their dual role as members of Indigenous communities and as education staff members is complex and requires disproportionate emotional labour for their job description. National reports, such as the Aboriginal Education Workers and Teaching Aides (Department of Children's Services n.d.) highlight the burden many ACEOs carry with responsibility for more than two hundred students without decision making power placing unmanageable stress on their para-professional role (Williams and Thorpe 2003:68-91). A lack of recognition of the complex nature of their work, coupled with racism, is a key theme that runs through the historical trajectory of the ACEO roles since the 1940s.

ACEOs from the 1940s to the 1960s

Dr Duguid, a Presbyterian missionary, established Ernabella Mission in 1937 (Mattingley and Hampton 1988:256) and founded the Ernabella Mission School in 1940 as a bilingual school where Pitjantjatjara was taught in the classroom (Edwards 1969:278). The first ACEO was employed by the Presbyterian Church (Edwards and Underwood 2006:108) and in the 1940s the Ernabella Mission School employed a male ACEO (whose name is not recorded) and a non-Indigenous teacher called RMTrudinger (Edwards 1969:278). The ACEO taught Pitjantjatjara and Edwards (1969:279) states that he 'incorporated Aboriginal songs and the relating and reading of stories', and enforced 'strict discipline'. At Ernabella during this phase, the Anangu people and the missionaries developed a written form of Pitjantjatjara: 'The emphasis on vernacular education enabled the employment of Pitjantjatjara assistants who did much of the teaching in the earlier years' (Edwards and Underwood 2006:109). However, there is no record of payment, so it is assumed that this ACEO and those who followed him were involved in the school without pay.

Routinely, it is Dr Duguid who is cited as the innovator of bilingualism, rather than the Anangu people that worked in the school and with the missionaries. The absent narratives of ACEO contributions highlight the power of a Eurocentric educational discourse in South Australia in the 1940s that was sustained over the following decades. It also reveals the parallel trajectory of the gender shift after the Second World War. The insurgence of women into the teaching profession was mirrored in the ACEO role.

The 1952 Ernabella News Letter referred to three women who were ACEOs--Watulya, Nganyintja and Tjuwilya, who had been students at the Ernabella Mission School. They later became Anangu Teaching Assistants and in the 1957 Ernabella News Letter it is stated that 'several of these girls' have the 'ability to handle and control new children and infants, taking classes of up to 20 for weeks on end, devising new numbers and letter games, doing their own blackboard work, preparation and marking books' (Edwards 1969:280).

Edwards (1969:280) argues that until 1959 it was only necessary to have one 'white teacher on the staff due to the expertise of the ACEOs. The Ernabella Mission School, as the only site in South Australia to employ ACEOs and institute a full bilingual education program (Edwards and Underwood 2006:108), was an exception --in 1952 Australia had officially adopted the Assimilation Policy (Nicholls 1998) that mandated mono-lingualism and mono-culturalism in schools. The oral histories by Edwards provide an insight into the shifting political regime that reflected the trajectory of neoliberal educational policies that ignored the value of bilingual education and the critical role of ACEOs in education.

Throughout the 1960s the working conditions and recognition of ACEOs did not alter significantly. The 1960s signified shifts in federal government policy regarding Indigenous rights and by 1964, in the House of Representatives, Kim Beazley (Senior) questioned the suitability of the English-only policy mandated in remote Indigenous schools. During the same period, requests were made for the ACEOs at Ernabella and Fregon to be given formal training. ACEOs were not granted housing, income or training, yet the government subsidised non-Aboriginal teachers' incomes to the extent of some $5200 per annum in order to assist in the development of a bilingual program (Gale 1996:19).

Such discrimination in the workforce was resisted and by 1965 Indigenous activism was publicly expressed through the Freedom Rides led by Charles Perkins. According to Jack Horner's 2004 memoir of Aboriginal advancement', there was a radical shift led by the Freedom Rides to call for legal and substantive equality in Australia for Indigenous people. It is these oral histories, which keep the narratives alive, that have been embedded and published in texts that provide a useful historical narrative of Indigenous peoples' resistance to mainstreaming.

