Researchers says Australia’s decade of political instability has left its mark on some of our country’s most vulnerable residents: students at our most remote and isolated schools.
Despite this, mentors and teachers on the ground are going above and beyond to keep remote kids engaged and involved.
As the head of the school for Indigenous Australian studies at Charles Sturt University, Jay Phillips has seen policies come and go with governments of the day.
She said political instability had seen successive governments caught in a bureaucratic hamster wheel while students and teachers suffered.
“Aboriginal communities, elders and educators over decades have been saying how we can resolve the problem but that government cycle hides away the research and then moves on to a new approach.”
University of Newcastle Associate Professor James Ladwig has worked in Indigenous education for almost 15 years and said it often became a political football.
“You will get different people sponsored by different governments and that will last as long as that government is in place,” he said.
The most recent Closing the Gap report shows Australia failed to meet its targets for reading, writing and school attendance.
Dr Phillips believes a large part of the problem is that education programs are being commissioned and changed before they can be properly assessed.
A daily struggle
Teaching is often an emotional rollercoaster ride for Monique Mayne from the Purnululu Aboriginal School.
She lives and works in remote Western Australia, more than 100 kilometres from the nearest town.
Ms Mayne’s students come from nearby Aboriginal communities where developmental disabilities like Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are common.
It makes for a tough but highly rewarding learning environment.
“Then there are also moments when I’m like, ‘Wow, I know why I’m up here’,” she said.
“The best thing you can do is just work with it [and] try to control the kids that want to learn.”
Education and incarceration
One of the most damaging consequences of low education levels is the increased risk of imprisonment.
While it is hard to separate factors that drive high rates of Indigenous incarceration, Associate Professor John Rynne from Griffith University says there is a strong link between poor education and incarceration in Aboriginal people.
“People that have lower education levels are more likely to end up in prison,” Dr Rynne said.
“When we look at Aboriginal people, this is heightened, and this becomes even more exaggerated that education is so crucial in keeping Aboriginal people out of prison.”
It is a familiar story to Cameron, a youth mentor who asked the ABC to use only his first name.
Cameron works with children who have been in trouble with police in Broome.
At 19 years old, it was not long ago that Cameron was one of these kids, and he sees his negative experiences with education as part of his pathway into juvenile detention.
“Being Indigenous, it is harder when you walk into school without a lunchbox, with food just wrapped up in plastic,” Cameron said.
“Not having the right equipment for school made it hard, you feel ashamed to come back to school, that’s exactly how I felt.”
Cameron was living with poverty and family violence at home and difficulties at school, which ultimately led to repeated stints in juvenile detention.
“Everything went bad at school, and then I brought those negative things to the street, and then it got hectic, [I started] stealing and things.”
Cameron’s life was following a tragic trajectory common in the Kimberley, until almost inexplicably he was able to make a change.
“I didn’t see it coming, but I just grew up doing the wrong thing, wrong thing, wrong thing, until a point where I was bored of it, I couldn’t do the wrong thing anymore,” he said.
But until this moment, he recalls how the rise and fall of youth programs determined his criminal activity.
“When the PCYC is not on, that’s when we started getting bored,” Cameron said.
“That’s when mostly everyone went stealing … we would just do it because we were bored … they want to get in a group and go stealing just to feel the adrenaline.”
Negative school experiences and low education levels are significant part of Australia’s notorious Indigenous incarceration rates, Dr Rynne said.
“Lower levels of education lead to poorer school attendance,” he said.
“And we know that if kids stop going to school they then start to end up in pathways that are not positive.”