A regional Victorian educator has attributed a national increase in enrolments of indigenous students in part to parents acknowledging themselves as people of Koori descent.
The assistant principal at Bacchus Marsh Primary School, Pam Whitten, says, “where before people would enrol [their children] and not bother ticking the box,” on second mention more parents now identify their children as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in official administrative documents.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports a 3.6 percent increase in the last year in enrolments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across Australian schools.
Indigenous students now make up 5.5 percent of students nationally, according to the ABS. Whitten says 2.5 percent of BMPS students are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
“On occasion children have already been enrolled in school, but then it has been identified that there’s some form of Koori history and descent there.
“Then they… tick in the box that says Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander,” she says, and consequently the number of indigenous students increases at the school, contributing to the national 5.5 percent.
Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt says people start to tick boxes and identify as Aboriginal, where they previously did not, because “serious perks and Aboriginal-only benefits flow as a consequence”.
In his 2009 blog post, ‘The new tribe of white blacks’, he says it has become fashionable for people of largely European genealogy to start identifying as “white Aborigines” because they can receive “special help”.
But Whitten says her school’s shift isn’t related to Bolt’s theories and has occurred since 2012.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are always there, but now they’re being acknowledged.
“They’re acknowledging it themselves…and it’s come to the fore recently,” Whitten says.
As a proud man of the Wurundjeri and Yorta Yorta mobs with a very strong connection to culture, Swinburne’s Dr Andrew Peters said, “maintaining a connection to land is maintaining a connection to yourself”.
To Koori community members like Peters, not acknowledging your own Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage, whether it be personally or administratively, is an alternate approach.
“I shouldn’t have to claim it [but] I will fight as much as I can for my right to determine my own identity [and] to claim that I am Aboriginal.”
However, Whitten says it is not just the rectification of a former lack of acknowledgement that boosts indigenous enrolment statistics. She says the school’s indigenous enrolments increased after human errors were resolved.
“We had one child that was enrolled and it came through to say that they were of Koori descent but their sibling wasn’t,” she says.
“We asked the parent and she said, ‘oh, I didn’t tick the box’, so sometimes those things happen, too.”
But Whitten says there has been encouragement from the government to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to enrol their children at school.
“There’s been a huge problem of getting them to school and to engage,” she says.
“Australia wide there’s been a bigger push to make sure children in the remote areas are enrolled.
“That would increase the statistics.”
Whitten says most families of Koori descent are “doing well”.
But Peters, an award winning lecturer in Indigenous Studies, says it is not all smooth sailing for many indigenous students.
“A lot of Aboriginal kids… are taught very early about their culture, history and…language.”
He says once they experience the education system’s structure, they “struggle to understand a classroom that just talks in English” and teaches in a “western sense”.
“This is the case for so many Aboriginal kids in the country, let alone the regional areas.”
Whitten says her regional school has one family where attendance is of concern but the school is working with the Koori Education Support Officer to improve that.
She says the boy with attendance issues is at an “extremely high engagement level”.
“He says he wants to come to school and he puts a lot of pressure on his mother to get to school,” she says.
“Often family issues get in the way.”
Peters says this is not uncommon in Indigenous circles and is not not always detrimental. He cannot emphasise enough the influence of community on young lives.
“We share everything…in the community. This…extends to education.
“Aboriginal kids miss school because they’re expected to look after…siblings if they’re sick and the parents have to…work,” he says. “It’s not a choice, it’s an expectation.
“That’s part of their cultural upbringing.”
An article published this week on former elite footballer and activist Adam Goodes reinforced Peters’ view.
The feature, written by Joe Hildebrand for Herald Sun Sunday’s May 21 edition of Stellar magazine, explained that practices sometimes seen as elements of “indigenous disadvantage in Australia” are in fact “communities…teach[ing] themselves”.
Hildebrand reveals Goodes went to six different primary schools while being raised by single mum Lisa in South Australia, but wrote that some of the best “education doesn’t just happen in the classroom, it happens in the whole community”.
Peters says it’s “really dangerous” for society to tell people, “that’s not how you should bring up your kids.”
“We are not dominant,” Peters says, “[but] we are one part of Australia”.
Bacchus Marsh Primary only has 23 indigenous students among 900 mainly Anglo Saxon pupils.
Whitten says it may not be that many but they have a voice and are “well represented in everything”.
“We want to involve them…and make sure we’re being culturally sensitive [because] it’s good for our Koori students to see that we acknowledge and respect the history that’s gone on,” she says.
“It’s part of Australia and we’re all in this together.”
Spokespeople for the Department of Education and its Koori Outcomes Division were unavailable for comment.