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‘Partnership builds success’ An Indigenous perspective of educational partnerships (2009)

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

‘Partnership builds success’ An Indigenous perspective of educational partnerships

Tom Calma
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

to the Dare to Lead National Conference,
Hyatt Hotel, Adelaide

14 June 2009

I would like to acknowledge the Kaurna People, the traditional owners and
custodians of the Adelaide Plains and pay my respects to their elders past and
present. Thank you Uncle Lewis O’Brien for your warm and generous

Can I begin by recognising Dr Alice Rigney and Dr Paul Hughes two of my
heroes in Indigenous education, Professor Peter Buckskin the Co-Patron of Dare
to Lead and all of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and
administrators here today.

I thank Dare to Lead for inviting me to speak today, and I would like to
acknowledge all of you here. You are educators of current and future
generations of young people. I have great respect for the work you do and the
important role you play in our society.

The subject of this conference and the topic I am discussing today is educational partnerships. Now let me say firstly, I know that some of us
here may be a little disillusioned when we hear talk about partnerships. And it
is not because we think partnerships are a bad thing in principle; rather, it is
because many of us have been talking about ‘partnerships’ for years
– and the response from governments has been high on rhetoric and low on

Yes, many of us here also know that partnership approaches to education have
been the catch-cry of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since the
1970s. And it is true to say that in remote Australia at least, during the
1970s and 80s we were in a better position than we are today, with more emphasis
on our involvement in schools. It is also true to say that the formal
structures to engage and involve us in education have been reducing over time.
There is less funding for partnerships, and more rigid control over school

So do we think that ‘partnerships’ is the government’s
latest weasel word? We certainly read about partnerships in every education
policy about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and yet we don’t see evidence of the systems and structures to engage us and
to support our input. We also know that governments have acted against our
efforts to have input into schooling. The policy to undermine Bilingual
Education in the Northern Territory is a good example of this.

So we may have reservations about partnerships – even some cynicism.
But, even with these reservations, it is my view that we should seize every
opportunity to make real partnerships happen. I commend Dare to Lead in
focussing the next phase of its work on partnerships. This may be the time when
governments and others are ready to bring us into education as true partners.
We should hold them to the promises of their policies.

My job, as I see it today, is to reignite the power around partnerships.
Partnerships are hugely important and will always be important – and I am
talking here about partnerships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people and the systems that educate our children.

So let’s start with: Why should we have partnerships?

Well, first and foremost we need partnerships so we can have our voices heard
in schools. My reference to “we and our” in this context is to
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; my people. And we need to have
our voices heard in schools because governments and non-Indigenous people design
everything about the educational environments where our children are schooled.
They design the infrastructure, they develop the curricula, they set the times
for school holidays and they design the measures against which our kids are
assessed. We need to make sure that schools are places where our kids feel
welcome and where our culture and knowledge is reflected. Our voices must
inform some of these education variables.

The second reason for partnerships is equally important.

It is now well established through research that when students get congruent
messages from home and school – that is, when parents and schools are
saying the same things and reinforcing similar values, students are more likely
to take on the messages of the
learning.[1] Therefore we need
partnerships because it assists our kids to learn.

Students see the relevance of learning when they can make connections between
what they hear in the classroom and what they hear and see in their home.
Children learn through scaffolding knowledge – through creating building
blocks of meaning. It is difficult when the messages are mixed or
contradictory. When the school says one thing and parents say another,
students are likely to tune out. So we need to make sure we know what is being
taught in schools and we need to have or own input – as parents, as
educators, as community members and as experts or professors of Indigenous

We also need partnerships so that parents and students can make good
decisions about their education. In rural and remote locations, these
partnerships are crucial. There are many decisions about schooling for parents
to consider. Do parents want their children in boarding schools for senior
secondary education or do they want quality secondary schooling in their region?
Do parents want the local language and culture taught at the school? Does the
community want the school to provide Bilingual education? What is the best
educational approach to suit local needs? What kind of employment is available
in the region? Where can students go if they want to continue studying after

Some of these questions are equally urgent for parents in urban areas. What
kind of employment will my child be able to take up after school? Are the
subjects that my child is choosing the best ones for the future? What are my
child’s talents and what are his or her challenges in the school
environment? How does the school curriculum reflect the aspirations of my
child? What other study options are available at the school?

A regular meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders and
school staff would provide a conduit for this information. More importantly, a
partnership would allow for parental input into decisions.

