Schools A more inclusive approach to education

Teacher Emma Cornish-Giles with students at Thornbury PS. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

This is what respect looks like. A mighty wominjeka (welcome) is yarn-bombed onto the front fence. Totem-uniformed kids chase each other through weaving-grass and bush-tucker landscapes that wend their way around classrooms in luk (eel) forms. Aboriginal flags are championed in windows; directions are signposted in Woiwurrung (Language); the entrance is watched by Bunjil, Wurrundjeri Country’s wedge-tailed creator, carved into a tree.

In Thornbury Primary School’s reception area, copies of Dhumbadjirri (talk-together), the school newsletter, suggest First Nations culture is thoroughly embodied here. “It’s in the school’s DNA” is how a parent once described it, says assistant principal Megan Noy. 

Sixty-three Aboriginal children make up 17% of the Thornbury PS student population, the highest in Melbourne. Many have parents and grandparents who studied and taught here.

Learning indigenous crafts and Chum Creek PS student Riley's painting of Aunty Dot. Photos: Supplied

“Generations of families and teachers have developed our approach,” says Noy. “Immediately apparent here is the strength and pride in Aboriginal presence. A strong and proud culture is in every classroom, every hallway, on our buildings and uniforms.”

One mural depicts the eight seasons of the Wurrundjeri calendar. In outdoor classrooms and school notices, the ‘deadly’ and ‘mob’ lingua franca rubs shoulders with Woiwurrung, the revival language of traditional custodians. 

The school’s initiatives to support and promote Koorie culture, inclusion and achievement – from the Malpa Young Doctors health leadership program to Wayapa, a unique mindfulness program connecting students to Culture and Country – have been recognised at the Victorian Education Excellence Awards, where Thornbury PS won this year’s prize for Outstanding Koorie Education.

“A strong and proud culture is in every classroom, every hallway, on our buildings and uniforms.”

Every student at the school takes part in the Indigenous Studies program and has a weekly lesson in Woiwurrung, which informs all subjects and levels, including the Steiner stream. With the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), students have recorded knowledge – such as Balayang Wurrgarrabil-u (Why bats are black), Dulaiwurrung Mungkanj-bulanj (How the platypus was made) and Gurrborra Nguba-nj Ngabun Baanj (Why the koala doesn’t drink water) – and offered it to listeners globally through an app.

“Cultural understanding doesn’t benefit only Koorie students,” says Noy. “It benefits everyone.”

Michael Corr, principal of Chum Creek Primary in Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, says teachers need to feel comfortable with heuristic teaching, as “most are themselves learning about Culture”. The accuracy of some pedagogical tools – such as First Nations Australia maps – may be contested, but imperfect or provisional knowledge is better than no knowledge, he says. 

The Victorian government’s Marrung Strategy offers resources for teaching Aboriginal culture in schools, including Cultural Understanding and Safety Training (CUST) through regional Koorie Engagement Support Officers (KESOs). Resources from organisations such as the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc (VAEAI) and the Wurundjeri Tribe Council also help teachers navigate Culture. 

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“Cultural understanding doesn’t benefit only Koorie students. It benefits everyone.”

The Aboriginal canon should be integrated in our standard curriculum, says Chum Creek teacher Samantha Holman. Her students write and perform Acknowledgement of Country and enjoy resources such as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, but non-indigenous teachers are often nervous about the right ways to teach Indigenous knowledges, says Holman. Many rely on “our own ad-hoc approach” and need better curriculum support to “teach the plurality of perspectives”.

Intergenerational trauma is also a challenge for schools. Grasping the truth of a cultural history that includes genocide, stolen generations, dispossession and structural disadvantage can be difficult for any student – but when your own mob experiences it, and your sense of self involves profound connection with ancestors and Country, trauma isn’t an abstract concept. Its impacts are felt and enduring, says Corr. 

“The policy is there, and we’re told what Koorie education should look like, but when we have an Indigenous student needing support, it’s a challenge.” 

At his rural school, a support meeting is a logistical feat in which guardians, teachers, a KESO, and Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) staff need to be available at short notice during school hours. ‘Closing the Gap’ policy, says Corr, doesn’t automatically make the stars align for Indigenous students.

“The policy is there, but when we have an Indigenous student needing support, it’s a challenge.”

The work KESOs do with teachers is also complicated by bureaucratic conditions, such as funding for Indigenous students that’s tethered to NAPLAN outcomes. Indigenous ways of knowing – involving interconnected oral narratives, landscapes, symbols and cosmology systems – are not easily measured by standard modes of assessment.

Still, teachers are forging ways within systemic constraints. At Chum and Thornbury, the emphasis is on emotional safety. Like Noy, Corr say Indigenous education centres on relationships, trust, listening and time – nuanced practices that generate student wellbeing that’s immeasurable using a formal calculus.

At Thornbury Primary School, the most recent attitudinal study showed that the Koorie students were surpassing their non-Koorie classmates in all areas, including respect, classroom behaviour and connection to school.

When Wurrundjeri elder Aunty Dot Peters AO visited Chum Primary School to teach basket coiling, she told stories about her advocacy work. Ostensibly about traditional craft and bush skills, her lesson became a tool for engaging the kids in stories about Indigenous war veterans being acknowledged and recognised. 

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“We are not separate from our past, but we don’t only belong there.”

“It was close to home, about local people and the local area,” says Corr. “The kids were touched by that and retold her stories. The discussion became about contemporary Aboriginal culture, not just history from the pages of a book.”

Wiradjuri educator Angela Swindle, who worked as the Yarra Valley KESO, has written: “We are not separate from our past, but we don’t only belong there.” She believes it’s important for non-Aboriginal people to understand that “we’re modern people … not just a history lesson”.

Corr says this was one message within Aunty Dot’s stories, which continue to expand well beyond “reciting facts off a sheet. There are no KPIs for many learning outcomes.”

Vaso Elefsiniotis, the parent of a Yamaji/Koorie student, says she’s “stoked” that her son starts the day greeting her in Woiwurrung: “Wominjeka Mummy, biladunjan warr?”.

“He tells me about the uses of tarnuks and coolamons [water bowls] and brings me a paperbark gurrong [canoe] he made after watching a film about traditional canoe-making in class,” says Vaso.

“The other day he said to me: ‘You gotta listen to Bunjil’s call Mum. He teaches you.’” 

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