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Aboriginal education in rural Australia: A case study in frustration and hope.

THIS paper considers patterns in Aboriginal education recorded over the past 25 years in one small country town in south west Queensland. Data from this longitudinal study are used to illustrate national patterns and trends. Discussion highlights the levels of systemic bias and structural violence which continue to obstruct positive developments adapting the largely monocultural education system to the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal communities. Particular Aboriginal community initiated innovations related to school/community relations and the teaching of Aboriginal studies are examined and analysis is related to general factors influencing these important components of Aboriginal education.


To understand Aboriginal education in Australia, it is necessary to locate it within the history of indigenous people since colonisation. Since 1788, Australian Aboriginal people have been exposed to a barrage of socio-economic-political-cultural influences which have led to rapid and often traumatic socio-cultural change. Such change was marked by a series of specific policy eras including segregation/protection, assimilation, integration, self-determination and self-management.

Until some 25 years ago, these policies were based in and supported by scientific and institutional racism. Scientific racism (Gould, 1988) justified dispossession and land alienation. As government control extended, institutional racism (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1967) entrenched discriminatory legislation intent on controlling, protecting and `uplifting' the minority.

Thus segregation and `protection' directed indigenous life chances on reserves, missions and fringe settlements until the 1930s and the various state native protection acts aimed to `train', `civilise', `uplift' and `Christianise' the `Natives' (Reynolds, 1989; Rowley, 1971). At this time, Aboriginal education was either non-existent or confined to lower primary school grades taught in segregated, poorly staffed `black' schools (Rowley, 1971).

Although assimilation became the unspoken policy (to be enacted in 1951) in 1939 (Rogers, 1973), government control intensified during the Depression when many self-supporting, independent Aboriginal people, who had avoided the influence of reserves and missions, were forcibly relocated on reserves with the justification that they required `training', by segregation and in isolation, before they could be admitted to citizenship and `equal opportunity' (Quinlan, 1983; Rowley, 1971). Education for Aboriginal people continued to be largely segregated and intent on preparing Aboriginal youth for work as servants and manual labourers and to instil in them the virtues of Christianity (Crawford, 1993).

In 1951, the Assimilation Policy was introduced to ensure that Aboriginal people would join the Australian society, `enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and being influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties' (Lippmann, 1992, p.38). In reality, the policy perpetuated the framework of protection and segregation. Thus throughout the 1950s, 1960s and up to 1975, the Native Welfare and later the various Aboriginal and Islander Advancement Acts in Queensland (McCorquodale, 1987) continued to control many Aboriginal people's movements, employment, ability to access and manage their income and raise their children. Similar controls were built into legislation directed towards Aboriginal people in other states, for example, the Northern Territory Welfare and Wards' Employment Act (1953) (Lippmann, 1992) and the activities of various Aboriginal welfare boards (McGrath, 1995).

During this latter period of the Assimilation Policy, Aboriginal children began to enter mainstream schools. Like most western education systems attempting to cope with the needs and aspirations of culturally different children, Australian schools were, at the time, deeply influenced by the deficit model of education which squarely placed the `blame' for minority group children's poor educational attainments on their socialisation, family patterns, cultural traditions and socio-economic situation (Eckermann & Kerr, 1979; Ryan, 1976). The influence of this educational model continues to plague Aboriginal education, teachers' philosophies and teaching strategies (Eckermann, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1994).

In 1967, a National Referendum gave the Commonwealth Government power to legislate in Aboriginal affairs and, for the first time, enable Aboriginal people to be counted in a national census. In the same year, government policy in relation to Aboriginal affairs changed to integration; to be changed to self-determination in 1972 and to become self-management in 1975 (Lippmann, 1992; Rowley, 1986).

Today self-management should enable Aboriginal people to decide their own fate, to make their choice of life style, economic pursuit, political allegiance or cultural patterns. In practice, this continues to be difficult, given that, in the early 1970s, when self-determination/self-management became the driving force in Aboriginal affairs, almost 25 per cent of all Aboriginal adults (over 15 years of age) had never attended school and 40 per cent had attended only primary school while less than 2 per cent actually attended Year 10 (Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, 1976, p. 16).

