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Be Inspired’: Indigenous Education Reform

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

‘Be Inspired’: Indigenous Education Reform

Delivered to the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Melbourne, 18 August 2008

Speech by Tom Calma

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission


‘Be Inspired’:
Indigenous Education Reform

Tom Calma Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and National Race Discrimination Commissioner

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Good Morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people and pay my respect to their elders past and present. 

I’d like to say a big thank you to the organisers of this event for the opportunity to speak today.  I am delighted to be involved in this conference.  As a former educator I have great faith that education is one of the most important mechanisms for addressing the inequalities faced by Indigenous people.  Arguably I am still an educator - though my role has diversified somewhat as I will explain shortly.  But as for this presentation this morning – I hope that some of things I am going to talk about will inspire – and I think you might also notice a hint of challenge in this presentation. 

Slide 2

Functions and Powers

  • Public awareness and education through annual Parliamentary reports: the Social Justice Report and the Native Title Report and through other education materials available on the HREOC website
  • Submissions to Parliamentary inquiries and other inquiries
  • Speeches and participation in range of fora to promote human rights and influence policy and legislative development
  • For more information visit the HREOC website at:

For those of you who don’t know me, I am Tom Calma.  I am the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner as well as the Race Discrimination Commissioner at Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission - HREOC.  In my Social Justice role I am required by statute to provide ongoing monitoring of the human rights situation of Indigenous Australians. 

I do this by providing a report to Federal Parliament every year - the Social Justice Report; that explores the extent to which Indigenous Australians enjoy their human rights.  This Report assesses government policies in relation to Indigenous health, housing, education, essential services, representative structures and other issues, using a human rights framework.  I also produce a separate report to Parliament - the Native Title Report; that considers the impact of the native title system on Indigenous people’s human rights. 

As Race Discrimination Commissioner I work to increase community awareness of, and compliance with, federal laws; namely the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).  I also undertake research and education projects that tackle racism and build greater community understanding. 

In both my Commissioner roles I provide submissions to Parliamentary inquiries and other inquiries, I give speeches and I develop policy advice on key issues.  I participate in range of forums to promote human rights and I have a public role to appear on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  In February this year when Prime Minister Rudd apologised to the stolen generations on behalf of the Australian Parliament, I was asked by the National Sorry Day Committee and the Stolen Generations Alliance to respond to the Parliament’s Apology.  The Commissioner role has many facets, and the educative role is one of the fundamental and foundational aspects of it.   

The right to education and challenges in Indigenous education

My paper this morning focuses on education for Indigenous students with a look at the ways in which the formal education system accommodates our young people.  I am also going to talk to you about some of the resources that HREOC can offer your schools. 

Slide 3

Education is a human right

  • Regardless of who you are and where you live in the world, whatever your age, race, sex, you have the right to education, and governments have a responsibility to provide equality of educational opportunity for their citizens.
  • Education must be available, accessible and appropriate without discrimination.

Human Rights: Everyone, Everywhere, Everyday

As we know, education is the cornerstone of human development, of life opportunities and of full participation in a democratic society such as ours.  It is well established that access to education has significant implications for the future health, well-being and socio-economic status of people the world over.  It is no accident that education is a fundamental human right.  That is, regardless of who you are and where you live in the world, whatever your age, race or sex; you have the right to education, and governments have a responsibility to provide equality of educational opportunity for their citizens.  Education gives us an enormously important start in life so it must be available, accessible and appropriate without discrimination for the youth of our country. 

Despite the obviously important nature of education, Indigenous Australians continue to be the most educationally disadvantaged group in Australia, a fact which goes hand in hand with other disadvantage … sometimes the consequence of a ‘domino effect’. 

We all know the statistics.  I am sure some of you have seen first hand the rates of Indigenous students leaving school as they progress through the system.  It is an unfortunate fact that Indigenous students are not keeping pace with their non-Indigenous counterparts in achieving the progressive academic benchmarks.

Slide 4

Some improvements in Indigenous Education

  • 4.8% increase in Indigenous enrolments in secondary schools across the country
  • 20% increase in HSC completion rates

There have been some recent nation-wide achievements, such as a 4.8% increase in Indigenous enrolments in secondary schools (ABS 2006-2007) and a 20% increase in completions of the Higher School Certificate.  However the achievements of Indigenous students are hardly comparable with those of their non-Indigenous counterparts.  Our education systems are creating headway, but not in a way that currently enables Indigenous students to reach their full potential – or in ways which will allow them to go on and grasp the real benefits of their education experience. 

