Clare Smith June 29, 2012
Ian Sharpe Photo: Ian Sharpe
Jawoyn woman … Rachael Willika has helped seven children get an education, CLARE SMITH writes
While high-profile debate has attended the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 that was before the Senate this week, one Aboriginal woman is quietly achieving the success in school attendance that is eluding government.
The Stronger Futures legislation includes the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure, in which parents whose children miss school more than five times over two terms will have their welfare payments stalled. SEAM has been criticised by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which points out that the suspension of welfare payments means the suspension of much-needed income.
In contrast to such severe measures, Jawoyn woman … Willika - without any dedicated support from government - is charting her own pathway to success.
Last year, Willika moved her family from the tiny Aboriginal community of Manyallaluk in the Northern Territory to Adelaide, South Australia. Today, she has five children and grandchildren, aged between seven and 13 years, who attend school each day. There is a real chance they will achieve a life that has parity with other Australians.
Though this is an ordinary achievement for many Australians, from the perspective of Aboriginal communities in remote parts of the Northern Territory, it is a small miracle.
How has Willika been able to achieve success, where millions of dollars of government funding is struggling to achieve results? The answers provide insights into how Stronger Futures policies could be implemented to deliver better outcomes.
Willika has overcome numerous barriers. First, each of the children had a history of intermittent or poor school attendance. Depending on the child, their school attendance ranged from about 10 per cent to 60 per cent. Going to school is a habit, and this habit had not been instilled in the children. Moreover, there was not a group ethos of school attendance.
Willika's solution was to develop routines and incentives that support regular school attendance. She showed her own commitment by getting up each day to make school lunch for the children and getting them off to school. Initially, she instituted a reward system, whereby the children got stars for attending school, and those who had attended school every day went somewhere special on the weekend. Eighteen months later this system has lapsed, because attending school has been normalised. The children still go somewhere special most weekends, but it is part of a lifestyle, rather than a treat to reward special behaviour.
The second barrier is that the children are taught in a foreign language - whether they live in Adelaide or in the community. Their first language is Kriol, spoken by about 15,000 Aboriginal people in northern and western Australia. Being taught in English places them at a disadvantage - but English is the language of Australia, and it needs to be mastered to function well in society.
Learning English became a priority. In the first year, the children were taught in a school where English was virtually the only language. As a matter of survival, they learnt English in the classroom and in the schoolyard. This year, they enrolled in a school with great cultural diversity. This school provided dedicated classes that improved the children's English-language proficiency. Their competence is enhanced through social interactions with English-speaking people. However, they are not losing their own language, and they still speak Kriol among themselves and at home.
The third barrier concerns notions of autonomy. Children in Aboriginal communities tend to have a higher degree of autonomy than other children, and this manifests in greater personal choice about school attendance. Consequently, the excuse that ''I'm sick'' is much more likely to be accepted by community parents as a valid reason for not attending school. Addressing this was a challenge for Willika, because it entailed rethinking her notion of good parenting. In this process, she has changed from being the ''kind'' parent who allows children to stay home if they claim illness to being the strict parent who brooks no excuses.
A fourth barrier relates to changes to the routine, which can precipitate a crisis. One of the girls started high school this year. She enrolled in a school of 1200 students - 12 times the number of people in her home community - and found the experience alienating and overwhelming. This was not a comfortable or safe learning environment. Moreover, she was way behind her peers and the more independent learning systems of a high school exacerbated the discrepancy between her skills levels and those of her friends. She protected her self-esteem by refusing to go to school.
Willika decided to re-enrol her daughter in the final year of primary school, seeking an extra year of preparation before high school. However, the problem still proved to be intractable. It was solved when a grandchild of the same age joined the family in Adelaide. Together, the two girls were strong enough to brave the new environment. Their combined attempt to stay at home at one point was met by the serious promise that they would be sent to boarding school. Since then, they have attended every day.
Willika's success is also the success of the Jawoyn community. Her children are embedded in a web of relationships and their extended family shares their achievements. Family members are contributing by allowing their children to live in Adelaide, and encouraging them.
Could Willika have done what she has done in her home community rather than Adelaide?
She says not. A network of friends has underwritten her success in Adelaide. A similar network of people that is dedicated to children achieving their aspirations through education does not yet exist in the community.
What are the lessons for the Stronger Futures legislation? While Rachael Willika has achieved her success in the city, lessons for remote Aboriginal communities can be gleaned. Willika's pioneering journey has identified strategies that could increase school attendance in Aboriginal communities. It suggests areas where the parenting and family support programs that are part of Stronger Futures could be directed to helping people achieve what Willika has achieved.
Could the ''Rachael model'' of strong parenting be applied to remote communities? Of course it could. The critical factors are high aspirations for the children, parental resolve and a network of support. If parents actively take responsibility for their children's learning they will need support from family, the community and the school. Families and communities need to pursue high aspirations for their children - the kind of aspirations that can only be achieved through education. Schools cannot accept that failure is part of their partnerships with parents.
Educational achievements are a crucial issue for Aboriginal communities. NAPLAN data for 2010 shows that on average indigenous students living in remote areas perform below the levels achieved by Year 3 non-indigenous students in the cities. Such outcomes correlate with poor employment prospects, low incomes, poor health and unfulfilled lives.
The major lesson to be learnt from Rachael Willika is that Aboriginal people can and ultimately must find their own routes to success, and that programs should be developed to support them.
Claire Smith is Professor of Archaeology at Flinders University. She has worked with Rachael Willika and her family for over 20 years. Rachael Willika has approved the text for this article.