Although there is no direct or official correlation to this claim to legal and substantive equality in Australia, the general public was becoming aware of workplace discrimination experienced by Indigenous employees across Australia. This led to the appointment of the first Aboriginal pre-school assistant 'by the Kindergarten Union to Point Pearce Preschool' in 1966 (Buckskin and Hignett 1994:26). The employment of Alitja Rigney was profound--she went on to become a School Services Officer (SSO), ACEO, teacher, educator and linguist, and later informed Aboriginal education policy. Dr Alitja Rigney is also recognised for her position as founder and principal of Aboriginal Kaurna Plains School, an incredible history yet to be fully recorded (Hill 2008). Her position as pre-school assistant began the long journey that culminated into one of the great leaders of Aboriginal education in Australia. Dr Rigney (interview, 2 February 2004) states:
I started in my role as an SSO in the 1960s. Irabinna had just gone to
Kindy. So I was his Kindy teacher. It was really exciting because at
that time the kindergarten union couldn't get any teachers to come out
to our community, which was at Point Pearce on the Yorke
Peninsular--Narungga Country. So there was another woman, Elizabeth
Sansbury and I became the kindergarten teachers. We had a ball because
we loved teaching. When the kindergarten union finished their term in
the community, they handed it over to the Education Department. The
Education Department actually sent out teachers to the community,
which meant we were out of jobs. We were relegated to School
Assistants [ACEOs] and that was the first Aboriginal Education Worker
in the system--that was in the 1960s.

During the 1960s the Kindergarten Union played a supportive role in employing Aboriginal kindergarten teachers. This period of negotiations between educators, such as Rigney, and the unions was significant as it was a time of shifting political forces from the assimilation era (1930s-60s) to the self-determination era (1970s-80s). After the 1967 Commonwealth referendum, the Labor Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, who was returned as Premier in 1970, lobbied the Whitlam government to fund ACEOs through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Consequently, the funds to employ ACEOs were channelled 'through the old Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs' (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003).

Despite these funding arrangements, there were still inconsistencies that meant that ACEOs relied on the good will of the people they worked with in the school. Bill Hignett, from the Australian Education Union, stated in an interview (2 April 2003) that a teacher called David Amery, who worked at an Aboriginal community school on the APY Lands, had unofficially contracted an ACEO called Elsie Jackson in 1967. She was aged between 14 and 16 years old. He paid her salary in 1967 'out of his own pocket', which is a strong statement about the value of her role. By 1969 the State Department of Education and Children's Services (DECS) formally agreed that ACEOs could assist in the education of Indigenous students in remote communities, which they had already been doing for about 30 years (Kwan 1987:165). Hignett also highlighted the political agenda surrounding the ACEO role and the relationship between the Aboriginal education movement and the education union:
the unions started developing closer links with the Aboriginal
movement of the time and we are talking about the late 70s. There was
a very strong [administrative] work called SA Aboriginal Education
Consultative Committee of which Paul Hughes was chairperson, Peter
Buckskin, Pat Buckskin, Louis O'Brien, and a number of Aboriginal
Teacher Assistants who were members of the consultative groups. It was
a powerful lobby group and a very strong active group and we developed
close links, which remain with those people today. When we started
discussing this stuff [in late 1978, 1979 and the 1980s] it became
clear that there was a lot of dissatisfaction amongst Aboriginal
people about the role of the Aboriginal School Assistant and negations
were held with the department and the Aboriginal Education Section and
a new job description was developed in December 1981 and the name
Aboriginal Education Worker was set as the new classification of that
group. The role was clearly defined. Made quiet separate from the
School Assistant role as it was then. (Hignett, interview, 2 April

The strong Aboriginal education movement and its ties to the union outlined by Hignett reveal the political environment and the negotiations led by ACEOs and other Aboriginal leaders that informed the role, wages and working conditions of ACEOs.

Awards and wages (1970s)

The perpetuation of deficit theories in Indigenous education shaped ACEOs' status, despite the political agency of Indigenous people arguing for appropriate policy and workplace equality in education for ACEOs. Like Indigenous students, ACEOs were considered to be deficit by virtue of their cultural heritage. Prior to 1972, there was no collective agreement or arrangement to monitor ACEO conditions or employment and they were considered as award-free ancillary staff (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003).

