Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schooling (2)

Australia, 1920s to 2020

Note: Photographs of Indigenous persons who may have passed away appear in this entry.

In the early twentieth century the main policies and practices organising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schooling had been set. There was little concern by state governments (in this period South Australia had responsibility for education in the Northern Territory), if many Indigenous children were not schooled at all. Where they were, either in mission or government schools, expectations of success remained low, and a very old assumption continued, that young peoples’ employment futures would be menial, labouring for boys and domestic service for girls. In this period, justifications for the separation of Indigenous children from their parents and communities achieved new respectability as the social administration of Aboriginal communities by state governments responded favourably to the newly racialised social sciences. For Indigenous families and communities another long period of resistance, survival and accommodation when necessary, set in. Such bleak analysis  slowly changes as more organised Indigenous political movements emerge and segregationist and assimilationist policies and practices are challenged. It is not until the 1970s however that very strong policy voices, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, emerge, contradicting the racist assumptions and practices that had continued from the nineteenth century. Right at the end of the century the potentially strongest of game changers occurred. In 1992, the High Court of Australia decided that the doctrine terra nullius was wrong, and should never have justified the assumption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands in Australia by the British crown. This decision, the Mabo decision, not only determined Indigenous rights to land, but inspired a new determination that would affect education as well: that Indigenous peoples should have significantly more power over the shaping of their lives.

Racialised social sciences and Indigenous schooling

In the nineteenth century, the idea that Indigenous children might be removed from their parents was not new, but there was an intensification from the 1880s. The racialised social sciences, especially those responsive to Social Darwinism, began classifying children and their families—using the offensive terminology of the times—as either ‘full-blooded’ or as possessing varying degrees of ‘mixed blood’. Children of ‘mixed blood’ were routinely removed from their families by government instrumentalities, protection and welfare boards, following an argument that they had fair prospects for assimilation into non-Indigenous society. These children composed the major segment of the Stolen Generations.

Assimilation was the policy that sought to integrate Indigenous peoples, especially those of ‘mixed blood’ into white society. Schools were to be a primary agent by insisting that Indigenous children and youth spoke English. They would be taught in English and be enculturated into white society. (The official adoption of assimilation policies did not necessarily lead to the closure of segregated schools.)

In 1937 the first national conference of (non-Aboriginal) representatives of Aboriginal protection boards from each state and territory agreed that Aboriginal children should be educated to a ‘white standard’, but this meant little more than basic literacy in English and numeracy. Conventional wisdom, thinking informed by pseudo-scientific testing, racism and also economic reasons, seems to have been that Aboriginal children were only capable of ‘keeping up’ to the primary levels, 3 or 4. It was argued at this conference that the purpose of schooling was assimilation. Any degree of Aboriginal autonomy was opposed. In 1947 A. O. Neville, chief protector in early twentieth-century Western Australia, thought that across Australia three-quarters of Aboriginal children were receiving no formal schooling at all. For him, nothing counted as education other than what might be delivered by a white teacher in a school.

Leaving ‘mixed-race’ children in Indigenous communities was considered an impediment to the assimilationist project. Neville was a leading advocate of systematic child removals from mothers, families and communities. Government settlements, such as Moore River (1918-1951) in Western Australia, associated with his administration resembled concentration camps. The school at Moore River shared the poverty of the reserve itself. The continued existence of such reserves, not only in Western Australia, but notoriously, Palm Island in Queensland, and other states as well, contradicted much of the assimilationist policy. In 1922-23 an Industrial School at Palm Island was established. Children were separated from their parents and segregated by gender as they entered the associated dormitories. Dormitories not only housed supposed orphans and neglected children, but single mothers and their children.

Children of the Colebrook Home in South Australia. The Pitjantjatjara leader, Lowitja O'Donoghue was raised here. 1936. National Library of Australia, Bib. 4833274

Children of the Colebrook Home in South Australia. The Pitjantjatjara leader, Lowitja O’Donoghue was raised here. 1936. National Library of Australia, Bib. 4833274

Institutions such as these, including in New South Wales, Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls and Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Training Home established in the mid-twentieth century have dark Stolen Generation and child abuse histories, Kinchela being a notorious example. Colebrook Home was in South Australia. Its staff raised and educated a future leader of Aboriginal people, Lowitja O’Donohue.