Establishing the need for partnerships is something that is relatively easy
to come to in principle. We know it is a good idea, but it is considerably more
difficult to develop the structures which make partnerships functional and self

Most of us here know that it is the education bureaucracies that set the
broad direction for school education. At a distance from schools, the
departments make many of the decisions about what schools provide. And we all
know that they simply can’t do it well or in a way that is responsive to
local needs and aspirations.

So, what does a partnership group or a local forum look like? How does it

Here’s one model.

The Northern Territory is some way down the track in developing Community
Partnership Education Boards
.[2] I want to present these Boards as a model for partnerships though I acknowledge
that the process for implementing these Boards has stalled in the NT.

In principle however, the Community Partnership Education Boards are a
powerful model of Indigenous involvement in schools. In 2008, the then Deputy
Chief Minister of the Northern Territory said the following about the Education

These structures must allow communities to assume more responsibility and
accountability for the delivery of quality education and training services by
empowering them to coordinate the effective use of resources and expertise. The
new approaches to partnerships must allow groups of Indigenous communities to
form regional governance structures that can act as consumer representative fund
holders with responsibility for purchasing education and training services for
their communities.[3]

In August 2005 the Hon Syd Stirling who was then the NT Minister for
Education said this about the Community Partnership Education Boards: overcome the disconnection between the aspirations of the community and
the direction of schooling and training... My vision is for a genuine
partnership between Indigenous parents, students and those responsible for the
education of young Indigenous Territorians with a view to a better life outcomes
for Indigenous people...

In 2007 the first Remote Learning Partnership Agreement was signed at the
Garma festival in Arnhem Land. The Agreement between the Yampirrpa School
Council and the NT Government describes a plan for working together to achieve
mutual education goals. The Agreement sets out the nature and scope of the
cooperation of partners – the Yolngu people and the education department.
The Agreement documents the jointly agreed goals and lists the commitments and
actions of parties to achieve the goals. In principle, there is much to
recommend the model which was two years in its development.

This was to be the beginning of the first Community Partnership Education
Board. I am aware however, that the NT Government has reneged on its part of
this partnership agreement by attempting to do away with Bilingual education.
The status of negotiation and progress around this initiative is now in limbo.

Even with this disappointment, I think this only shows that agreements of
this kind may need safeguards to make sure that they cannot be ignored or
overruled. It also goes back to my opening statement in this speech about some
of us being disillusioned about partnerships. There is much rhetoric and little
real action to honour partnerships.

We Aboriginal people have been getting used to some of these setbacks, but it
won’t stop our determinations. The principle of Community Partnership
Education Boards should be something that we continue to aspire to in the
environments where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are the
majority. I am aware also, that this kind of structure won’t work in
every environment, and may not be needed in some places. There are other models
of partnerships, and not all involve partnerships with governments.

In the case of the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, a partnership was set up
between Indigenous community members and this philanthropic group. Since 1997,
the Foundation’s aim has been to establish and manage after-school
education support projects for Indigenous students who want to complete their
secondary education.[4] The
Foundation now coordinates a number of projects, each tailored to suit a remote
Indigenous community.

The Polly Farmer Foundation is a central point receiving funds from private
donors, governments, community interests and other stakeholders. The Foundation
has developed a model for managing the projects using the advice of a steering
committee of project partners who have responsibility to set the strategic

Local Indigenous people are the essential drivers of each project, and it
goes without saying that they are part of the steering committee.

This example raises an interesting point. Partnerships do not happen without
resources. Some communities are lucky enough to have the support and services
of organisations like the Polly Farmer Foundation, but not all.

It is my view that governments should fund schools to develop a secretariat
that will support Indigenous community members and schools to develop
partnership forums where the need for these groups can be established. And an
Indigenous school secretariat would consist of support staff whose role it is to
communicate and record all of the recommendations of partnership agreements.
The secretariat would manage all aspects of the partnerships, including bringing
in services such as translator and interpreter services where required.

You will be aware though, that at the moment it is not easy to get funding
for this purpose. We used to have ASSPA, the Aboriginal Student Support and
Parent Awareness program, until 2004. The ASSPA funding was allocated to school
committees based on a per capita formula taking into account the number of
Indigenous students enrolled at the school and weighted for remoteness. To my
mind, this was a fair process.

