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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Denying Aboriginal Identity in Education in South-East Australia: Failure of the Assimilation Model

Dr Katrina Alford.

Notwithstanding the assumption that Australian Aborigines fare poorly on social indicators such as physical health and educational attainments because most live in remote communities, there does not seem to be any significant differences in these outcomes across a range of rural, remote and metropolitan locations.

Aborigines comprise less than 2% of the Australian population according to official censuses. The Indigenous population is concentrated more in rural regions. In the Goulburn Valley area of the State of Victoria in southern Australia, Indigenous people account for an estimated 10% of the population. They have experienced a 200-year history, since European colonisation, of legal dispossession, forced removal of children from families, mission life, and cumulative social and economic disadvantages. In recent times there has been greater recognition of the distinctive cultural status and needs of Indigenous people. However, this has not resulted in any appreciable move towards curricula or schooling reforms to make education more relevant and appealing to Aboriginal children in this region of Australia. There has been little effort to 'Aboriginalise' secondary school curricula in Victorian schools, or to include more Indigenous material in subjects such as history and English. This may be one cause of very low secondary school retention rates among Indigenous students in the region. These reinforce and contribute to continuing poor employment and economic outcomes. In their turn, these impact on school attendance rates and outcomes. The result is a vicious cycle of entrenched long-term economic and social despair.

The education model in Victoria (and elsewhere in Australia) is one of assimilation of assumed equals or near equals, with nominal attention to individual differences. Alterative forms and types of education for Indigenous students have been tried. These rely on government funding and a long-term political commitment, both of which are lacking. The alternatives have been short-lived and little tested as a result. The case for considering alternatives to the assimilation model is strong, in view of evidence of the failure of the mainstream model to speak to or meaningfully engage and educate Indigenous students.

Recent innovations in Victoria are underway. These include a planned partnership between the Indigenous communities in regional Victoria and a leading university (the University of Melbourne), to develop an indigenous tertiary education centre. The plan is to harness Indigenous peoples' love of and excellence in sport, to create tertiary bridging courses and ultimately university degrees in sports, health and education for Indigenous people in the region, and across Australia. It is hoped that in achieving this, more Indigenous students would become motivated to stay on at school and pursue further post school studies. This innovation is yet to be realised, hence cannot be evaluated. Its success will depend on several prerequisites, including greater public, university and private investment in Indigenous communities, to develop greater social and intellectual capacity in the community. Developing and ensuring genuine Indigenous community input into and ownership of the process is also critical. In the meantime, the educational status of Victoria's Aboriginal population remains scandalously poor, in an otherwise rich and well-educated society.


Dr Katrina Alford  (Australia)
Senior Lecturer Economics
School of Population Health
University of Melbourne

I have had teaching and research experience at the University of Melbourne, the Research School of Social Sciences at Australian National University and the University of New South Wales. I have wide-ranging academic publications in Australian and English journals and newspapers, on a breadth of economic, economic history and health economics subjects, including labour market issues, primary health care, health reforms, and Indigenous issues.

In the three years since working as a health economist in the Department of Rural Health and more recently in the Department of Public Practice, I have developed two areas of particular interest, in primary and community health care policy and analysis, and in the socioeconomic determinants of Indigenous (ill) health.

Primary health care work includes an ARC Council grant for 2002-2004, on Rural General Practitioner Costs, Returns & Relative Value (Chief Investigator). Indigenous work includes an audit, evaluation and strategies to promote Koori employment & skill Development in the Goulburn Valley (Victoria), for the Commonwealth Department of Employment & Workplace Relations, through Koori Economic Employment Training Agency (KEETA).

  • Aboriginal education
  • Curriculum
  • Cultural context
  • Government policy

(30 min Conference Paper, English)