Although some progress has been made over the past 20 years, the pattern of under-education persists. Thus the National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (1995) indicates:
 Nationally, just over 25% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
 Students who started Year 7 or 8 five or four years before (depending on
 the State or Territory) were enrolled in Year 12 in 1993 ... Despite the
 concerted efforts of the last decade to raise Year 12 retention rates for
 all Australian students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students'
 retention rate is now what it was for all Australian students more than
 twenty years ago. (p.64)

Today, despite the fact that most forms of institutional racism have been abolished, Aboriginal(1) life chances continue to be constrained by structural violence. Elsewhere (Eckermann & Dowd, 1988; Eckermann, Dowd, Martin, Nixon, Gray & Chong, 1994) we have followed Galtung (1970) and defined structural violence as violence inherent in the social order. It may be expressed as physical violence, indicated in patterns of life expectancy across groups and time (Alcock & Kohler, 1979), it may manifest itself in psychological violence, indicated in patterns of alienation (Arosalo, 1971), or it may be expressed as systemic frustration of aspirations (Khan, 1978). Through systemic frustration of aspirations, `the predominant social order denies one category of persons access to the prerequisites of effective participation in a system developed and controlled by powerful interest groups' (Eckermann et al., 1994, p.248). These prerequisites, as outlined by Savitch's (1975) analysis of systemic bias, include organisation and communication skills, financial resources, and commitment of personnel and trained staff.

Any analysis of Aboriginal life chances, historical and current (Cawte, 1972, 1974; Eckermann et al., 1994; J. Miller, 1985; Reynolds, 1987, 1988), clearly indicates that Aboriginal people in Australia are subject to all forms of structural violence. Thus physical violence is evident in the fact that adult Aboriginal life expectancy is on average 20 years shorter than that of non-Aboriginal Australians, while infant mortality continues to be two and three times higher than among non-Aborigines (McLennan & Madden, 1997; National Aboriginal Health Strategy, 1989; Thompson, 1986). Similarly, psychological violence is evident in the levels of substance abuse used to alleviate stress and anxiety (Eckermann, Dowd & Dixon, 1993; Eckermann, Watts & Nixon, 1984). It is also highlighted by the incidence of self-mutilation (McLennan & Madden, 1997; Wilson, 1982).

In this paper I focus on the cycle of systemic frustration which has characterised Aboriginal education as evident in a longitudinal study of education aspirations and outcomes in one rural Aboriginal community 1971-1996. Community developments 1983-1996 indicate that socio-political-cultural changes may be challenging this cycle.


I have been working in Rural Town, south west Queensland, since 1969. Contact has been continuous over the past 25 years though marked by specific periods of intense fieldwork. The first of these spanned 1971-1996 when the Rural Town community was part of a larger comparative study of value orientations (Eckermann, 1973). I returned to Rural Town from 1974-1976 to carry out an extensive ethnographic analysis of adaptation (Eckermann, 1977a, 1980a). Contact was maintained over the next seven years and in 1983 I worked in Rural Town to investigate the processes and problems associated with urban drift, so common throughout economically depressed rural Australia in the early 1980s (Eckermann, Watts, & Dixon, 1984). Over the next two years, I was able to document quite significant changes in community and educational developments (Eckermann, 1985). In 1992, I returned to carry out a survey of health needs in the area (Eckermann, Dowd, & Nixon, 1992). Today I am involved in longitudinal, collaborative action research detailing the Gunggari ethnohistory from an emic perspective and developing a model for community based Aboriginal studies programs.

Progressive life histories, documenting educational standards, employment patterns, socialisation practices, black-white interactions, identity, mythology and folklore have been maintained for all families(2) in Rural Town over the past 25 years. In each period of intensive fieldwork, all Aboriginal individuals have been involved in each project, although the community's total population fluctuated, as all Aboriginal groups do, with individuals moving in and out of the area.

Data presented below were collected by means of participant observation, life histories, structured and unstructured interviews, focus groups sessions and community meetings. A full analysis of methodological issues arising from such extensive anthropological fieldwork is found in Eckermann (1980b, 1985), Eckermann, Dowd, & Nixon (1992), and Eckermann, Watts, & Dixon (1984).



Rural Town was `settled' in the mid-1800s and grew into a large rail and service centre over the next 100 years. It continues to provide essential services to a shire composed of farming and grazing properties. Like many country towns, Rural Town is declining. In 1973, the population in the shire numbered 2799 (Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, 1973) of whom some 1200 lived in town; of these, 180 identified as Aboriginal. In 1997, the population in the shire had been reduced to 2100; just over half (n=1100) live in town (Shire Clerk, personal communication, 1997) and 102 of these identify as Aboriginal (Nixon, personal communication, 1997).

