Schools Deadly allies

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 8 months ago.
  • 28 Jul 2023
Visual arts teacher Kym Maxwell, principal Keren Barro and the proud Ganbu Mob. Photo Meredith O'Shea

When it comes to Indigenous education, Ashley Park Primary is committed to sharing the cultural load and creating the next generation of change-makers.

When Ashley Park Primary opened its doors in 2019, principal Keren Barro saw a chance to build a new sort of school culture that had First Nations voices at its very heart. “Because we’re a new school, I thought we could make sure that we were really catering for the needs of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We have a responsibility to ensure Aboriginal perspectives are taught within our curriculum and I knew we could give those students opportunities to really shine.”

She worked with the Wurundjeri Council to find names for the school’s factions using Woi Wurrung words for animals native to the area. This grew into a larger project driven by visual arts teacher Kym Maxwell, culminating in a colourful mural decorating the school amphitheatre.

“We really wanted something to make our performance space look brighter and more engaging. Kym came up with the idea of painting it and we thought we could capture the story of the nearby Plenty Gorge to make it feel like a safe space for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”

The mural was designed and painted by Year 2 and 3 students, with families invited to contribute. Keren then saw its potential to be “somewhere for the children to come together, share their culture, take pride in it, and also lift their profile in school.”

The students seized the opportunity, creating the ‘Ganbu Mob’ – ganbu meaning “one” in Woi Wurrung language – which initially met for half an hour after assembly, but now has a dedicated hour each week. Families are also invited to join in once a term. 

Kym has been granted non-face-to-face teaching time to facilitate the group. “It’s very student-centred,” says Keren. “It’s about giving them the space and the opportunity to talk about things that are important to them.”

When it comes to standing in solidarity with First Nations Australians, those from other backgrounds can be wary of speaking on their behalf. But teacher and AEU Indigenous officer Alinta Williams encourages her fellow educators to speak up and share the cultural load.

“It’s children teaching children – that’s really important.”

Keren Barro

A Ngunnawal, Ngambri woman with ties to Wiradjuri Country, Alinta has written extensively about non-Indigenous educators becoming agents of change by helping to challenge existing systems that can be hostile to First Nations students and educators alike.

“White settler teachers are uniquely positioned to use their privilege to shift structurally racist boundaries and narratives in solidarity with First Nations teachers, acting as accomplices who question and resist power structures and create safe spaces of discussion and debate as a form of solidarity,” says Alinta.

“The way to make First Nations teachers feel culturally safe and supported in their workplaces is through other educators becoming agents of change. The flow-on effects would result in First Nations students gaining strength in their identity… and achieving a stronger sense of belonging in their classrooms.”

At Ashley Park PS, the Gangu Mob have revelled in the opportunity to help shape the culture of the school. Students lead the Acknowledgement of Country that opens every assembly and have recently launched a ‘Deadly Award’ for peers who demonstrate values they see as important to First Nations culture.

Keren has observed that weaving an awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures into the fabric of the school means other children have started to take a strong interest and ask well-informed questions. In this way, the school is creating a new generation of change-agents.

“We’re able to educate our students about our history and how First Nations people have been treated, and ways that we can make a difference to how Australia treats First Nations people now and into the future. It’s children teaching children – that’s what’s really important. The children are really proud, and their families feel that we are making a difference.”

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