The terms segregation, assimilation through to self-determination in a later period assist in understanding the history of the schooling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youth, but they do not mark clear, nation-wide historical phases. From 1901, constitutional responsibility for Indigenous peoples and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schooling belonged to the Australian states. With the exception of Victoria, it was not necessarily state education departments which were responsible for the schooling of Aboriginal children, but instead various boards and departments specifically charged with implementing restrictive legislation targeting Aboriginal people. Segregation and the worst of assimilationist policies lasted longer in some states, especially those with a more recent history of frontier violence (including Queensland and Western Australia). Similarly, the main periods and locations of protectorates, church missions and government reserves, and the schools they hosted, varied according to state. Federal governments with their superior financial resources only played a significant role from the 1970s.

The range of schooling experiences by Aboriginal children was diverse. On a remote cattle station, part of the lands of the Rembarrnga people in the Northern Territory in the 1950s, a former pupil remembered his three years of schooling

but after that I went mustering … Every year during the school break we used to go out to the stock camp [to work] for a couple of months … we used to write with ashes first and writing on tea chest. No paper or pencil. For one year anyway. Then we got all our gear. (Quoted in G. Collishaw, Rednecks, eggheads and blackfellas: A study of racial power and intimacy in Australia, Sydney, 199, p. 127.)

In cities, the experiences were different.

From the late nineteenth century, the size of government bureaucracies grew and the number of agencies interested in Aboriginal children, families and communities multiplied. Police, welfare, juvenile justice, health and education agencies and departments all played a role in the management of Indigenous children, youth and their families—as well as church missions. The likelihood that consistent, effective and just state policy would emerge in the area of Indigenous affairs, or education in particular, was low.

Schooling and education policy from the 1960s

By the 1960s pressure by Indigenous organisations, often with the assistance of white allies, was strong enough to demand radical reform of existing policies and practices affecting the Indigenous peoples of Australia. The demand for improved and desegregated schooling was part of this movement towards Indigenous civil, citizenship, land and other rights.

The Whitlam-led Labor government of the early 1970s was the first federal government to substantially use the new post-1967 referendum constitutional powers over Aboriginal affairs. Its Schools Commission sponsored a consultative committee, composed of Indigenous community leaders. It produced the first of many policies in the states and federally that would address Indigenous schooling. That self-determination and self-management needed to be part of school reform as it affected Indigenous peoples became foundational. Later there would be attempts to recognise and address the damage done the stolen generations of Aboriginal children, too many of whom suffered multiple deprivations, not the least of which was the want of useful schooling.

The Northern Territory report on children that sparked the federal government's "Intervention", 2007.

The Northern Territory report on children that sparked the federal government’s “Intervention”, 2007.

From the end of the twentieth century, a series of government reports, including two royal commissions, addressed different aspects of Indigenous disadvantage and discrimination. They included evidence and recommendations about the historical and contemporary experience of Indigenous children and youth to some degree. In many cases Aboriginal children and youth had been subject to systematic and destructive psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Reports included Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991), Bringing them Home (1997), Little Children are Sacred (2007) and Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017). They assisted in keeping Indigenous welfare and educational issues before governments and the broad Australian public.

The policies of state and federal governments since the 1970s have often sought to improve Indigenous education through the occasional funding of community-controlled schools, the development of pre-schools and the introduction of Indigenous studies in universities.  In the early twenty-first century, Indigenous children and youth remained well behind the broader population in the commonly accepted measures of educational success: the rates of achievement of basic literacy and numeracy, high school completion, university graduation and later, waged employment. (Very few Indigenous students at all completed high school or attended universities in the period before the 1970s.)

The educational success of different groups within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations is subject to substantial variations: the rural, remote and urban locations of Indigenous families make a difference, as do the prior education levels and employment histories of families—and the continuation of racist discriminations against them. In the Northern Territory, the publication of the report  Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: The Little Children are Sacred  exposed many of the worst conditions suffered by children and youth, and their families, in Australia. The Intervention (2007-2012) by the federal government in Aboriginal communities followed the publication of the report. The Intervention was highly controversial in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Its approach continued the difficult history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in Australia. It included attempts to enforce school attendance as well as addressing drug abuse and domestic violence in communities.