The town is serviced by two schools -- a Catholic convent which caters only for primary education and the state school which includes Years K to 10. Few Aboriginal children attended the convent school for extensive periods of time(3), consequently the data presented here reflect only Aboriginal participation in the state school. This central school, which is currently staffed by 12 teachers and a principal, is attended by 198 children; 40 of these are of Aboriginal descent. They are enrolled in all years, except Year 8.

In this discussion of educational changes, trends in Rural Town will be presented to illustrate those characterising Aboriginal education generally within the framework of relevant government policies. The material reflects a high measure of systemic frustration within three distinct government policy eras: assimilation, self-determination and self-management. It will be argued that more recent community initiatives may lead to `real change'.


In the early 1970s, education patterns among Aboriginal people in Rural Town reflected those characteristic of Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. Figure 1 clearly indicates the level of under-education prevalent at that time. Thus most adults participated only in primary education at a time when, in the general population, between 74 and 96 per cent of students (depending on state and school type) completed Year 10 (Fitzgerald, 1976).


Figures 2 and 3, which explore educational achievement among men and women aged 30 years and over, reinforce the perception of under-education in Rural Town during the 1970s. Thus, of the 62 adults interviewed in 1971, no one in the over-30 age group completed Year 10 (Junior).


The pattern is hardly surprising. Those aged 40 and over experienced education either in the `dark' school -- a segregated Aboriginal school established on the fringe settlement in the mid-1930s -- or by `correspondence' provided by itinerant teachers who irregularly visited outlying properties in the district (Eckermann, 1973). It should also be realised that the aftermath of scientific racism encouraged educational authorities to limit Aboriginal education to fourth and up to sixth grade until the late 1940s. Indeed, in the 1930s, when Aboriginal parents protested their children's expected attendance at the newly instituted dark school on the fringe settlement(4) on the outskirts of town, government records categorised their children in terms of the prevalence of `Aboriginal blood' and government correspondence insisted that children attend the segregated dark school in order to benefit from its `special' Aboriginal programs (Eckermann et al., 1994). This exclusion was not restricted to Queensland (see Harris, 1976, for an analysis of New South Wales Aboriginal education).

In Rural Town, Aboriginal children were `integrated' into the white school in the early 1950s, though they remained segregated residentially on the fringe settlement. In 1967, the Rural Town community was forcibly `assimilated' when its fringe settlement was bulldozed and they were resettled within the town's precinct in a `salt and pepper pattern'(5) The 1960s and early 1970s, then, had brought quite traumatic change to this relatively small Aboriginal group.

Aboriginal adults resident in Rural Town at this time were coming to terms with life in a largely foreign environment -- socially, culturally and educationally. Within this rapidly changing and stressful environment, Aboriginal people found it hard to maintain positive identity (Eckermann, 1977a). Their Aboriginality had been relatively secure within the segregated, yet safe, Aboriginal environment of the fringe settlement, to be questioned only in fairly limited, and well-structured situations, such as employment, health or shopping.

In the early 1970s, however, Aboriginal people had to come to terms with the realities of continuous culture shock, the realities of living with non-Aboriginal neighbours day and night. Nevertheless, Figures 4 and 5 indicate that for both males and females, those belonging to the under 30 age group were beginning to experience more years of education than those aged over 30.


It was clear at the time, however, that more education was not leading to better employment because of the limited scope of employment generally available in small country towns and the lack of opportunity to be trained for skilled trades. Such a situation characterised the life chances of young people in many rural areas (Nalson, 1976). In Rural Town, however, the situation was compounded by European reluctance to employ Aborigines in any but labouring jobs (Eckermann, 1977a, 1979).


By the mid 1970s, Aboriginal affairs were characterised by significant developments; Aboriginal pressure groups(6) were lobbying governments nationally and internationally to gain some recognition of the state of Aboriginal health and welfare (Lippmann, 1992), and government policy officially abolished assimilation/integration and embraced self-determination. The then Department of Aboriginal Affairs(7) was beginning to provide assistance for Aboriginal community development programs as well as housing and welfare organisations. On the educational front, the Aboriginal Secondary Grant Scheme(8) was beginning to make a difference to Aboriginal children's ability and preparedness to stay at school, while the Aboriginal Study Grant(9) was beginning to increase the number of Aboriginal tertiary students (Watts, 1981). These trends are also reflected in Rural Town as outlined in Figures 1, 4 and 5.