The Importance of language and culture

Education should captivate and inspire.  It should be delivered in a way that captures the hearts and minds of all students - including Indigenous students.  One way in which education can capture us - is when it reflects what is known to us, and what is familiar.  A level of familiarity assists us educationally to move to the next steps of learning.  It helps us build a sense of ownership and success.

Slide 5

Education Reform: A new conversation

  • Bridging the education divide by making school culturally familiar and appropriate for Indigenous children
  • Education reform by embedding Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum

Indigenous students should be able to see themselves reflected in all aspects of the school curriculum, the school culture and the school infrastructure.   Indigenous students need to know that the education system is a place that is designed for them.  I am not simply talking about the odd cultural ceremony at school or a class here and there on Indigenous heritage, rather, I am trying to stress that indigenous cultural heritage needs to be embedded within our education systems.  What do students, parents and teachers see when they walk into your school?  What culture is reflected on the school walls, in the hallways, outside your offices?  What kind of messages does the infrastructure of your school send to the wider community? 

Slide 6

Am I reflected in the school culture?

Commitment to eliminating cultural barriers means respecting and acknowledging Indigenous culture across all curriculum areas like maths, history, legal studies, PDHPE, the arts, technology studies, geography and the rest, as well as in the introduction of Indigenous language programs. 

Culture is an important building block for every child’s future.  Not only does it provide a platform for enhanced learning, it also provides a ‘recognition space’ where young people can learn in an environment that respects and acknowledges where they come from, who they are, and what they may already know.  A curriculum that is enriched with the known culture is one where other skills like literacy and numeracy are scaffolded and then enriched.  In terms of the child’s rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that cultural identity, language and values should be respected, and that no group shall be denied the right to either enjoy their own culture or use their language. 

Slide 7

Language Revitalisation and Schools

  • Languages are culture
  • 300 Indigenous languages existed prior to colonisation
  • Today 110 are critically endangered
  • There are only approximately 20 Indigenous languages not at risk
  • Schools have a vital role to play in strengthening languages and cultures

This is an appropriate juncture to mention that this year is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.  It is a good time to take stock of how Australia fares as a nation in the preservation of Indigenous languages. 

Unfortunately, like many other countries, Australia has not been committed to the protection of its languages.  A recent National Indigenous Languages Survey shows that of the original estimated 300 Indigenous languages, only a third of these exist today, and most are critically endangered.  There are only 20 Indigenous languages that are not yet on the ‘at risk’ list.

Safeguarding our languages does more than simply protecting a means of communication.   It preserves Indigenous culture and identity.  Languages carry our cultures and with them our rich experiences as a people.  It is through language that we Indigenous people interpret our belief systems, our religion and spirituality, our knowledge of country, our kinships systems and more.  When language is lost, knowledge and wisdom are lost, but so too is identity. 

If languages are to survive in the future they require the resources and genuine commitment from formal education systems, as well as commitment from Indigenous people.

Slide 8

The teaching of Indigenous languages and culture does not weaken, but rather strengthens other educational outcomes

Indigenous languages must become part of school curricula if they are to compete with the powerful monolingualism of television.  And it is not such a strange concept to be teaching our languages, even in Victoria.  For example, a lot of mining activity is happening on Indigenous land in this country and negotiations worth millions are occurring between mining and minerals companies and Indigenous people.  Having the language of Walmatjarri or Yolngu Matha for example, would be an advantage for students wanting to work in mining in WA or the NT. 

Being able to speak a local Indigenous language while working in service sector industries, such as health and education, also adds enormous value.  We have to remember that in remote communities around Australia, Indigenous languages are the lingua franca – they are the first language of the students in the community.  It is the language you hear in the school yard and on the streets.  Some of you here may have taught in remote communities, and there may even be a few speakers amongst us. 

And if I can give Indigenous language learning one final promotion – it is to say this - there are some superb teaching tools for Indigenous languages – some great interactive CDs and picture dictionaries for example.  You will need to dig a bit but they are out there.  And you’d be surprised to find that you could source some fluent Indigenous language speakers in Victoria – I know for example that Yolngu Matha was once taught at Melbourne University.  It may still be taught there, and no doubt there are graduates from this course. 

Slide 9

Limited uptake of Indigenous language programs

NSW: In 2006, only 9 secondary schools had Indigenous language programs.

VIC: Approx 40 Indigenous languages existed prior to colonisation;

  • A greater uptake of language programs is needed beyond the existing work of VACL and the VICE and Worowa Independent Aboriginal Colleges

A 2006 report by the NSW Department of Education revealed that only 9 secondary schools had an Indigenous language program.  The Victorian school system is similarly lacking though I acknowledge the important work of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages.  For a state where 40 languages were spoken before colonisation, there has been little take up of Indigenous language programs, apart from those offered at the Victorian College of Education where Gunnai language and culture is taught, and the Worowa Independent Aboriginal College in Healesville where Yorta Yorta is taught.  