Less controversially, policies that encourage Indigenous language use and self-determination in each of the Australian states and the Northern Territory have often been implemented, but push-back occurs, especially in the Northern Territory. At the same time there has generally, despite the Intervention, been a shift away from the old prescriptions of authoritarianism and paternalism, that marked previous regimes.

In New South Wales, the last of the mission schools was closed in the 1970s. In other parts of Australia, some lasted longer. Although many of the problems linked with poverty, racism and remote and rural locations remained, the principles of ‘self-determination’, or at least partnership and consultation, were increasingly accepted across most jurisdictions.

Despite their cultural differences, traditionally having more in common with coastal peoples of Papua New Guinea than those of the Australian mainland, Torres Strait Islanders have been subject to the new policy approaches from the 1970s. Indeed Eddie Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander, and led the land rights campaign from Townsville in Queensland, but his home island was Mer in the Straits. The three languages spoken in the islands, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Meriam Mir and the creole, Brokan, play a role in contemporary schooling on the Islands.

In 1973, Mabo helped found a Townsville black community school for local Indigenous children.  It was a pioneer of such schools in Australia, a response to local criticisms of Queensland’s approach to the schooling of Indigenous children.

It was regarded with open hostility within the general Townsville community including the Queensland Education Department, local newspaper and some local politicians. The then State Minister for Education denounced the motives of the students’ parents declaring their attitudes as racist and the school as ‘apartheid in reverse’. At its peak in the late 1970s, forty five students were enrolled at the school. (https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/eddie-koiki-mabo, accessed 11 November 2020).

In 1975, Eddie Mabo was subsequently asked to join the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), an advisory body to the Commonwealth Education Department.

Research into the schooling of Aboriginal children, increasingly involving partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, began to deliver new insights. Cultural disjunctions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous were real. School success was affected by differing approaches to child-rearing, child-adult relationships, language usage, and expectations such as teacher-child ‘eye-contact’. Informed teacher training, including cultural awareness, began to assist. Acknowledgement of the marginalisation of Indigenous knowledge, history and culture in the curriculum began to occur. Colleges of Advanced Education and then universities established units to train Indigenous school assistants and to support Indigenous trainee teachers. Treating Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and youth the same (assimilation) would not address continuing difficulties.

As had occurred in Townsville and having fought so long against inferior and or segregated schooling, some Aboriginal communities decided that their own separate schools were required—but under their control. In towns like Alice Springs the tension between Aboriginal and white communities was intense. Separate schooling became a possible way forward.

The Yipirinya School was founded on the initiative of Aboriginal elders in the town camps of Alice Springs. The elders felt that government schools only paid lip-service to Aboriginal languages and cultural traditions. Their children felt like outsiders. In 1978 a school council was formed and in 1979 classes were started. School registration was only won after a court order four years later. Buildings were constructed with the assistance of federal funding. The school operated on a two-way, bilingual and bicultural approach, teaching four Indigenous languages including Arrernte, Luritja and Warlpiri. Each language group had cultural excursions where the students travelled to their country and learnt from elders. The school also followed the curriculum frameworks of the Northern Territory government.

Less happy was the experience of a government school in Alice Springs, Traeger Park. It was closed by the Territory government in 1991 amid bitter debate over segregated schooling and affirmative action through an Aborigines-only enrolment policy, and what ‘equality’ in schooling actually meant. The Chief Minister of the Territory at the time argued against separate schooling. It was not ‘in the long term interests of Aboriginal children, who have to learn to take their place in the wider community—they have to learn to compete … with white children and with white adults’. Eventually the school was transferred to the Catholic Church, a privatisation of sorts—but the affair did not end there. The national Human Rights Commissioner determined that the school had been closed on racial discriminatory grounds. The Commissioner insisted that equitable education did not mean that all should get the same education. It was not until the late twentieth century that Indigenous cultures or languages were routinely treated by most schools as anything other than an obstacle to learning.

The reach of schooling remained patchy in the Northern Territory. On outstations Aboriginal teaching assistants, but not necessarily teachers, worked with children. Their resourcing even at this basic level was uncertain.

Governments and other organisations, including Indigenous, produced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policies and curriculum materials to address long-standing misapprehensions and injustices. They varied in their effects. The first of the Aboriginal education policies in New South Wales was published in 1982. Its 1996 revision asserted that Aboriginal students were entitled ‘to resources, recognising effects of past inequities, in pursuit of educational outcomes comparable with the rest of the community’. Aboriginal communities had the right to negotiate their children’s schooling. Again, Aboriginal children were ‘entitled to learn about Aboriginal Australia’, including an understanding of Aboriginal communities as custodians of knowledge about their own cultures and history. They were to be free to learn without racism and prejudice. Aboriginal communities and the Education Department were to work as partners in the educational process.

A significant extension of the policy was that all children and youth, Indigenous or not, must learn about Aboriginal culture and history. This insistence has become part of the various formulations of the national curriculum.

From the end of the 1970s, if schooling for Aboriginal children appeared to be better understood and supported, there was also a better understanding of the relationships between school success and the poor health, employment and housing conditions of many Aboriginal families. Each of these interrelated issues, including racism in Australia, remain social justice issues of considerable importance for Indigenous education, and Australia as a whole in the twenty-first century.


(1) The historiography around Indigenous schooling in Australia is patchy. Some institutions, including missions and a number of schools, and some regions such as the Torres Strait Islands are better served, but cohesive national studies of Indigenous education are yet to be written. Sometimes the best studies are autobiographies and biographies, including recorded Indigenous oral histories. They often enable a close understanding of the material impacts of schools on Indigenous lives.

(2) The author thanks Beth Marsden, Geoffrey Stokes and Anthony Welch in the preparation of this entry. He welcomes corrections and suggestions for its improvement and development.

Bibliography and References

Beresford, Quentin, & Gary Partington (eds). 2003. Reform and resistance in Aboriginal education: The Australian experience. Perth: University of Western Australia Press.

Fletcher, J. J. 1989. Clean, clad and courteous: A history of Aboriginal education in New South Wales. Sydney: the author.

Foley, Dennis. 2013. Indigenous Australia and the education system. In R. Connell, A. Welch, M. Vickers, D. Foley, N. Bagnall, D. Hayes, H. Proctor, A. Sriprakash, & C. Campbell (eds.), Education, change and society (pp. 131-159). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Haebich, Anna. 2000. Broken circles: Fragmenting Indigenous families 1800-2000. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Haebich, Anna &  Steve Kinnane. 2013. Indigenous Australia. In A. Bashford & S. Macintyre (eds), The Cambridge History of Australia (vol. 2, pp. 332-357). Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Herbert, Jeannie. 2012. “‘Ceaselessly circling the centre’: Historical contextualization of indigenous education within Australia.” History of Education Review, vol.41 (2), 91-103.

Lee, P., Fasoli, L., Ford, L. J., Stephenson, P., & McInerney, D. M. (2014). Indigenous kids and schooling in the Northern Territory: An introductory overview and brief history of Aboriginal Education in the Northern Territory. Batchelor (NT): Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.

Theobald, Marjorie. 2001. The Afghan children of Oodnadatta: A reflection on gender, ethnicity and education in the interwar years. In G. Sherington & C. Campbell (eds.), Education and Ethnicity (pp. 211-230). Gent: ISCHE.

Walton, Chris. 1997. Traeger Park School: A case for human rights. In S. Harris & M. Malin (eds.), Indigenous education: Historical, moral and practical tales. Darwin: NT University Press.

Weiss, Gillian. 1994. Three generations of women: Learning and schooling among the Adnyamathanha. Historical Studies in Education, Special issue, 171-199.

Wheatley, Nadia (ed.). 2011. Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Williamson, Alan. 1994. Schooling the Torres Strait Islanders 1873 to 1941. Adelaide: University of South Australia.

Citation of this entry

Campbell, C. 2020. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schooling (2). Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and new Zealand (DEHANZ), 11 November. Available: http://dehanz.net.au

Keywords: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,