There was also no formal classification for a career structure for ACEOs during this period. It was not until 1972 that ACEOs were placed under the School Assistant Award, which had a classification structure and standardised conditions (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003). Their jobs were organised by the school in consultation with DECS and their roles were subject to principal and staff requirements, without any consideration for their role with families and the community. This challenging workplace arrangement is outlined by Lore, who was an ACEO for 22 years:
When I first started in the education system I was an Aboriginal
School Assistant. They were called Aboriginal School Assistants back
then. So I was an Aboriginal School Assistant for 4 years before they
changed the name. It would have been about 1970s. But since then I
have been working in the schools or in other positions as an AEW. As
an Aboriginal School Assistant you did everything and anything you
were asked by the school to do. So I had library duties, I did a bit
of library stuff, a bit of canteen stuff and helping with canteen
rosters, all sorts of things but then part of my role was still to
support Aboriginal students in the school but that wasn't very clear
as to how you would do that. (Lore, interview, 3 May 2004)

In the early 1970s there were 73 ACEOs (AEWs) in South Australia working in both secondary and primary schools (Buckskin and Hignett 1994). As a result of the new self-determination policy, DECS 'dispatched someone to the APY Lands to select three "Aboriginal School Assistants"... for registration as teachers' (Gale 1996:20) and by 1977 ACEOS were given regional responsibilities under the Aboriginal Home School Visitor scheme. By 1978 there were 131 ACEOs working in schools and 14 in preschools in South Australia (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003). The Australian Education Union and the South Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee lobbied for Indigenous rights and policy shifts in Indigenous education and rights for ACEOs through negotiations with DECS in relation to Aboriginal School Assistants (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003).

Aboriginal Education Worker: a new title

In December 1981 Aboriginal School Assistants were renamed Aboriginal Education Workers (AEWs), but their role and status did not change significantly. Nevertheless, this new title reflected a shift along the continuum regarding the working conditions of ACEOs in schools. The South Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee created a new job description for ACEOs in conjunction with DECS and the Kindergarten Union. Despite this success, and work by the Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee to create better working conditions for ACEOs, schooling still remained couched in racism and a lack of understanding of the value of ACEOs by non-Indigenous staff.

As Barry Liones, an ACEO who had been working for 20 years, stated, 'They changed the name because we were like vacuum cleaners... We get to do home visits more [and were given more] responsibility handling decision-making, and helping parents and showing them how the education system works' (Liones, interview, 12 March 2005). The shift reveals the newly acquired understanding by the Education Department that ACEOs were embedded in their communities and therefore home visits became an essential component of their role in recruiting and maintaining connections with students and their families.

After 1981 the roles of ACEOs were more clearly defined, but remained under the School Assistant Award classification structure (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003). In 1982 the Australian Education Union and the South Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee met with ACEOs across the state to discuss and develop a new award and classification structure. This proved to be a critical moment for ACEOs as it was through this dialogue and recording of the oral history of ACEOs' working conditions that anomalies could be mapped.

As a result, on 7 March 1987 an industrial agreement was established to define new wages and conditions for ACEOs. This new classification structure was registered in the South Australian Industrial Commission (Buckskin and Hignett 1994:27). The Australian Education Union wanted at least 6000 ACEOs employed across Australia by 2001, but only 1500 were employed by this date and not all ACEOs were hired on a full-time basis (Woods 1996:23). However, the politicisation of Indigenous education and efforts across the state to shift the working conditions and recognition of ACEOs continued, as the next section demonstrates.

Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects (1990s)

As a result of the involvement of Pat Buckskin, Bill Hignett and Pat Fowell (Aboriginal Education Coordinator of the Australian Education Union) in the union and their collective drive to establish better working conditions for AEWs, they embarked on Stages 1 and 2 of the Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects (Buckskin and Hignett 1994:17).

The projects were particularly significant because the data collection process led to the development of a central record of ACEOs in Australia (Buckskin and Hignett 1994). The absence of a central record until that time highlighted the lack of value placed on ACEOs in schools by non-Indigenous staff. According to Hignett and Buckskin (1994), 20 workshops were conducted across Australia to elicit issues of concern to ACEOs from the ACEOs themselves. This was the most comprehensive research regarding the working conditions of ACEOs in Australia and was the first time that ACEOs' oral narratives were analysed. Key themes emerged from these narratives, highlighting the 'high turnover of AEWs, role confusion, low salaries, a desire for training and development in conflict resolution, mediation and curriculum' (Davis et al. 1995:9).