The 2008 Victorian Strategy for Koorie Students Education published by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development claims that this state is behind other states in recognising Koorie culture in the curriculum.  There is scope to rectify this situation.  Consider what your school is doing in its Australian history units.  Ensure that current living cultural practices and histories accompany the more static historical accounts of colonisation.  Bring Aboriginal people into your classrooms – investigate the history of the people who are indigenous to the school region.  Create ‘sister school’ relationships with remote schools.  Have your students communicate with Indigenous students using available technologies and perhaps organise exchanges.  Ask your teachers to look into sharing curricula and ideas and with teachers in the remote ‘sister school.’   The outcomes from this will be educative for your staff and students as well as for your paired school.

My vision for the state of Indigenous language and culture in this country is that one day we will reach the point where our languages and cultures are celebrated as the Maori language and culture is celebrated in New Zealand.  Imagine if the opening of parliaments around this country was done by acknowledging the traditional land owners and speaking some words of the local languages.  This is not so far fetched and this practice is routine in New Zealand since 1984.  This is one way in which we engender cultural pride and this is an important step in inspiring Indigenous youth to be the leaders of tomorrow. 

Indigenous education debates: boarding schools vs mainstream local schooling

I’d like now to take you into some of the current debate around the education of Indigenous students.  As we are reading almost weekly, arguments are being put about the relative benefits of community schooling versus interstate or intrastate boarding school alternatives.  Some arguments suggest that sending Indigenous students away to attend elite boarding schools is a means of maximising the educational opportunities and therefore enhancing their potential achievements.  Others lay claim to the benefits of schooling in communities where connection to the local culture and community presence is strong;  an element arguably absent in the private school system.       

Slide 10

Indigenous Education Models

  • Boarding school models (Higher Expectation Program, Cape York Institute)
  • Local schooling options (Cherbourg State School: ‘Strong and Smart’ Program)
  • Utopia Outstations Longitudinal study

I think there is merit on either side of these debates.  The Higher Expectations Program (HEP), which is run through the Cape York Institute, is testament to the value that boarding schools can bring to Indigenous education options.  HEP aims to reverse the academic record of the local Cape York community, where as few as 6 per cent of Indigenous students complete Year 12.  In doing so, the program enables students to access some of the most elite boarding schools across the state of Queensland. 

To date, the program boasts nearly a 100 per cent attendance rate and has seen a number of students successfully complete their HSC and go on to pursue university or employment opportunities.  The St Joseph’s College in Sydney’s Hunters Hill has been similarly successful, having hosted over 70 Indigenous students from 33 communities across the country, with 17 going on to complete their HSC in the last 5 years alone.  The boarding school option caters well for Indigenous students who are capable of living away from home.  We must not forget that though the overall statistical picture for Indigenous education is poor - reflecting many decades of structural disadvantage - there are many Indigenous students who are very high achievers.  We should not overlook the need to develop specialist programs to nurture the talented, with consideration for boarding school options, and for the highest quality schooling in the remote, home communities.  

Remote schools have been a focus of recent media attention – and some of you may have seen the recent 4Corners program about schools on the Tiwi Islands.  This raises the other side of a debate that is occurring into Indigenous education.  So what does community schooling look like?  I’d like to give you one example of a community school approach and it is one that I think many of you will know – it’s the Cherbourg State School in Queensland.  Before I talk about the school, it is important to know that the Cherbourg community is the result of a state run mission for Aboriginal people.  Aboriginal people from 47 tribes were forcibly taken to the Cherbourg mission.  At the mission a person’s every move was controlled, and life was directed by a series of bells that told people when to wake, when to eat, when to go to bed.  It has only been since 1986 that the community of Cherbourg has received autonomy by being granted land tenure.  

In the late 1990s the Cherbourg community was rife with social problems of violence and alcoholism and student absenteeism levels were high, along with poor school performance.  The Cherbourg school had all of the hallmarks of the gaps in the educational outcomes of Indigenous students that we have come to expect.     

Slide 11


  • Chris Sarra, Cherbourg Elders and Education Leaders from around the country at the Rationshed in Cherbourg

Dr Chris Sarra is an Indigenous man who was Principal of the school from 1998 to 2005.  He told the Cherbourg kids that they didn’t have to accept being on the bottom of the pile, that they could aspire to better things.  His view is that self-belief is integral to success.  The Cherbourg school culture would not accept underachievement. 

