2006 Garma Festival Forum - Indigenous Education and Training 

Photos courtesy YYF/Mark Rogers

Raising the levels of literacy, numeracy and training opportunities for Indigenous students is one of the greatest civil rights challenges facing Australia today, according to many of the key speakers at the recent 2006 Garma Forum.

Coordinated by Charles Darwin University’s (CDU) School for Social and Policy Research, the three day Forum was a major feature of the Garma Festival held at Gulkula, 40 km from the mining township of Nhulunbuy in North East Arnhem Land from 4-8 August.

The Forum focused on past and present education policy and practice and examined ways to build and adapt non-Indigenous and Indigenous capacities to learn together, as well as paying special attention to work-readiness and on-the-job training programs.

Chaired by Phillip Adams, well known presenter of ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live program, the Forum included dozens of workshops, presentations, panel discussions and learning exchanges.

A diverse range of speakers led the discussions including leaders from traditional Indigenous communities, government officials, policy makers, politicians, academic researchers, teachers, health workers and corporate representatives.

Federal Opposition leader Kim Beazley introduced the opening day plenary session declaring ‘the starting point for Indigenous education has to be addressing third world issues in a first world country’. He said there must be a more practical and realistic approach to education for Indigenous people that better reflected their needs and aspirations.

Government policies he said had so far ‘failed to genuinely engage with Indigenous groups’ and committed a future Federal Labor Government to turning this situation around within the first two terms of government.

CDU Vice-Chancellor Helen Garnett maintained the need for all children to have access and equity in educational opportunities, and the need for all stakeholders involved in the delivery of these services to work together to deliver real results.

A constant theme that ran throughout discussions was the urgent need for action to deal with the issues of disadvantage and lack of access and resources for education and training in Indigenous communities. There was also a consistent call for policy and departmental officials to listen more rather than just dictate generic solutions.

Key speakers contributed their ideas on the major issues, challenges and solutions:

Yalmay Yunupingu - community leader and teacher

“My dream is to have quality education on our own homelands so we can have our own teachers, lawyers, pilots and maintenance crews. Living on homelands there is lots to learn. You are talking with the land, homelands are teaching you.”

Raymattja Marika, director, Yothu Yindi Foundation

Some of the 20 key issues, considerations and actions agreed upon by Indigenous elders as an outcome from the Forum included:

  • Affirmation of both ways schooling
  • Genuine partnerships between all stakeholders in Indigenous education and training
  • Community input and control of staffing, performance reviews and content in schools
  • Mentoring of Indigenous secondary school students
  • Training for non-Indigenous staff and teachers in Indigenous schools
  • Better alignment of training to employment outcomes
  • Recognition of the value and importance of cultural practices
  • A report back on these actions and outcomes at the 2007 Garma Forum.

Michael Hooke, chief executive, Minerals Council of Australia

“I come from a generation that perpetuated systematic discrimination. We championed assimilation not self determination. This has created a loss of hope and the onset of despair. The old way was to dig it up, ship it and bank it. Today 60 per cent of our operations in Australia are on aboriginal lands. Supporting communities and the people with education and training is the way forward. It is not only the right thing to do; it also makes sound business sense. We use to decide, announce and defend now we must listen, learn and engage.”

Jeff McMullen, Honorary CEO, Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth Trust

“We must not confuse low education participation rates in schools with a lack of interest in education. We have an obsession with attendance rather than performance. I have never met a parent that does not want their child to learn and grow. Learning is empowering. The Trust’s Literacy Backpack Program takes reading back into the home by providing the whole family with material they want to read from AFL and woman’s magazines to subscriptions to Indigenous newspapers and comics for the young such as Deadly Vibe.”

Leon Morris, executive officer, Indigenous Economic Taskforce, NT Department of Business, Economic and Regional Development

“Education is the guaranteed pathway to jobs. In 2003, three Indigenous secondary school students graduated in the NT. In 2005 there were 25. Our challenge is to better align training with jobs. I speak to many Indigenous people who say they can paper their walls with certificates but have no jobs at the end. Currently the emphasis is on time spent in training rather than outcomes to jobs.”

Dr Daniel Etya’ale, Vision 2020 coordinator, Prevention of Blindness and Deafness Office, World Health Organisation

“We need big dreams not little dreams. Anything that has to be done must be bold and ambitious, but also of the highest quality not just the minimum. If we stick to the minimum we will only impart some knowledge. Knowledge alone is not enough. Students must be masters of that knowledge so they can also be decision makers.”