According to the interviews for the Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects, ACEOs revealed that they were expected to work outside their job specifications, such as providing 'fill in' teaching or managing Child Parent Centres without appropriate pay or working conditions. Other issues that were raised included a general absence of permanent positions for ACEOs, a lack of funding allocations and racism. According to Davis et al. (1995:9), racism was prevalent in every aspect of ACEOs' work conducted in schools. Stage 3 also included a range of recommendations regarding training and development for AEWs. Despite efforts to inform teachers and the introduction of training and development for ACEOs, malaise remained regarding the lack of recognition for their complex roles. As Lore (interview, 3 May 2004) states:
one of the things that I find difficult is that staff members in your
sites, not just in this school, they never really understand what your
role is, and over the last 20 years that hasn't changed at all. We
still have teachers saying what is it that you do? We have done
[training and development] about roles on AEWs or around the
Aboriginal Education teams within schools and in particular what the
roles of AEWs are. And we have been very clear about what their roles
are and that Training and Development and even when you are working
one to one with someone they still say--can you come and do this and I
will actually say--no that is not part of my role. If you need that to
happen you may need to speak to the classroom teacher or the school
councillor or the school principal within the school. So I think over
the last 20 years that hasn't changed. You still feel like you are
hitting your head against a brick wall saying--don't you know what we
do in a school, don't you know what we are employed to do?

This highlights the ongoing lack of recognition and value of ACEOs in schools. The inclusion of oral history in the methodological design of texts such as the Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects significantly shifted the status of ACEOs. This projects, for example, led to the development of an Associate Diploma for ACEOs at the University of South Australia, the development of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Educators' Association Incorporated (NAIEA Inc.) and other similar initiatives across the country. They also led to further research that culminated in Stage 5 of the Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects. The final report by Buckskin and Hignett led to an enterprise agreement in 1996 regarding a new classification structure that had a strong emphasis on training.

Buckskin and Hignett spoke to the Commonwealth Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and a number of groups about ACEOs wanting to become better ACEOs as opposed to becoming teachers (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003). They stated that there was a valid role in schools for ACEOs who were strongly community based. Buckskin and Hignett wanted to develop the counselling, modelling, Aboriginal studies and community-based role for ACEOs, and research based on Recommendation 297 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody supported this model (Hignett, interview, 2 April 2003).

However, based on the interviewees (MacGill 2008), training and development have not overturned a general absence of recognition of their roles in schools by non-Indigenous teachers and staff. Arguably ACEOs' oral histories in education would provide the very bridge required to build recognition of the dimensions of their roles. Sue Alder (interview, 2 May 2004), one of the ACEOs interviewed, stated that 'I have been trained to death'. She argued that, despite this training, she feels that her non-Indigenous colleagues in the school do not treat her any differently in terms of recognition of her role. It should be established that it is not training and development that is required, but dialogue and intercultural understanding between ACEOs and non-Indigenous staff. The Dusseldorp Forum project is an exceptional example of how this could be achieved. It developed a framework for principals and ACEOs to build relationships and intercultural understanding through the use of oral histories by ACEOs to create understanding about their context (Same Kids Same Goals 2007).

However, the status of ACEOs continues to be marginalised in the workplace as a result of misconceptions and a general lack of awareness regarding the complexity of their role by their colleagues in schools. A more complete understanding on an institutional level on how to embed equality in the workplace regarding the roles of ACEOs is required. As Ruby Harrison (interview, 2 May 2003), an ACEO, states:
In mainstream education I think they [staff] are ignorant because they
want to be ignorant so they are like that. If you're not an
[Aboriginal Education Resource Teacher] or a teacher or if you're not
an AEW or you are not involved with that person every day they don't
really care what you do. They have their attitudes, which are really
awful which can make school life really difficult. There is no need to
do it because if they took the time to plan with these people they
could benefit.

Harrison highlights the continuation of misrecognition of ACEOs' valuable work in schools. The oral histories that have informed this paper go some way towards explaining this historical problem, which has not shifted dramatically since the 1940s. There have been significant shifts in Indigenous education policy that have more broadly shaped the concerns of ACEOs. Yet, if these policies are going to positively impact ACEOs' lived realities in schools, what is still required is understanding of ACEOs' work by non-Indigenous staff.

