Chance encounters not enough: Indigenous students deserve better

Art changed Scott Rathman's like. Picture supplied.
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Mainstream schooling should encourage the exploration of culture to benefit the futures of Indigenous students. Rebecca Martyn reports.

Scott Rathman was lacking direction and motivation at school when a chance encounter with an artist changed his life. 

Scott – the grandson of a member of the Stolen Generation – often found himself skirting the law without understanding why.  The artist showed him that a different life, one rich with possibilities that connected him to his culture, was possible. 

Born in South Australia’s Riverland region, the Arrernte descendant grew up struggling to fit into the Australian schooling system, and the link to his family’s heritage had been severed. 

At age 14, the encounter with the artist awakened his curiosity, inspiring him “to explore my Aboriginality and identity, then use a contemporary version of Aboriginal art to tell my own stories”. 

Although Scott remains grateful to have discovered his passion, he says Aboriginal students should not have to rely on chance encounters to alter the course of their lives in a positive way.   

Education attitudes need to change

“There has to be a change in … the system,” he says.  It is well established that the Australian education system does not fit the learning style of many Aboriginal children.  

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the retention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from years seven to 12 was only 58.7 per cent in 2019, down from 60.9 the previous year. 

One school celebrates the work Scott did with students. Image from Facebook

So, how can we change it?  “It really needs to be something that’s driven from the top,” Scott says.  Central to this change is acknowledging the importance of Aboriginal culture in these students’ education. 

The Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority says oral traditions such as song, dance, art, and craft-making have provided important communications for Aboriginal people throughout history.    

Stories are told using these cultural practices, and this has been their way of life for as long as they have existed. 

Art and storytelling

Scott says he is a “modern-day storyteller”, but instead of painting caves, he paints murals on the walls of schools around the country.   Running his own business,  Rusted Tin Contemporary Aboriginal Arts, he travels around the country teaching school children about his culture through art. 

“Art and storytelling go hand in hand.  We’re not just creating art, if you look at a piece of Aboriginal art, there’s always a story there,” he says. 

According to Scott, the reality is that most young Aboriginal students are not being given the space nor the resources to explore their creativity through the arts and are, in turn, missing out on a vital exploration of identity, culture, and educational opportunities. 

Scott seen at work in this video story by the ABC. Image: facebook

“We just don’t provide a space where that [exploration] can happen.  And the space is not a physical space, the space is time and people to support it.”  

Gunaikurnai man Drew Paten, global operations manager for Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), says it is not uncommon for Aboriginal students to feel school is an unrewarding experience. 

“[The Australian education system] is failing how Aboriginal kids learn right now … if these kids were given the platforms to utilise their imagination to lead … then I just know that the outcomes would be significantly different.” 

Importance of cultural knowledge

The Closing the Gap 2019 report shows attendance significantly drops when Indigenous Australian students reach secondary school. This does not surprise Drew, who said his experience with secondary school was impersonal, like he was “working in a factory”.  

“Are we communicating teaching and learning appropriately? The way of learning for young Aboriginal people is very different.  It links back in terms of cultural knowledge that we want to obtain because that’s who we are.” 

A strong sense of well-being contributes to good mental health, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and this holistic sense of well-being stems from emotional, cultural, and spiritual health.  

Another school mural, highlighted on Scott’s Facebook site – Rusted Tin – Contemporary Aboriginal Arts

In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death for Indigenous children between ages five and 17.  The ABS reported that those deaths made up nearly a quarter of all child suicide deaths, while Aboriginal children barely make up 6 per cent of the child population in Australia. 

There is a fight to give these students’ back their culture, and to help them to take charge of their future.   

This is exactly what the AIME mentoring program is trying to do.  Drew, a former mentee of the program, was the first Indigenous student to graduate within his college’s history.  He was also the first member of his family to finish high school and attend university.  “That was crazy,” he says. “It’s still crazy.” 

“One of the only reasons that I’ve been able to succeed to the point that I have today is because of AIME.” 

Boost from mentors

The program involves university mentors that assist Indigenous students ages 12 to 18 in unlocking their potential, whatever that may be, by giving them the tools to “succeed in their own right”.    

You put the power in the hands of the kids, and you give them the responsibility to become a solution and not continue this idea that they’re the problem.

Scott says that the Australian school system must find engaging ways for Aboriginal children to learn about and then express their cultural identity.    

“Being able to teach young Aboriginal people how to express themselves through art … is a powerful tool.” 

When I ask Scott if he feels like he is now replicating what the artist did for him when he was young, he says, “in a way, yes”.  He says however that the success of these children is ultimately a shared responsibility and can not be left up to chance encounters. 

The end goal is to see a change in the way the Australian education system connects with Aboriginal students according to Scott.   

“There needs to be someone saying, ‘we’re going to allocate some space, some time, and some effort into letting Aboriginal kids come together and learn about culture’.”