Now we have the Parent School Partnership Initiative (PSPI) program. This
operates on a submission process which puts the onus on the school to apply for
funds. The PSPI is part of the Government’s Whole of School Intervention
Strategy that aims to involve communities and parents in schools. But I am
concerned that the submission process puts small schools at a disadvantage and
there is some evidence that small schools might have difficulty accessing these
funds. In 2006 the government was unable to spend all of the money that was
allocated for this program.[5] I
suspect that the small remote schools, to which 50 percent of the funds are
allocated, were unable to make the appropriate submissions to get the

I would like to see this program improved. If governments want partnerships
to be more than aspirational statements, then they have to target funds and make
sure that they get to the schools where they are required.

I am talking about formal partnerships that are sustainable and ongoing.
They may be groups with an elected or stable membership that opens its door to
the community.

Some of you here have a role to liaise between the school and Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander parents and carers. I am well aware that it is not
always easy to engage parents and community members in school life –
especially once students are at secondary school. Parents don’t show up
at information nights, and if they do, there is not a lot of real interaction
between the school staff and parents.

I should also clarify that the partnerships that I am talking about are more
than information sessions led by staff – they are places where Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander people have a role in shaping the school environment.
They are forums where some of our knowledge and world-view is incorporated into
the school. They are forums where we are the advisors running the information
sessions and the school staff; listen to us.

Of course we also need to know about the school curriculum. We should be in
conversations about the purpose of school and the future of the children in the
region. We should be discussing further study options, training and employment.

We need assistance to develop these partnership groups. They can be
configured in many different ways, but with the one pre-condition – that
they are configured to meet the local needs and to utilise the local resources.

Now I want to go back to my opening statement about reigniting some interest
and action around partnerships. In this part of the speech I will be talking
about the work or the roles for education partnership groups.

I think that the first thing that local school partners should do – is
to define what educational success looks like for local students. While not an
exact paraphrase, the school partners need to consider the following question
– education for what?

Too often we start to talk about education without looking at what we want
from it.

  • What is the purpose of school education?

  • To what extent do we want it to socialise students?

  • To what extent is it a preparation for employment? Then are there further
    questions that we should be asking?

    • What post school options are available to students, locally and
      further afield.

    • How can we best utilise local skills, knowledge and resources?

  • Have we asked the students what they want to achieve through education?

These are the questions that school partners should be asking and
seeking to answer. Once they have some ideas for how schools can meet local
needs – it is up to the staff of the school to make these things happen.

Let me give you an example. Maningrida is a remote coastal community in
Arnhem Land and home to approximately 2,600 people; the majority of whom are
Indigenous. There are 10 Indigenous languages spoken in the region and most
residents are able to speak three or four dialects. There is some employment in
the region, and by forming partnerships with local industry, the school is
taking action to prepare its students to take up these opportunities.

The school has developed two standout programs with the assistance of local
employers and utilising local resources.

The first program is based on science, culture and caring for country. The
program had its beginnings in 2005 when the Maningrida teachers and students
took to the outdoors because they did not have a science laboratory. They hoped
to be able to identify spiders and other insects in the bush environment. Since
the program began in 2005, the students at the Maningrida School have identified
45 new insect species. This program is an excellent example of curricula which
engages students by utilising local resources and building on the skills of the

The course is particularly successful because it provides an intersection
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous systems of knowledge and culture. The
students use their local knowledge of flora and fauna to support their technical
scientific learning in the classroom.

The second course is the Junior Rangers program that is integrated into the
Year 11 curriculum. It offers a pathway to employment in a growth industry in
the Arnhem region. The course has links with the Djelk Rangers Program which includes a Men’s and Women’s Program as well as the Junior
Ranger Program. The Djelk Rangers Program operates under the auspice of the
Bawinanga Aboriginal Council; the entity with responsibility to manage both the
land and sea country over the Maningrida area.

Since the introduction of the science and ranger courses there have been
improvements in school attendance and academic performance. The benefits of the
programs are also being felt beyond the school gates with a number of students
accessing local employment and some going on to university education. Programs
similar to the Djelk Rangers Program can be developed with the mining, retail
and banking sectors across Australia.

Much of Djelk’s success is attributed to the fact that the local
curriculum is relevant and interesting and it reflects local requirements and
opportunities in the region. Its success can also be attributed to the fact
that local Indigenous industry is a partner in the education process.

This example from Maningrida reminds us that education does not exist in
isolation. Education is many things. It is a pathway from early childhood to
employment incorporating many facets of local life such as culture, health,
safety and nutrition. Each community must be in a position to configure its own
structure which will bring together as many partners as is necessary, including
levels of government, local industry and employers and philanthropic groups. We
must remember that we create strength by bringing others with us.

We all know that education is much more than learning in a school classroom.
Learning begins from the moment a child enters the world and continues
throughout his or her lifetime. Education occurs in the home, in the workplace,
in all social settings and during leisure time. A community and a culture that
supports learning and develops its own learning is a community that is primed
for educational success. A good education environment does not cordon off
separate areas of learning; rather it sees the different learning environments
as part of an organic whole; a lifelong education journey.

I have another example of partnership action which has led to learning
outside of the formal schooling environment.

In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, elders and community members
have developed projects to connect young people to country. The Yiriman Youth
Project is a development and coordination point for cultural education and
training projects for young people in the region.

The Yiriman Youth Project’s main focus is building confidence through
culture, working alongside young men and women aged between 14 – 30

The project was initiated by Aboriginal elders who were concerned that some
of their young people had no jobs and no future. Elders from the four language
groups developed ideas over many years about ways they could stop substance
misuse, self-harm and suicide in their communities.

Their ideas provided the foundation for the Yiriman Youth Project which
promotes life skills and sustainable livelihoods through youth leadership, land
management and community development. All Yiriman projects have a cultural
focus aimed at developing opportunities for young Aboriginal people. The
various Yiriman activities have been successful in getting youth out of urban
areas and away from substance abuse and back onto traditional country.

Yiriman works in partnership with Indigenous organisations in the Kimberley
area. The partner organisations are many and varied. The Land and Sea Unit of
the Kimberley Land Council provides opportunities for young people to
participate in land and sea management. Mangkaja Arts and Derby Aboriginal
Health Service provide community driven bush medicine trips. The Departments of
Justice and Community Development offer diversionary programs which include
camel walks and cultural youth exchanges with the Shire of Derby West Kimberley.

Other partner organisations involved in cultural land management, performing
arts and cultural workshops include the Kimberley Language Resource Centre,
NAILSMA, the Kimberley Regional Fire Management Project, the Natural Heritage
Fund, the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service, Macquarie and Murdoch

There are many important reasons for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people to pass on cultural knowledge from generation to generation. In the case
of the Kimberley clans, cultural knowledge was the reason for successes in
Native Title claims to traditional lands. Partnerships in education have
consequences beyond the classroom and beyond the individual achievements of the
students who benefit.

We need to work together as partners because we need to maximise the best
resources. Education partnerships have vast potential to provide benefits for
our kids and our communities.

So let me conclude with some of the key features which can lead to successful
educational partnerships.

  • Parents, carers, students and education providers must have a shared
    understanding about the purpose of school and what constitutes educational

  • Local negotiations and agreements are the only way to shape the provision of
    education because each community is complex and unique;

  • A well functioning education system requires a forum or a medium through
    which local education stakeholders can negotiate and develop agreements about
    local education priorities; and

  • Education forums will require ongoing capacity-building, resources and

I am pleased that the next phase of work for Dare to Lead is

The phrase that sums up the theme of this conference – Partnership
Builds Success
, says it all.

As a postscript can I encourage those who do not have a close engagement with
your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents or guardians, who do not have
a Reconciliation Action Plan or who have as yet not planned a NAIDOC event, to
take this first step in partnership development.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, guardians and children have to
feel part of the system, if we are to benefit from the system.

Remember, from self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes hope. And
if we can engender hope, we build resilience, and resilience is essential for
our kids to thrive. Thank you

[1] S Christenson & C Peterson, Parenting for School Success, Review Research, Department of Educational
Psychology, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota
(2006). At: (viewed 5 January 2008).
[2] Minister Scrymgour, Northern Territory Minister for Education and Training,
‘Transforming Indigenous Education’, (media release, 30 April 2008).
At (viewed 7 October 2008).
[3] Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training, Research
Priorities 2008 – 2012
, p 9. At (viewed 7 October 2008).
[4] Graham
‘Polly’ Farmer rose to become one of Australian Rules
Football’s greatest players. His early life was at Sister Kate’s
Home – an orphanage for children of Aboriginal descent. He went on to play
392 league games from 1952 to 1971 and win two Sandover Medals. He was 10 times
his club’s fairest and best player. He was the first footballer to be
named as a Member of the British Empire

[5] Department of
Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, National Report to Parliament
on Indigenous Education and Training, 2006
, (2008) p 151. At (viewed 28 January 2009).
[6] Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, National Report
to Parliament on Indigenous Education and Training, 2006
, (2008) p. 127. At (viewed 28 January 2009).