Intersections between policy and practice

The history of national Aboriginal educational policy is informed by broader state agendas during the protection and segregation era (1870s-1950s), assimilation era (1930s-60s), the self-determination era (1970s-80s) and reconciliation since the 1990s. Policy 'about' Indigenous people is framed quantitatively and positions Indigenous people as deficit. Critical policy analysists such as Altman (2009), Gray and Beresford (2008), and Walter (2016) highlight how Indigenous people are positioned as the problem, rather than contextualising the impact of state policy agendas that have attempted to Christianise, civilise, control and manage Indigenous people. As Dodson (1994:99) states:
The human element in this is not recognised. The meaning of these
figures is not heard--or felt. The statistics of infant and perinatal
mortality are our babies and children who die in our arms. The
statistics of hearing loss are our children who are prevented from
participating in school life, and later, employment. The statistics of
shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles, aunties
and elders who live diminished lives and die before their gifts of
knowledge and experience are passed on. We die silently under these

Attempts by Indigenous people to bring to life their narratives and overturn archaic social Darwinian policies are presented through oral histories, such as those found in the Bringing them home (HREOC 1997) report. The absence of ACEO voices in the literature throughout the protection and segregation era is a significant point that highlights the need for oral histories to reveal these untold stories of resistance. Policy imperatives and workplace conditions for ACEOs need to be informed by their experiences.

ACEOs' standpoints (Harding 2004) about their work through oral histories have largely remained peripheral to the methodologies informing Indigenous education research and policy discourse. Interestingly, policy discourse concerning teacher identity is significantly different from the framing of ACEOs. Teacher identity is constructed through the lens as the professional, whereas ACEOs are represented through the lens of care and support, that is, the para-professional. ACEOs are defined through emotional labour that is positioned outside the 'professional' status of the teacher. Held (1995:128) asks, 'How does the framework that structures justice, equality, rights, and liberty mesh with the network that delineates care, relatedness, and trust?' ACEOs' ole as carers within an extended family community model and their position as 'workers' with an award wage in the school routinely leaves them outside considerations of their value to Indigenous students. Thus ACEOs' complex position is not represented within policy, as care is not constituted as a public, but instead a private, matter.

This policy position is routinely evident in the assumptions that ACEOs simply add value to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal students. Indigenous ethics of care models and its connection to pedagogy and Aboriginal agency are not visible in policy (MacGill 2008). Instead, inherent assumptions are maintained within education policy where Aboriginal students are defined as 'the problem' that the State assumes responsibility to resolve. The structural discrimination informed by deficit assumption of Aboriginal peoples is not linked to the broader social and educational policies in Australia. Interestingly, ACEOs are identified as partial solutions to what is framed as the 'Aboriginal educational problem', but there is little guarantee that there will be equality of recognition of their workplace roles to ensure that their low status as 'care' workers and sundry aides is overturned. The representations of ACEOs within policy or its general absence, with the exception of Bringing them home (HREOC 1997) and The report of the review of Aboriginal education (NSW AECG and NSW DET 2004), are routinely deficit. This deficit is represented through numerical statistics that remove ACEOs' stories, their lives and the impact they have on Indigenous students' lives:
The numerical format of these statistics and their seemingly neutral
presentation, however, elide their social, cultural and racial
dimensions. In a seemingly unbroken circle, dominant social norms,
values and racial understandings determine statistical construction
and interpretations, which then shape perceptions of data needs and
purpose, which then determine statistical construction and
interpretation, and so on. Just as important is that the accepted
persona of statistics on indigenous people operates to conceal what is
excluded: the culture, interests, perspectives and alternative
narratives of those they purport to represent--indigenous peoples.
(Walter 2016:80)

The state assumes presumptive rights by pointing at these statistics to manage and control these constructed deficits and simultaneously silences the stories that make up for the gains won by ACEOs. Beresford and Partington (2003) contextualise the social realities of Aboriginal peoples' lives and, without contextualising this within policy, there are limited opportunities for change. In The report of the review of Aboriginal education (NSW AECG and NSW DET 2004), ACEOs are cited as necessary to Aboriginal student learning outcomes. However, the positioning of Aboriginal students in policy as the problem, and the failure to include ACEOs' narratives in most documents, reveals a gap in foundational concepts of education itself. That is, student-centred learning has been central to educational theory culminating in a plethora of current approaches that engage with the concept of belonging as critical to student learning outcomes. ACEOs play a critical role in creating a sense of belonging through academic and non-academic support within the framework of Indigenous ethics of care. Arguably, a framework that works through the intersectionality between ACEOs, students, the school and teachers within the parameter of an ethic of care and deep listening is required before we set yet another policy agenda that perpetuates the discourse of disadvantage without examining structural inequality. However, this is not to say there is not disadvantage, as outlined by Gray and Beresford (2008), in terms of the constellation of factors impacting Indigenous students that profoundly affects their daily lives at school. Gray and Beresford (2008:217) argue that to shift the governance model of Indigenous education offers a way forward. Gray and Beresford (2008:217) argue for a new Indigenous education governance model that involves both 'horizontal and vertical policy-making structures' as a way forward.

