The chance of a lifetime to save Indigenous languages

By Claire Bowern, Yale University

It is not often that the opportunity comes along to make a real difference, but a new report into Indigenous languages in Australia has the potential to do just that.

Our Land, Our Languages has already been likened to the momentous Mabo decision. But where Mabo helped change our legal and cultural understanding of Indigenous land rights, this report highlights the fiction of a monolingual Australia and calls for recognition of Australia’s Indigenous linguistic diversity.

We have seen many reports on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their lives: “Bringing Them Home”, reports on Aboriginal deaths in custody, education reports, and the Ampe Akelyernemane (“Little Children are Sacred”) report, which sparked the Northern Territory Intervention.

This report is different. Rather than treating Aboriginal people as a problem to be solved, or adding yet another layer of bureaucracy onto already micro-managed lives, this report is about finding solutions within communities. Many previous reports have exposed a shameful history of abuse and neglect. This time, we see case after case of people doing the best they can under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

The findings should not be another opportunity for white Australia to spend a week of soul searching and brow beating before forgetting yet again about our vow that this time we’ll be different. It’s a chance to see what local communities have been doing and to support those efforts.

What are the recommendations?

The report’s 30 recommendations range from raising the profile of Indigenous languages in the Australian community through increased signage to making it easier for Aboriginal people to get qualifications to teach their own languages. Other recommendations include provisions for sharing language resources between schools, documenting languages under threat, supporting bilingual education early childhood initiatives, and providing archival resources.

Many of the recommendations are straightforward to implement. They are concrete and do not rely on the creation of extensive new infrastructure. Unlike the Northern Territory intervention, there’ll be no need to send in the army this time.

Rather, many of the recommendations focus on capitalising on existing infrastructure and making existing programs more effective. For example, the library of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies is already the country’s de facto national archive for Indigenous materials, but is acutely understaffed and underfunded.

A complex solution

The solutions are not a one-size fits all response either. The Australian linguistic scene is very complex, with languages needing different degrees of support. There is no point in advocating bilingual education or interpreters for communities where the Indigenous languages are not the primary modes of communication. But such language support is desperately needed across the Kriol – and Language – speaking parts of Northern Australia.

In contrast, language reclamation has an important role to play in the areas where the languages have already gone.

Will this “save” languages? It’s hard to say. What we do know, however, is that good language and education programs have knock-on effects far beyond the school. It isn’t rocket science to see that kids who are taught in a language they speak are going to do better than kids who are aren’t.

We have long known that bilingual and culturally relevant education boosts attendance across the board, and that spotty attendance is one of the biggest causes of poor test scores. We have long known about the benefits of speaking more than one language. Those benefits apply, no matter what the race or the language.

Passing the test

These recommendations are not shots in the dark; they are not guesses at a solution. They are the outcomes of a year of interviews and sifting of research which shows what communities have done to help their languages survive. The committee has documented what can be achieved on a shoe-string and in the face of national apathy and often unhelpful or hostile policies.

Let’s make the question no longer one of survival: this is a chance for the languages and their speakers to flourish.

We’ve had more than five years of the Intervention in the Northern Territory, and while many things have changed, it’s not at all clear that much has changed for the better. Now is an excellent time to enact recommendations based on respect, rather than on bullying.

More than 200 years of aggression, assimilation and annihilation has failed, and thankfully so. But it’s done a lot of damage. Australia is a world leader in endangered languages. This is a great chance for us to be world leaders in language reclamation and support instead.

Paul Keating, in his 1992 Redfern Speech, called the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous people “the test which so far we have always failed.”

Twenty years later, we are still failing. But now is an incredible opportunity to do better. Let’s not waste it.

Claire Bowern receives research funding from the National Science Foundation (USA) for work on Australian Indigenous languages. Her submission to the Inquiry can be found here: (; submission 83)

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Can Indigenous education afford to wait for a real response to Gonski?

In my view Indigenous education cannot wait for Gonski. This article by Marie Brennan, Victoria University

In all the discussion, media releases, press conferences and TV coverage of this week’s government response to the Gonski review, it was fascinating that the issue of Indigenous education rated such little mention.

