“…And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices ever shared, no one dared disturb the sound of silence…”
(Excerpt from Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel, 1965)
There is a silence echoing within government chambers, as the need to address the disparities in Indigenous education is not spoken about. Indigenous education policy seems to be at a standstill.
It has been almost a year with no review or evaluation of national strategies for educating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy, the agreement between Australia’s education ministers, was made in 2015 and was supposed to “guide the education of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people from birth through to further education and employment pathways”. But it now seems redundant. It has been a year with no superseding policy and no action plan.
To me the silence is unforgivable. There are around 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under the age of fifteen in this country today, and by 2031 around half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be under 25 years old. I am advocating for them.
Talking without speaking, hearing without listening
The government promised a “refresh” of the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, more commonly referred to as Closing the Gap. However, a set of draft targets was released in December of 2018, ten months ago, suggesting what could be enacted. That’s all we got.
And when we look at these draft education specific targets, they are simply a reimagining of the goals as set out in previous iterations of policy. That is, the focus again falls on Numeracy and Literacy, Year 12 qualifications, attendance and so forth: same focus, similar goals, similar written words.
Then there was the review of the Melbourne Declaration on educational goals for young Australians. The goals were set in 2008 within the first iteration and they also have not been met. Previous signatories and former education ministers have publicly lamented this lack of progress.
The truth is the priority areas (or whatever they are called now) have not changed since 1975, The Report to the Schools Commission by the Aboriginal Consultative Group in June 1975 highlighted, way back then, the lack of progress in Indigenous education. The fact that the priority areas remain stagnant and merely rephrased is something I wrote about in 2016.
You could think all this failure and stagnation around educating First Nations people would inspire action and innovation to truly begin addressing the inequities. Dominant voices within government espouse to wanting to “try something new, to change the way we work as governments – to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians”.
And yet, never has there been so large a gaping chasm between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian Government than present times. Our voices and the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been silenced, denied and rejected.
To add insult, according to the commitments made within the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy in 2015, was the promise that: “This strategy will be reviewed in 2018, which is a significant year in measuring progress against COAG’s Closing the gap targets. An evaluation will consider the effectiveness of the strategy as a framework.”
Well 2018 has long gone and we are still waiting to see the review.
The evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014 was completed in November 2014 by ACIL Allen Consulting ,with the Strategy being endorsed and released late 2015.
How much longer do we have to wait?
All we get is silence.
We can wish
It is hard not to be cynical and postulate sarcastic laments. But we can wish.
Perhaps the delay is because, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserts in his Prime Minister’s foreword in the Closing the Gap Report 2019, “the main area of change needs to be in how governments approach implementation of policies and delivery of services. Stronger accountability can be achieved through co-designed action plans that link targets to policy action, funding decisions, and regular evaluations”.
Perhaps the government has been compiling an actual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Group made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators whose ‘business’ is education and know how targets can be achieved.
Perhaps the government has finally listened and recognized that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth bubble, those under the age of 15, makes up over a third of the total Indigenous population. This inevitably means that a large number of the population will be of school age. Surely this must have some influence on the urgency of addressing the inequities and ‘closing the gap’.
The reality is that if a new iteration of the policy is not released soon, any momentum will be lost as was suggested in the Evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014. Without the policy, and making schools and systems accountable as well as governments, our kids and their educational attainment, their dreams of a future become silenced.
More recently, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike released the Imagination Declaration asking ministers “to imagine what’s possible…[and that,] it’s time to think differently”.
If you haven’t read it, you should. Be inspired.
As the children said, “We are not the problem, we are the solution … We urge you to give us the freedom to write a new story.’
But here we sit and wait for any response from government. We wait for government to provide the next policy. And one last wish that if do we get one there will be no fudging to backdate it to include 2019, as the year is almost over.
The children, teachers and schools wait for an end to this silence.
Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne. Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education. Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice. She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.