On the basis of Figures 4 and 5 it would be possible to hypothesise that the trend towards higher educational standards was being well and truly established in Rural Town. Certainly the Aboriginal Secondary Grant Scheme was recognised by the community as worthwhile, not only because it enabled parents to support their children for longer periods at school, but also because it made the whole educational issue topical. Discussions about the Grant frequently led to discussions about children's problems at school.(10) Ambitions for `good jobs' were intrinsically linked to educational achievements. As Rural Town's central school only provided for children's education to Year 10, education officers were sought out by a number of parents to `have kids sent to boarding school' in larger centres (Eckermann, 1977a).

Despite these apparently positive developments, Aboriginal children in Rural Town were not experiencing greater satisfaction at school or from the educational process. Rather children were staying at school longer because they (unlike their parents and grandparents) were being enrolled at the age of five and were legally required to stay at school until the age of fifteen; consequently the number of children in secondary school rose. Prolonged discussion throughout 1974 and 1975 with children attending both primary and high school (Eckermann, 1977b), however, indicated that none enjoyed the learning situation, saw any evidence that they might benefit from it in the future and frequently did not even learn basic skills while they attended. Their most frequent comments centred on `the teacher won't teach me' (i.e. fully explain, provide support and direction) and on discrimination by teachers and other students. Indeed students and parents claimed that teachers actively encouraged students to leave once they reached the age of 15. Interviews with teachers and the principal of the time confirmed that Aboriginal children were perceived in terms of stereotypes prevalent at the time, that is, `coloured kids seem to have a natural talent for sports' and that Aboriginal children were low achievers -- low achievers were discipline problems, therefore `You really have to screw these kids into the floorboards to establish you're the boss' (Eckermann, 1977a). Of course such stereotypes were supported by the educational philosophy of the time which continued to stress that minority group children suffered a series of deficits which schools could/should correct. Further, the prevailing content of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal interactions in Rural Town, marked as they were by paternalism, social distance and discrimination, was clearly spilling over into the school. Parents generally feared rejection and embarrassment; consequently when they did `front' the teachers, it was because they believed their children had been disadvantaged or hurt in some way. Such contact was almost invariably confrontational and reinforced participants' stereotypes of one another (Eckermann, 1977a).

At this time, south west Queensland was experiencing severe economic depression. Chronic un- or underemployment which resulted from changes in rural industries, such as mechanisation, diversification and the dissolution of large grazing properties in favour of smaller holdings, began to characterise the Aboriginal community which had experienced almost full employment in the preceding decades (Eckermann, 1979).(11) Parents' and schools' admonition that `if you don't go to school and get a good education you won't get a good job' therefore seemed hollow to children who, on the whole, did not enjoy school and were aspiring towards adulthood and adult status (Eckermann, 1980a). Remaining at school guaranteed that young men and women would continue to be classified as children by their community -- leaving school, gaining some sporadic employment or unemployment support, ensured at least a measure of independence and hence status, even if full employment remains illusive (Eckermann, 1977a, 1979).

These `internal' patterns were (and continue to be) compounded by `external' structural forces such as teacher placements, teacher preparation and resource allocation which have characteristically disadvantaged education in isolated rural communities. During the 1970s and, indeed, the 1980s, it was `tradition' to place first year out teachers in some of the most difficult and least attractive schools (Eckermann, 1982). The education profession appeared to support the premise that, as no one wanted to teach `out west', it was easiest to transfer new teachers, or newly promoted executives, to isolated rural towns. Once they had served their `apprenticeship', they were then much more likely to gain a transfer to a more central, coastal school in subsequent appointments.

Consequently, staff turnover in western schools was, and to some extent has remained, a problem. In many isolated Queensland Aboriginal settlements teacher turnover can exceed 90 per cent annually; in Rural Town in the 1970s, only two local teachers formed a stable core. Characteristically 50 per cent of staff, particularly in the secondary department, would be new to the school at the beginning of each year. Further, few teachers had experience in teaching Aboriginal children, designing Aboriginal studies curricula or dealing with crosscultural tensions in their classrooms. Indeed few teachers had experienced `the west' and took considerable time to adjust to the physical, climatic and sociocultural differences (Eckermann, 1982).