If we are to examine policy in the context of governmentality (Hattam and Smyth 2015), then Aboriginal resistance to Western subjectivity is a signifier of the failed project of the state, as the aim of the state is to create the civil subject that conforms to the dispositive (Foucault 1997). Aboriginal education continues on as it has for 40,000 years, within an Indigenous ethics of care framework, despite colonisation. However, as Beresford (2003) highlights, settler and Indigenous relationships continue to be problematised. Building a sociable dialogue through the mechanism of deep listening within an oral history methodology embeds the possibilities for equality of recognition of the value of ACEOs in policy and practice.

We need to ask, what are the conditions of listening and participation between ACEOs, teachers, students, principals and staff in schools? Massumi (2015:79) argues that the micro-political relations are informed in the moment of affective connections. When ACEOs argue for safe spaces for their students and themselves, there is reference to the local, but also the broader politic of the history of Western schooling. Understanding the oral histories of ACEOs' lives and the sociopolitical context enables opportunities for education staff to recognise a broader skill set or capacities that are necessary for Indigenous students and their sense of belonging in schools.


This paper has revealed that while working conditions for ACEOs have improved, this has not led to a higher status for ACEOs in education. When Anangu Teaching Assistants were first employed in 1940 at the Ernabella Mission School, there were no formal employment conditions or wages. During the 1960s Aboriginal Teacher Aides were not guaranteed reasonable working conditions or recognition of their linguistic, cultural or familial knowledge.

By 1996 an enterprise agreement included a reclassification that supported further training and development for ACEOs. Through the efforts of the Australian Education Union and the South Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee--in particular, leaders such as Pat Buckskin and Dr Alitja Rigney--successive generations of ACEOs have slowly experienced better working conditions than their predecessors.

In the 1970s Aboriginal School Assistants (the former Aboriginal Teacher Aides) became a focus of the Australian Education Union and the South Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee, which culminated in a 1987 industrial agreement, representing an improvement in the working conditions of ACEOs. Although there have been reforms in terms of workplace agreements, the oral histories recorded clearly demonstrate that ACEOs continue to experience indirect discrimination in schools as a result of a general ignorance regarding their complex roles in the school and community.

The roles and complex community obligations outlined by ACEOs through oral histories demonstrate the need to implement this methodology with the aim of overturning the absence of recognition by colleagues and the state of ACEOs' valuable but complex work. The narratives by ACEOs highlight the need for greater recognition of their roles as support people and agents of change for Indigenous students. Oral history, as a methodology for engaging the micro-political relations shaped by our affective connections, is urgently required. It is the story that is remembered and such an approach provides accountability by both ACEOs and non-Indigenous staff to understand the complex history of cross-cultural relations in complex sites such as schools.

ACEOs have been buffeted against education policy and practice as a result of the absence of 'parity of participation' (Fraser and Honneth 2003) in Aboriginal education. They are a critical stakeholder representing Indigenous students' position in the school and yet their voices continue to remain unheard or marred by misrecognition and confusion over their roles (Gower et al. 2011; MacGill 2008). ACEOs are committed to education for Indigenous children and, arguably, an oral history approach should be employed to create intercultural understanding of the issues raised throughout this paper, and would provide greater recognition of ACEOs in schools.


Abrams, Lynn 2010 Oral history theory, Routledge, London.

Altman, Jon 2009 Beyond closing the gap: valuing diversity in Indigenous Australia, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Canberra (Working paper 54).

Atkinson, Judy 2008 'Finding our relatedness stories: psychology and Indigenous healing practice' in R Ranzijin, K McConnochie and W Nolan (eds), Psychology and Indigenous Australians: effective teaching and practice, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, pp.103-23.