‘Strong and smart’ was the motto.  It was a culture of self-belief along with the maintenance of high educational standards that inspired the students at Cherbourg to achieve some remarkable results. 

For example, in 1997 regular school attendance was at 50%, by 2002 it had improved to 95%.  Student literacy and numeracy results both improved from levels that were well below the state average, to levels that were respectable compared with the state and national averages.  In 2005, 60 % of Year 5 Cherbourg students were above the national numeracy benchmark.1 Some people may have thought that making these kinds of changes to a remote Aboriginal school is like turning around the Queen Mary with a paddle, but the Cherbourg experience shows that a strengths-based approach, rather than a punitive-based approach, can have an enormous beneficial impact.

If you ask me about what it means to be inspiring and inspired - the Cherbourg model stands out.  And it stands out because it combines Aboriginality with success.  The success does not require transplantation to another cultural environment.

It does not mean that success is exclusive to those few who are able to relocate.  It means that education can work in the Aboriginal context. 

Slide 12

Aboriginal children at the Utopia community near Alice Springs

Source: Ian Waldie, Getty Images Published:Friday, May 25, 2007

  • Aboriginal children play an outstation in the Utopia community near Alice Springs where, in an upcoming report in British medical journal The Lancet, it is stated that the Aboriginal population of Utopia has been found to be exceeding the indigenous population of Australia in terms of good health, by a return to traditional Aboriginal lifestyles of hunting and gathering bush foods and medicines, October 31, 2006.

And there are some very good reasons for my people to stay out on country.  A recent long-term study on health outcomes for Aboriginal people has found Aboriginal people living in remote Northern Territory outstations have better health compared with the rest of the Northern Territory Aboriginal population.  Utopia is a place north-east of Alice Springs which comprises of 16 very remote outstations.  This cluster of communities was the subject of a 10 year study.   The study found that people on the outstations had fewer hospitalisations and deaths from cardiovascular disease and almost 50% fewer deaths from all other causes compared with the rest of the NT Aboriginal population.  Along with access to community-controlled health services, the study concluded that the reasons for better health in the outstation communities were:

people live a more traditional life that includes hunting on outstations away from the community store: and

residents are in control of community services and connected to culture, family and land, with the community holding freehold title to their land.2

It is possible to turn around the ‘Queen Mary’ of Indigenous educational underachievement – and it is possible to do it out on country where our health outcomes are better.

You might be interested to know that the Cherbourg school initially lost a number of teachers who had a hard time with the newfound approach and attitude to learning.  I’ve heard Chris Sarra speak about this and it is interesting to hear him say that he didn’t mind having young staff with limited classroom experience.  He wanted enthusiasm.  He wanted people who were prepared to learn with the students and from the students, and he wanted people who were flexible enough to absorb the school culture and the strengths-based approach.  Perhaps he was looking for people who were inspired – and Dr Sarra was certainly prepared to be inspiring. 

I raise the Cherbourg example because I believe it is relevant to all schools.  The attitude that your school takes is essential in preparing future citizens and modelling future citizen behaviours.  All schools have students who are underperforming – and it is interesting to see how different schools – indeed different organisations -- deal with under-performance.  As we all know here, there are many reasons why people don’t perform to an optimum level.  In my view a strengths-based approach is one that will work in most environments – so long as we provide equality of opportunity and ensure there is no overwhelming structural disadvantage.  In fact, at HREOC we have recently been through a process of organisational planning and we used a strength-based approach.  The approach was explained to HREOC in the following way:  

…empirical work has demonstrated that organisations and individuals emerge as far more successful and effective and with a much greater sense of well-being when they focus on the positive, their strengths and what works.3

An eminent 20th Century management theorist, Peter Drucker, observed that organisations were successful when there was an   ‘alignment of strengths in a way that makes a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.’

If we ask what makes us effective, and if we build on our skills and our energies, we will do much better than asking ourselves how we can correct our weaknesses.  A saying that captures this idea is, ‘Organisations evolve in the direction of the questions they ask’.        

Slide 13

Strengths based approach

  • The whole system participates
  • The focus is on inquiry and dialogue
  • There is a focus on honouring differences and searching for common ground
  • It is task focused and about building a vision and plan that will make a real difference
  • It requires collective commitment to action

There are five features of the strengths-based process:

  1. The whole system participates – the sum is always greater than the parts’. 
  2. The focus is inquiry and dialogue – not “problem-solving”.  The process is rich in interactions, narratives, and dialogues. 
  3. There is a focus on honouring differences and searching for common ground – not conflict resolution.
  4. It is task focused and on about building a vision and plan that will make a real difference not simply getting together to discuss and reflect.
  5. It requires collective commitment to action.