Rural Town Aboriginal people experienced a great deal of systemic frustration and little self-determination in terms of educational, social or economic factors during the 1970s. Despite such systemic frustration, however, the 1980s witnessed an educational awakening and strengthening among Aboriginal people in Rural Town.


When I returned to Rural Town in 1983, unemployment continued to plague the Aboriginal community, 57 per cent of whom were surviving on some form of social security payment. Almost half of these had not been in any employment in the previous five years (Eckermann, Watts, & Dixon, 1984).

Educational standards, however, had changed considerably as outlined in Figures 1, 4 and 5. By 1983, 70 per cent of adults under the age of 30 had completed Year 10 or more and, proportionately, more young women than young men tended to complete their Higher School Certificate.

There is no doubt that the Aboriginal Secondary Scheme assisted those who chose to continue their education beyond Year 10 by providing funding for attendance at boarding schools. Additionally, those who had left Rural Town to further their education over the past 10 years served as role models and proved that leaving home need not necessarily be traumatic. Additionally prolonged underemployment and economic depression had become endemic -- the work to which the young aspired in the early 1970s had simply disappeared (Eckermann, 1979). Perhaps exploring the world outside Rural Town, by going away to school, had become much more attractive than it had been in the 1970s.

Some of the benefits of government policies, for example support for Aboriginal organisations, had also reached `the west' and Rural Town established its own Aboriginal Housing Company in 1979. Further, relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people had settled and, in 1983, 86 per cent of the Aboriginal community believed there to be relatively little discrimination against them in the town. At the time they commented:
 A lot of discrimination, but not as much as most places -- mostly it's at
 the School with the kids -- name calling, that sort of thing

 Today yes -- had a lot of discrimination years ago -- even put them in
 Different sections in the pictures, but that was years ago, got away from
 that a bit now. (Eckermann, Watts, & Dixon, 1984 p.105)

1983 also saw a major change of executive at the state school. The new principal had had previous experience teaching in rural Queensland, was eager to involve Aboriginal people in the school and was committed to developing appropriate, locally based Aboriginal studies programs. He invited me to run a week-long in-service in which, at the end of 1983, Aboriginal parents, for the very first time, shared information about their history, cultural traditions, and lifestyle with teachers (Eckermann, 1985).

The in-service's focus enabled Aboriginal parents to become the teachers and provided them with their first opportunity to realise that their knowledge was not only valuable but unique in the teachers' experience. As a result, tentative ties developed between some members of the community and some teachers; people went out to dinner together, it was less threatening to visit the school and some parents began helping with excursions.

Of course strong permanent ties were not forged between home and school by one in-service, but it was a beginning. At the end of 1984, I was asked to conduct another in-service in order to gauge how far teacher/parent collaboration had proceeded and to familiarise parents with how schools, classrooms and teaching materials were organised. Further we set up work groups of teachers and parents to develop content areas for inclusion in an Aboriginal studies program. These groups worked for the next 12 months to develop a local Aboriginal resource book, Nalingu, which was launched in 1985 at a reunion of all Aboriginal families associated with Rural Town and its fringe settlement (Eckermann, 1985). It could be argued that a process of decolonisation had begun.

These were exciting developments, but they had relatively little direct impact on Aboriginal children's academic achievements. The number of children successfully completing the Higher School Certificate (HSC) with aggregates which would enable them to gain tertiary entry, for example, did not rise significantly. Indeed, in 1983 only two adolescents over 15 years of age were still attending school. Similarly on a national front, M. Miller (1985, pp.188-199) recorded that in 1984 only 13.2 per cent of Aboriginal students progressed to Year 12 while Bob Morgan (past president of the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group) pointed out that, in the same year, only 15 of the 104 Aboriginal students who sat for the HSC in NSW scored more than half marks (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 1985). Under-education, then, continued to characterise the Aboriginal community of Rural Town, as it did other Aboriginal groups throughout Australia.

As the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) (1991) pointed out, the number of Aboriginal students attending high schools in 1986 rose to 26 183 comprising 65.7 per cent of 15 year olds, 40.5 per cent of 16 year olds and 18.3 per cent of 17 year olds. Yet `these rates are still well below the rate for all students aged 15 to 17 in Australia (90.1%, 67% and 39.6% respectively in 1986)' (RCIADIC, 1991, p.342).