More than the divisions between private and government schooling, the division between the access and experience of education by Indigenous families and non-Indigenous families is most telling about quality and equity in Australia’s schools.

We know there are strong links between low achievement and socio-economic positioning and a growing gap in achievement between those achieving highly and those at the bottom of the scale. But Indigenous students lose out on both counts: they are over-represented in the bottom quartile of achievement and there is a growing distance between their achievement and those at the top.

You would think this would be at the forefront of concerns but the government’s response provided little detail in this area. That is until fortunately The Australian newspaper reported that “the government told The Australian” they would change the Gonski recommendation funding for Indigenous schooling. Instead of the recommended loading for schools with 5% – 25% Indigenous student enrolment with a sliding scale to 100% Indigenous, the government now apparently will fund every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child in a school.

The overall direction of the announcements Monday and this reassurance on Tuesday were a welcome reversal of a slide in overall education funding per student in which Australia was well below average of OECD countries’ funding. However, we still do not know any details of what is yet to be discussed with the states and territories.

At the moment, we know nothing about the standard base-funding formula per capita to be made available to all schools; the basis of deciding the loading for disadvantage; and the processes for accountability.

Until these core issues are negotiated and made public, it will be almost impossible to tell what differences the funding will make for Indigenous education – particularly whether there is any likelihood of decreasing the gap between Indigenous students and the higher socio-economic students currently privileged in school curriculum and access.

Improvements in Indigenous education will require significant injections of money. As the Gonski report noted, many Indigenous children experience multiple and deeper forms of disadvantage than other groups. Previous targeted programs from states, territories and the Commonwealth have not provided the necessary funding, nor the flexibility and stability of funding, which are required to reverse more than 200 years of colonial treatment.

However, money alone will not make the difference needed. As the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples this week welcomed the government’s positive response to their criticism of the initial Gonski proposal, a spokesperson also underscored the relationship between funding, community-school connection and culturally relevant curriculum:

“Our children perform well at school when the connections between families, home and school are strong, when quality teachers are in front of classes, when curriculum is culturally relevant and inclusive, and when school infrastructure and resources are tailored to local circumstances.”

For remote and regional schools with large numbers of Indigenous students, high teacher turnover, an over-representation of inexperienced teachers, lack of familiarity with Indigenous languages and cultural protocols, and lack of Indigenous teachers all add to the problem of culturally irrelevant curriculum and teaching methods.

As importantly, there are few schools in provincial cities or metropolitan areas where Indigenous students receive the kind of curriculum or culturally appropriate learning and teaching that would raise the overall levels of achievement. Aboriginal and Torres Strait parents have often had a history of poor relations with schools, yet need to be involved in their children’s education, formally and informally.

As the National Congress itself noted in response to Gonski, ATSI peoples need to be represented on the stakeholder group which decides funding and accountability processes, as well as at the local school level. The Howard government’s removal of the Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness scheme in the 2005-2008 funding cycle significantly undermined Indigenous parent engagement in schooling and will need to be replaced, with links from local groups to Australia-wide policy and program decisions.

So while everyone waits to find out the details yet to be negotiated – and the timeline for even beginning the process is lengthy – education for Indigenous students receives only sporadic attention.

Early learnings from the government’s National Partnership programs appear to have something to say but this will need expert advice which is currently in short supply in most states and territories, which have been reducing their education infrastructure.

Indigenous Education simply cannot afford to wait until 2025 for the level of improvement needed.

Marie Brennan currently receives funding from the ARC in three grants with colleagues: 1) Capacitating Student Aspirations in Classrooms and Communities in a High Poverty Region (DP120101492; 2012-2014); 2) Pursuing Equity in High Poverty Rural Schools: Improving learning through rich accountabilities (LP100200841; 2010-2014, partnered with DET Queensland); and 3) Renewing the Teaching Profession in Regional Areas through Community Partnerships. (LP100200499: with partner investigators RDA Limestone Coast, Catholic Education South Australia, DECS, SA, And the City of Mt Gambier). She has received previous funding from the ARC and commissioned projects from state education authorities over the past 21 years.

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Fly-in, fly-out heath care fails remote Aboriginal communities

I’ve written in the early days of my blog about the effect of fly in – fly out miners on rural and remote communities.

