Aboriginal students' school shock

brian_mccoy_thumbDr Brian McCoy

E-mail: b.mccoy@latrobe.edu.au

This opinion piece first appeared in Eureka Street on 4 April 2011.

I recently spent time with a group of young Aboriginal students from a remote community who had been at school down south. They had travelled across the length of the country to receive secondary education but only stayed for a short time. After a fight, involving other Aboriginal students, they all wanted to go home.

Their experience mirrored many I have witnessed over past decades. Aboriginal parents wish their children to spend time outside their community and develop skills of engagement with the wider society. A number of schools offer places for these students. Principals, teachers and residential carers respond generously. Yet, for many, that hoped-for transition often doesn't work.

For most Aboriginal children who attend boarding school, the honeymoon period wears off after a few weeks. Becoming homesick is common. Parents can become more anxious, teachers more frustrated and no one is quite sure what to do. Seemingly good intentions and careful preparations become unstuck and returning home, despite all the investment, can seem the only option.

Getting into a fight would seem to be one way of drawing attention to either the desire or the need to go home.

Recently Senator Jenny Macklin spoke about the importance of education for Aboriginal children, even suggesting punishment for parents who did not support their children attending school.

In my experience, it should be less about carrots and sticks, enticing or punishing, than about understanding how young Aboriginal students and their families can be better supported into transformative and rewarding educational experiences.

When I met this group of students I was reminded of the challenges they bring with them. English was not their first language and most had rarely spent long periods of time away from their family and community. They were now in an urban world where it is unusual to find anyone who can communicate with them in their own language. Most of the people around them speak a fast brand of English with a confident use of the culture that comes with it.

They can experience a sense of shame and alienation. It was easy to imagine them as a highly visible but vulnerable and voiceless minority.

While receiving schools try to sensitise their staff and students, those first weeks after arrival are critical. As each new student is invited into the life of the school, they need to experience some confidence in negotiating a very different and demanding new culture. If this occurs, there is a good chance the young person will gradually begin to settle and make new friends.

I realised the students' parents and wider family also need advice and help. Their role is critically important and can easily be overlooked. Schools, at least initially, make life quite demanding for the young people, who are often used to more relaxed family and social surroundings.

Mobile phones can make contact too easy. I remember watching the excitement on student faces when the phone at the home they were visiting would ring and they could talk freely and at length with parents and friends. I could hear their family being similarly excited. These students were trying to settle into a very different social and educational world, but were clearly struggling to leave home. News, particularly involving funerals, adds to their sense of separation.

Eventually, students hear their own loneliness become their parents' call for them to return home. Letting go requires trust in those to whose care they have been entrusted, along with courage to be firm when going home seems the kinder option.

One of the lessons of the Stolen Generations is that the whole Australian community pays a terrible price when any of its children is forcibly removed from loving and caring families. Education cannot be forced. At the same time, the whole community continues to suffer while Aboriginal children cannot access and utilise the education benefits Australia can offer.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, we need to better understand the complexity of choices and experiences involved in these educational transitions. Most involve mixtures of anticipation and fear, hope and anxiety, for the young people and their families.

Easing these transitions for all involved will say more of our country's ability to be reconciled than words. This is the reality of that often and strongly promoted ideal, 'two-way learning'.

I have seen evidence that some students need more than one attempt to achieve an educational transition. After my recent experience, I later heard that most of those who returned home asked to return to the school and have another go. I don't know how long they will stay this time, but I salute their efforts, their families and the school in supporting and engaging a second attempt.

Dr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at La Trobe University.