Similarly, retention rates (to Year 12) were about a third of those characterising non-Aboriginal students in 1986 and 1987. Consequently the RCIADIC commented:
 The phenomena of children `opting out', truanting or leaving school at an
 Early age provides a sense of `failure' and the felt inadequacy to change
 the Environment which people are facing. This has both the effect of
 lowering their self esteem and also preventing them being able to deal with
 the pressures and values of mainstream society. (p.341)

Many factors are thought to contribute to such poor levels of attainment; some of these undoubtedly include inexperienced and/or insensitive teachers, inappropriate curricula, inappropriate teaching strategies, high staff turnover, racism, culture shock and lack of parental involvement in educational activities and decision making (Eckermann, 1987; Harris, 1990; Malin, 1990). Continued economic depression in western Queensland and the lack of a clear nexus between education and employment tightens the cycle of frustration.

Developments in Rural Town since 1985, however, indicate a ray of hope and demonstrate that improved educational achievement may be the end product of many diverse socio-cultural-economic factors rather than directly related to changes in educational practices and processes.

Real change

The 1983/1984 in-services and the community reunion in 1985 were fully supported by the school. The school's agenda was the development of home/ school relations and an appropriate, locally relevant Aboriginal studies curriculum.

The workshops and the teachers' interest kindled reflection of their history and cultural traditions and a passionate commitment among some of them to write their own oral histories (Foster, 1991; Nalingu, 1985), to reclaiming their fringe settlement, to relocate the old building, which was the `dark' school, on its original site on the fringe settlement, and to create their own culture centre. Their agenda then became focused on land rights and cultural heritage. School staff were empathetic and did not push their agenda at the expense of the community's. As a result, the school has played a significant support role to the community's goals and aspirations.

Today adults who in 1973 reported that as children they `hated being black' (Eckermann, 1977a, p. 190) contribute to the Aboriginal cultural committee. The committee now holds title to the fringe settlement. The dark school has been relocated and an Aboriginal community development officer has been appointed to investigate cultural projects which will lend themselves to local enterprise development.

The local Aboriginal community continues to host a week of celebrations and activities for all school children in the district during Aboriginal Week. The local Save the Children's preschool, established in 1976, has been handed over to an Aboriginal committee. Nalingu, the Aboriginal Corporation in Rural Town, has successfully organised and co-ordinated four major reunions of Aboriginal families formerly associated with their town and district; in October 1993, a week's cultural activities were celebrated on the fringe settlement in honour of the Year of the World's Indigenous People. In 1997 another major reunion took place at Easter.

Rural Town Aboriginal Housing Company now owns fourteen houses, four flats and two residential blocks of land. In 1996 eight adults completed a community based Small Business Management course through TAFE. Aboriginal people are also active on general town committees concerned with tourism, local churches and charitable organisations.

Aboriginal unemployment currently stands at 60 per cent (Nixon, personal communication, 1996), a `medium' level, compared with other western communities (see Eckermann, Dowd, & Nixon, 1992). Nevertheless, the adult population of 102 has risen from 88 in 1983. Today all children complete some secondary education and most complete either Year 10 or senior secondary school. One Aboriginal woman in her forties has successfully completed tertiary studies; the Housing Company has sponsored another in her thirties to study social welfare at university to increase its pool of skilled personnel. Two women under the age of 30 have completed secretarial and child care courses by correspondence while another two adolescents are attending a TAFE college in a nearby centre. Since 1985 three women have consistently supported Aboriginal children at school and liaise with teachers on a voluntary basis (Eckermann, Dowd, & Nixon, 1992) and in 1994 the first Aboriginal Education Assistant was appointed at the school. Further, the community is reassessing its cultural and linguistic roots which are centred on the traditional owners of the area, the Gunggari people. In the process, local Gunggari researchers have been trained and are conducting their own ethnography.

Thus the very real advances in community development, adult education and cultural strengths are beginning to pay off. These advances are related to a feeling of success (as opposed to `failure', RCIADIC, 1991), community involvement in and control over community projects in housing and heritage, rather than significant changes to the education system. Such successes inevitably affect other aspects of community life. In Rural Town one of these has been education, particularly community based adult education.