The approach has been used widely around the world, and is consistent with a human rights approach - in fact the process has been used in United Nations forums.

How can HREOC help?

As an organisation, one of HREOC’s primary roles is to create awareness about human rights through education.  We do this in a number of ways – like participating in forums likes this, but also through HREOC’s website.  This site acts as a ‘one stop shop’ for information on human rights.  We provide information that is directed at a variety of audiences from employers, service providers and education institutions to name a few. 

The School Program is an important aspect of our Website that aims to inform students and teachers alike on their human rights and responsibilities.  This program contains abundant school resources.

Face the Facts is one of our most popular resources.  It includes statistical information on migrants, refugees and Indigenous Australians.  Our education section on the website has downloadable teaching materials to complement this for use in the classroom.  Later in the year I will be releasing our updated version.

Voices of Australia is a compilation of stories from everyday Australians about cultural harmony and overcoming racial stereotypes.  This was originally produced as part of the celebration of 30 years of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2005.  

We also have a resource collection that many of you would be familiar with, the Bringing them Home series.  These materials stem from HREOC’s National inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, which culminated in the Bringing them Home report in 1997.

Since 1997 there has been enormous public support, and the influx of requests from teachers for information led to the development of various education resources.  Last year for the tenth anniversary of this report, we updated the resources and re-released the education materials along with a classroom poster, a DVD and a collection of personal stories and artworks in a publication Us taken away kids.  These resources are available free online or can be ordered directly through our publications department.

Recently we produced a range of fact sheets for students on the origin, philosophies and history of human rights titled Human rights explained.  This resource has proven extremely popular with the general public already, and by request, copies of it have been distributed to each Member of Parliament in the country - hopefully this indicates a positive move forward in greater human rights protection in Australia.

Slide 14

Moving Forward, Together

There is also a general ‘Info for students’ page on HREOC’s website which has helpful links to how to start researching for assignments.  

These resources are quite comprehensive and we endeavour to link them to curricula nationally.  If you are yet to be acquainted with them, I hope you will at least recommend them to your staff as a potential resource. 


I’d like to conclude now by looking at the substance of the Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  In the Apology the Prime Minister talked about turning a new page in our history.  He committed his Parliament and the Australian people to a course of action.  He said the following:

  • We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
  • A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
  • A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
  • A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
  • A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.4   

Slide 15

Contact HREOC

Education Manager

Rebecca Stuart 02 92849742

Social Justice Policy Unit
Fabienne Balsamo 02 92849719
Kirsten Cheatham 02 92849705

Human Rights: Everyone, Everywhere, Everyday

The Prime Minister’s words are a call to action, to think and rethink the ways in which our education system accommodates all of our young people.  I would like to see real commitment and action as a result of these words - by governments, by government departments and by the service deliverers that are funded by them.  If we are to close the gap in educational achievement then there is much to be done.  As school leaders your role is to be continually looking to new solutions where there are gaps in educational outcomes.  You also have a role to develop equal partnerships with Indigenous people so that we have an active role in shaping and participating in Australia’s educational environments and ensuring that our children have access to appropriate education. 

to conclude, can I reiterate that education plays an immensely important role in addressing Indigenous disadvantage.  Each part of the education picture is important and I hope you – for your part – feel inspired to play a role.  I commend you here for the hard and important work that you do as educators.  As an educator myself, I know all too well the tendency for schools to get lumped with every social problem and to be expected to provide a solution to every problem. 

But participating in the enhancement and promotion of Indigenous students, by enhancing our culture and our way of life, is an inspiring task and one which helps to build the health, happiness and prosperity of Indigenous Australians in the future. 

Slide 19

Thank you


[1] Cherbourg State School, Annual Report 2005, available online at accessed 14 August 2008

[2] Rowley, K., O’Dea, K., Anderson, I., McDermott, R., Saraswati, K., Tilmouth, R., Roberts, I., Fitz, J., Wang, Z., Jenkins, A., Best, J. D., Wang, Z. & Brown, A. 2008, ‘Morbidity and Mortality for an Australian Aboriginal Population: 10 year follow
up in a decentralised community’, Medical Journal of Australia, March 2008: 188(5):283–7

[3] Rufus Black, What is a strengths based approach? Background to HREOC 21

[4] Prime Minister, Rudd K., Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, Australian Parliament, 13 February 2008, available online at:, accessed 15 August 2008