Battiste, Maria 2000 Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision, UBC Press, Vancouver, BC.

Berger Gluck, Sherna 2011 'Has feminist oral history lost its radical/subversive edge?', Oral History 39(2):63-72.

Beresford, Quentin and Gary Partington (eds) 2003, Reform and resistance in Aboriginal education: the Australian experience, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, WA.

Buckskin, Pat and Bill Hignett 1994 Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects: towards a new way, Stages 1&2' in C Davis (ed.), A research project into the working conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Workers, Publishing Unit of the Department of Employment, Education and Training, Canberra.

Charmaz, Kathy 2008 'Constructionism and the grounded theory' in A Holstein and JF Gubrium (eds), Handbook of constructionist research, The Guldford Press, New York, pp.397-412.

Davis, Chris, John Woodberry and Pat Buckskin 1995 Ara Kuwaritjakutu projects: towards a new way Stage 3: a research project into the working conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Workers report, Publishing Unit of the Department of Employment, Education and Training, Canberra.

Department of Education and Children's Services (DECS) n.d. Aboriginal Education Workers and Teaching Aides, national report vol. 4, Reconciliation and Social Justice Library, <> accessed 7 February 2007.

Department of Education 2015 Aboriginal cultural standards framework, Department of Education, Perth, <> accessed 14 June 2017.

Dodson, Mick 1994 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice report, HREOC, Canberra.

Edwards, William 1969 'A personal journey with Anangu history' in SS Dunn and CM Tatz (eds), Aborigines and education, Sun Books, Melbourne, pp. 41-59.

--and Bruce Underwood 2006 'Changes in education as hunters and gatherers settle: Pitjantjatjara education in South Australia' in C Dyer (ed), The education of nomadic peoples: current issues, future prospects, Berghahn Press, United States, pp.101-19.

Foucault, Michael 1997 'The ethics of concern for the self as a practice of freedom' in P Rabinow (ed.), Michel Foucault: ethics, subjectivity and truth, New Press, New York, pp.281-301.

Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth 2003, Redistribution or recognition, a political-philosophical exchange, Verso, London.

Funnell, Robert 2013 'Indigenous Education Workers: a special case of educational assistants' in R Jorgenson, P Sullivan and P Grootenboer (eds), Pedagogies to enhance learning for Indigenous students: evidence based practice, Springer, London, pp.45-60.

Gale, Mary-Anne 1996 'AnTEP comes of age, section B: teacher education', The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education (24)1:17-25.

Giroux, Henry 2005 Border crossings, cultural workers and the politics of education, 2nd edn, Routledge, New York.

Goodall, Heather 1987 'Aboriginal history and the politics of information control', Oral History Association of Australia Journal 9:17-33.

Gower, Graeme, Gary Partington, Matt Byrne, Ann Galloway, Natalie Weissofner, Neil Ferguson and Ekkie Kirov 2011 The review of the Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer Program, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.

Gray, Jan and Quentin Beresford 2008 'A "formidable challenge": Australia's quest for equity in Indigenous education', Australian Journal of Education 52(2):197-223.

Hajek, Andrea 2014 'Oral history methodology', SAGE Research Methods Cases <> accessed 5 July 2017.

Harding, Sandra 2004 'Introduction: standpoint theory as a site of political, philosophic, and scientific debate', The feminist standpoint theory reader, intellectual and political controversies, Routledge, New York, pp.1-15.

Hattam, Robert and John Smyth 2015 'Thinking past educational disadvantage, and theories of reproduction', Sociology 49(2):270-86.

Held, Virginia 1995, 'The meshing of care and justice', Hypatia 10(2), pp. 128-133.

Hill, Virginia (ed.) 2008 Leading from the edge: Aboriginal education leaders tell their story <> accessed 20 June 2017.

Horner, Jack 2004 Seeking racial justice: an insider's memoir of the movement for Aboriginal advancement, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

HREOC (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) 1997 Bringing them home: report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Commonwealth Government, Canberra.

Hughes, Paul 1988 Report of the Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force, Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force, Canberra.

Kwan, Elizabeth 1987 Living in South Australia: a social history, South Australian Government Printer, Adelaide.

MacGill, Bindi 2008 Aboriginal Education Workers: towards equality of recognition of Indigenous ethics of care practices, doctoral thesis, Flinders University, South Australia.