Rural Town is not a `shining example' in terms of Aboriginal educational advances. Aboriginal children in rural Australia continue to score significantly below the literacy and numeracy levels of urban Aboriginal children as well as other non-Aboriginal children living in urban and rural Australia (National Review, 1995, p.90). Retention rates continue to be problematic -- indeed in Rural Town, in 1997, only three students enrolled in Year 10 (of whom one is planning to go on) and only one was in Year 11. Employment prospects have not improved significantly, although a Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) has been actively trying to break the cycle of long-term unemployment by encouraging young men to work while on unemployment benefits.

Yet there have been significant changes in the Aboriginal community's perception of itself and its involvement in and contribution to the life of Rural Town as a whole. Thus representatives from the Aboriginal Housing Company, the Aboriginal cultural committee and the CDEP serve on the Shire's Action Committee in order to enhance the economic climate of the whole community. The cultural committee's efforts have been recognised statewide and a number of its representatives serve on Aboriginal education and language forums as well as general cultural/heritage committees. These developments are going to be the role models for the future generation and, as such, may contribute to breaking down the cycle of systemic frustration which has characterised this community's life chances over the past 25 years.


Despite the fact that `our future depends on very few men and all that we have gained can be lost at the stroke of a pen' (Eckermann et al., 1992, p.245), very real change has occurred in Rural Town from 1971 to 1996. The previous discussion has demonstrated that Aboriginal people had no measure of control over their economic, social or political circumstances in the period before 1983. Indeed many believed the stereotype that they had `lost their culture' (Eckermann, 1977a). Their life chances were curtailed by unemployment, undereducation and racial tensions, despite government and educational policies designed to increase independence and self-determination.

Within this context, the school became one catalyst for change. It was not and is not the focus of this change but it did provide respect and support for Aboriginal parents' cultural integrity. From this small beginning, the Aboriginal community set its own agenda and, over the next ten years, has highlighted, explored, researched and publicised its cultural vitality.

Importantly positive change has incorporated adults and children in educational endeavours which are enhancing personal and community integrity -- endeavours which have grown around the development of their community rather than out of mainstream institutionalised education. This process has led to real change -- real community development -- of which extended educational achievement will undoubtedly be one measurable outcome.

Aboriginal education
Aboriginal studies
racial identification
rural Aborigines
school community relationship
self determination


(1) In this paper I will be discussing only the position of Aboriginal people -- not because that of Torres Strait Islanders is not equally important -- but simply because I have worked only in Aboriginal communities.

(2) Families are affiliated with five distinct kinship groups which identify with particular founding members.

(3) Only one Aboriginal family, in the 1974/75 cohort, sent its children to the convent school. Over the past five years, however, three children who have been constantly in trouble at the state school have been transferred to the convent school by their parents in the hope that the smaller classes and the personal attention from the Sisters might change their school performance.

(4) The Rural Town fringe settlement was located on the other side of the river, some 3 km from the edge of town. It was established in the late 1800s as an assembly ground for displaced Aboriginal peoples looking for work and continued as `the Aboriginal camp' from the turn of the century until 1967.

(5) It was decided to relocate Aboriginal families next door to non-Aboriginal neighbours thought to share the same socio-economic situation in order to avoid `ghetto' settlements and racial tension (Eckermann, 1973).

(6) Although such groups were mainly active in urban areas, and their activism was not reflected in Rural Town, their effect nationally impacted indirectly on services which began to be available in rural areas.

(7) The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was specifically created in 1972 by the Commonwealth Government to co-ordinate and fund national programs in Aboriginal housing, health education and welfare.

(8) The Aboriginal Secondary Scheme was/is a national funding/support program designed to encourage Aboriginal children to stay at high school. Initially (1972) the program was available only to children attending upper secondary school; it was later (1976) extended to include all Aboriginal children entering high school.

(9) The Aboriginal Study Grant was a national funding/support program designed to encourage Aboriginal students to enter tertiary institutions.

(10) At the time, eight children were in receipt of the Aboriginal Secondary Grant Scheme; four of these were classed as achieving `below average' by their teachers; only one was receiving remedial help.

(11) In Rural Town, the down-turn in Aboriginal employment was not related to the introduction of equal wages. Individual contracts characterised all employment, whether it be of Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal labour. This practice persists in the rural industry around Rural Town today.


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Associate Professor Anne-Katrin Eckermann is the Director of the Centre for Research in Aboriginal and Multicultural Studies, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales 2351.
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Author:Eckermann, Anne-Katrin
Publication:Australian Journal of Education
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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