This article by Stephen Duckett, La Trobe University looks at the effect of fly in fly out health services.

This is a story about two small Aboriginal communities in the Gulf region of North Queensland: Mornington Island and Doomadgee. They share two key characteristics with many other remote communities: very poor health status on every dimension and fragile permanent staffing of their health services. But they also share an increasingly common third characteristic: an abundance of fly-in, fly-out siloed health services.

I recently visited Mornington Island to learn more about primary health-care delivery in the region. Getting off the plane with me was a renal nurse practitioner, a sexual health nurse, an alcohol and drug worker and a mental health worker, all arriving for their regular visits and clinics. The Royal Flying Doctor Service wasn’t in town for its clinics that day, and, of course, specialist doctors normally come by charter. The same sort of pattern applies in Doomadgee.

I spent about an hour in Mornington talking to an elder, whose main message to me was not about the key health problems in her community but that the community had established mechanisms for consultation that were being ignored.

Aunty Pearl (not her real name) made a heartfelt plea for the community to be consulted before new services were helicoptered in, and for community leaders to be apprised of new clinics being established, so that if they were local priorities, the leaders could work with the whole community to build awareness of the new clinics and hence increase their effectiveness.

In Doomadgee, a whole new service is being established by a new-to-the-town non-government agency. Local health services know it will provide health services for kids but have no idea about the specifics, whether it will duplicate what they are doing already, or how it will integrate with existing services and existing staff.

I asked staff to estimate what sort of contribution the existing fly-in fly-out services were making: were they mostly bringing skills or just time to do things the overworked locals didn’t have time to do? The answer in this non-scientific survey was about 90% skill, 10% time.

The follow-up, then, was whether, with purposive effort (which isn’t seriously occurring now), that ratio could change, by how much and by when? The response was it could shift to 50/50 over an 18-month period.

So here’s the rub. We are all full of good intentions, we want to do something about the Aboriginal health tragedy, and do it now.

But what we are doing is not creating a sustainable service. Staffing by locums, agency and fly-in fly-out staff is expensive. They generally don’t provide continuity of care. And we get the dismal trifecta because they disempower the locals and don’t build a sustainable, local workforce.

The international development literature is full of papers on the distorting effects of siloed funding: specialist disease-specific funding agencies establishing narrowly-defined, specific programs available to developing countries with no one willing to fund the broad primary health-care infrastructure which is necessary for a sustainable and effective health system.

We are doing the same in Australia with special funding programs by state, Commonwealth and non-government agencies. Which brings me back to Aunty Pearl. What we need is good local priority setting: working with the community to determine the local health-care needs.

But let’s not be naive: local planning is hard. Humans and local communities suffer from bounded rationality: we don’t know what we don’t know. So local planning needs to be supported and informed by planning in the larger region or district.

We also need ongoing effective mechanisms to ensure local collaboration among service providers, which do something about long-term workforce sustainability. The 50/50 skill-to-time ratio or even the 90/10 one begs the question of whether the benefits of higher order skills being provided to these communities are greater than the coordination costs created.

For communities where chronic disease is so prevalent, the place to start is clearly to ensure a good primary care foundation. Wagner’s chronic care model now forms the base of chronic disease management and promotes the idea of “productive interaction” between an “informed, activated patient” and a “prepared, proactive practice team”. Both sides of this interaction require support to be effective.

In Wagner’s model, support comes both from the community (in terms of resources, policies, and self-management support) and from the health system, involving improvements to the organisation of health care, delivery system design, decision support, and clinical information systems.

This does not appear to be happening in either Doomadgee or on Mornington Island, or at least, is happening only in fits and starts.

The fly-in, fly-out model of siloed care I saw is certainly responding to the immediate needs of those communities. But it may be doing so in a way that inhibits a long-term improvement in the health of these communities.

Stephen Duckett was Thinker in Residence at Mt Isa Centre for Rural and Remote Health

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Closing the Gap Speech to Parliament 2012

It’s been a few months but in case you missed it here is the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap speech delivered to Parliament on 9th February 2012. Following that is a copy of the report.

2011 Closing the Gap

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