Massumi Brian 2015 Politics of affect, Polity, Boston, MA.

Mattingley, Christabel and Ken Hampton 1988 Survival in our own lands: Aboriginal experiences in 'South Australia' since 1836, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Nakata, Martin 2004 'Some thoughts on the literacy issues in Indigenous contexts', Curriculum Leadership 2(20), <,4635.html?issueID=9691> accessed 7 June 2016.

Nicholls, Christine 1998 Nicknaming and graffiti writing practices at Lajamanu NT., A post ethnographic sociological fiction, doctoral thesis, Macquarie University, NSW.

NSW AECG and NSW DET (NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Incorporated and NSW Department of Education and Training) 2004 The report of the review of Aboriginal education: Yanigurra Muya: Ganggurrinyma Yaarri Guurulaw Yirringin.gurray: freeing the spirit: dreaming an equal future, NSW Department of Education and Training Darlinghurst, NSW.

Perks, Robert and Alistair Thomson (eds) 2006 The oral history reader (2nd edn), Routledge, New York.

Pillow, Wanda 2003 'Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research', International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16(2):175-96.

RCIADIC (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) 1992 Aboriginal deaths in custody, response by governments to the Royal Commission, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Read, Peter 2007 'The truth that will set us all free: national reconciliation, oral history and the conspiracy of silence', Oral History 35(1):98-106.

Rigney, Lester-Irabinna 2002 'Indigenous education and treaty: building Indigenous management capacity', Balayi: Culture, Law and Colonialism 4:73-82.

Same Kids Same Goals 2007 'Same Kids Same Goals: a toolkit for principals and IEWs' <> accessed 6 July 2010.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai 1999 Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples, "Led Books, Dunedin, NZ.

Somerville, Margaret, Kerith Power and Phoenix de Carteret (eds) 2009 Landscapes and learning: place studies for a global world, Rotterdam Sense Publishers.

Taylor, Charles 1994 Multiculturalism: examining the politics of recognition, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

Thompson, Paul 1988 The voice of the past: oral history, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

United Nations 2008 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, <> accessed 5 August 2015.

Walter, Maggie 2016 'Data politics and Indigenous representation in Australian statistics', in T Kukutai and J Taylor (eds), Indigenous data sovereignty: toward an agenda, ANU Press, Canberra, pp.79-98.

Williams, Chris and Bill Thorpe 2003 Aboriginal workers and managers, history, emotional and community labour and occupational health and safety in South Australia, Seaview Press, Seaview, SA.

Wilton, Jan 1991 'Remembering racism', Oral History Association of Australia journal 13:1.

Winkler, Michael 2006 'Hidden treasures: recognizing the value of Indigenous educators', Education Horizons 9(2):18-19.

Woods, Davina 1996 'Indigenous education workers: Ara Kuwaritjakutu towards a new way', Queensland Teachers Union Professional Magazine 14(l):23-4.

Interviews (tapes and transcripts held by author) Alder, Sue, interviewed by author 2 May 2004. Harrison, Ruby, interviewed by author 2 May 2003. Hignett, Bill, interviewed by author 2 April 2003. Johnson, Mary interviewed by author 2 February 2006. Liones, Barry, interviewed by author 12 March 2005. Lore, Cher, interviewed by author 3 May 2004. Rigney, Alitja, interviewed by author May 2004.

Belinda MacGill

University of South Australia

Belinda MacGill is a lecturer and researcher at the University of South Australia. Belinda has won several teaching awards including the Student Choice Excellent Teacher Award (UniSA), Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Teaching (National award) and Excellence in Teaching Award (Flinders University). Her primary research interests draw on the fields of Indigenous education, postcolonial theory, visual methodologies and critical race theory. Her theoretical work is informed by Indigenous knowledges (Nakata 2004; Smith 1999), Giroux's border pedagogy (2005) and place-based pedagogy (Somerville 2011). She has published a broad range of articles concerned with postcolonial receptivity, teaching in the contact zone and feminist art theory.

COPYRIGHT 2017 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Macgill, Belinda
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2017
Previous Article:Indigenous sporting pasts: resuscitating Aboriginal swimming history.
Next Article:Bulldust, flat tyres and roadkill: a disorderly decolonising fieldwork journey through remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters