Fledgling school for Indigenous students mustn't be allowed to fail

Opinion Article

2011 June, 27

One of my favourite schools has been through a testing time in the past semester. The students and teachers  have endured great stress. Many good people worked hard to keep Djarragun College from collapsing. When  promising institutions are fledgling, they are fragile and Djarragun's unravelling struck fear into the hearts of its  many admirers.  

An independent school established 10 years ago under the aegis of the Anglican Church, Djarragun rose from  the ashes of the controversial collapse of a school run by another denomination. Thanks to then archbishop Peter  Hollingworth and his local indigenous representative bishop Arthur Malcolm, a new college was born to serve  indigenous children from remote communities.  

The Anglicans normally run schools that are among the most privileged in the country, educating students from  advantaged families in the mainstream. As with other private schools, the Anglicans have made provision for  some of our children from remote communities in regions such as Cape York Peninsula to attend these top-tier  schools. Our scholarship programs for what the great African-American leader W. E. B. Du Bois called the  Talented Tenth, are very successful.  

But even as we have solutions for elite students, we must ensure there are solutions for the other 90 per cent.  The middle group, comprising a further 40 per cent of students, attend middle-tier schools with various degrees of success. What is clear is if these children turned up at high school with a good primary school education, we  would show much greater success. But the appalling state of primary schooling in remote communities means the achievement gap is already two and more years by the time students reach high school.  

Then there is the bottom 50 per cent. They are the ones that end up in so-called "sink schools" at the bottom of  the supply chain, that take the kids no one else serves.

I have never been involved in Djarragun other than as an enthusiastic supporter. What most impressed me about  it is it built a castle of high expectations at the bottom of the Australian educational sink. The school's great  achievement was it developed a school culture the like of which I have never seen in other indigenous schools  and, indeed, in not too many mainstream schools.  

Djarragun reminds me of the great black colleges established after emancipation in the US in the late 19th and  early 20th centuries. Venerable schools such as Tuskegee in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington, and  Morehouse in Atlanta - known as the Harvard of the South and alma mater of Martin Luther King - have  produced generations of African-American doctors, philosophers, engineers, artists and leaders for a century and  a half.  

Like their mainstream counterparts, black trade schools and vocational institutes evolved into highly prestigious  institutions. To attend them is a great privilege.  

When you think of the recent tribulations of 10-year-old Djarragun against the 150-year history of black  education in the US, which produced thousands of schools and colleges, you realise how far behind Australia  has been in extending educational opportunity to its native peoples. The doors in our country opened late in the  day when you reflect that pioneers such as Margaret Valadian, Charlie Perkins and Pat O'Shane were the first  Aboriginal Australians to obtain university qualifications.  

We need institutions such as Tuskegee and Morehouse. This is why Djarragun is so important and cannot be  allowed to fail.  

To build on the foundations laid during the past 10 years, I opened dialogue with the Anglican diocese of North  Queensland about indigenous education reform and governance of Djarragun College that would restore its  promise and realise its potential. I have put a proposition to bishop Bill Ray and the board of the college for a  heads of agreement entrusting indigenous leadership with the custody of Djarragun. It is a landmark act of reconciliation that will ensure the pastoral relationship between the church and the school community is  maintained.  

Meanwhile, I have assembled a good board including Tony Watt, an expert in independent schools who was involved in the establishment of Djarragun.  

A former head of the Queensland Studies Authority, Kim Bannikoff, who helped establish the Cape York  Aboriginal Australian Academy, will also be a great source of guidance.  

Distinguished educator John Roulston is a key adviser to the transition process. Having spent 15 years as  executive director and chief executive of the Association of Independent Schools of Queensland and been a founding member of the Non-State Schools Accreditation Board from 2001 until February this year, his counsel  is invaluable.  

I have asked Don Anderson, Queensland's most experienced educator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander  students, to be the principal. Anderson retired recently after 40 years working for Education Queensland, 10  years as a teacher and 30 as a principal. Most of his career has been dedicated to indigenous education. He spent  five years laying the foundations of the Western Cape College in Weipa and another five establishing the Tagai  State College on Thursday Island. He is a greatly respected educator within indigenous communities in North Queensland.

Djarragun represents the achievement of its founders such as Arthur Malcolm, its dedicated teachers and loyal  alumni. The task ahead will be to enable the teaching faculty and pastoral workers to get back to providing the  best education that can be mustered for the children who so desperately need it.  

To fulfill its promise, Djarragun will need support from government and the community. Rebuilding will require  a lot of work, but the foundations already laid down are very strong and must not be allowed to be wasted by the  school's closure. I ask Australians of goodwill to support Djarragun to fulfill its promise to become the kind of  learning institution that it truly has the potential to be.

Fledgling school for Indigenous students mustn't be allowed to fail