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Rural and Remote Education Inquiry Briefing Paper

Rural and Remote

Education Inquiry Briefing Paper

A. History of Indigenous education

The first school

for Aboriginal children was established as an experiment by Governor Macquarie

in Parramatta in 1815. It soon failed and was closed in 1823. The 1840s

were the years when 'native' schools were first established in Western

and South Australia.

A British Government

Royal Commission in 1837 inquired into the conditions of Aboriginal people

in Australia and recommended that a protectorate system should be established

and that "the education of the young will of course be amongst the foremost

of the cares of the missionaries". By the middle of the century the protectorate

system had failed.

During the second

half of the 19th century Aboriginal reserves were created. Some were set

aside for missions while others were administered by local police. By

1911 the Northern Territory and every State except Tasmania had 'protective'

legislation which established a Chief Protector or a Protection Board

with extensive powers over Aboriginal people. Families who had lived and

worked independently, for example as farmers on land granted by the Crown,

were evicted and forced into reserves or town fringe camps.

In the Territory

and a number of States the legislation made the Protector or the Board

the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. The people were required

to live on reserves and needed permission to leave and to move to other

reserves. Children were separated from their parents to dormitories on

the same or on other reserves. In some cases the children were removed

to specially established training institutions prior to being placed in

domestic (for girls) or labouring (for boys) employment at about the age

of 13 or 14.

The education they

received was organised and provided by the Protector or Board separately

from that provided to non-Indigenous children. Many of their teachers

were not trained and the regular State curriculum was not used.

Some children did

enter the public school system. For example, in NSW in 1880 there were

an estimated 200 Aboriginal children in the public school system.2

In 1883 the NSW Department of Public Instruction established schools on

two of the State's larger Aboriginal reserves.3 A rough census

in 1889 revealed, however, that only 428 Aboriginal children in the State

- 15% of all Aboriginal children - were receiving any instruction at all.4

It was common at

this time for schools to refuse to admit Aboriginal children if the parents

of non-Indigenous pupils objected. To cope with those excluded from the

State systems, the Protection Boards and Aborigines Departments were forced

to establish separate Aboriginal-only schools.5 By 1940 in

NSW, for example, there were 40 Aboriginal schools.6

A national conference

in 1937 adopted the assimilation policy which resolved, among other things,

that the "efforts of all State authorities should be directed towards

the education of children of mixed aboriginal blood at white standards,

and their subsequent employment under the same conditions as whites with

a view to their taking their place in the white community on an equal

footing with the whites".

'Full-blood' families

and their children were more likely to be left to their own devices on

the now-dwindling reserves. 'Mixed blood' or 'half-caste' children removed

from their families mostly continued, however, to be confined to Aboriginal

institutions rather than sharing orphanages and other children's institutions

with non-Aboriginal children.

Witnesses to the

National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Children from their Families reported that they had received "little or

no education, and certainly little of any value".7

What education

was provided generally aimed at completion of their schooling at the level

achieved by a ten year old child in the State education system. It emphasised

domestic science and manual training, thus preparing the children for

a future as menial workers within the government or mission communities

or as cheap labour in the wider community.8

The 1940s saw the

introduction of exemption certificates, commonly called 'dog licences.

These certificates exempted Aboriginal people who proved they were responsible

and could live independently from the rigorous control of the Protection

Boards and Aborigines Departments. They were certificates of citizenship.

Children of exempted parents were supposed to be admitted to State schools.9

The continued to be routinely excluded, however, on health and cleanliness


It was not until

the 1950s and 1960s that the Aboriginal schools were gradually closed

and that State schools were opened to Aboriginal children generally. That

move followed a reformulation of the assimilation policy at a national

native welfare conference in 1951.11


declined from about the 1950s with a greater use of foster care and adoption.

This is not to say that institutionalisation ended, however. For example,

6 institutions were opened in Victoria in 1961 to cater for the growing

numbers of Aboriginal children removed from their families.12

In NSW the Cootamundra Girls Home did not close until 1969. The dormitory

system survived in some parts of WA into the 1970s.13 It was

not until the 1980s that Aboriginal children who could not stay with their

own families were placed with other Aboriginal families as a matter of


In 1989 the Commonwealth

launched the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education

Policy. This was the first policy on Indigenous education formally endorsed

by any national government. It had four objectives

  1. to ensure Aboriginal

    involvement in educational decisions making

  2. to provide equality

    of access for Aboriginal people to education services

  3. to raise the rates

    of Aboriginal participation in education to those for all Australians

  4. to achieve equitable

    and appropriate educational outcomes for Aboriginal people.


2 Select

Committee of the Legislative Assembly upon Aborigines, Second Report,

NSW Parliament, 1981, page 172.
3 Id, page 173.
4 Id, page 174.
5 See, for example, id, page 175; Commissioner Pat Dodson,

Regional Report of Inquiry into Underlying Issues in Western Australia,

AGPS, 1991, page 563 (part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths

in Custody).
6 Ibid.
7Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, page 170.
8Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, pages 170-171.
9 See, for example, the NSW Select Committee's Second Report,

page 181.
10 Ibid.
11 It was not until 1972, however, that principals' right to

remove children from their school on the ground of 'home conditions' was

finally repealed in NSW: id, page 183.
12Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, page 62.
13 Commissioner Pat Dodson's report, page 564.





updated 2 December 2001.