Christine Nicholls

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his Philosophical Investigations, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in language and language seemed to repeat it inexorably.” In Radical Hope, Noel Pearson thinks, theorises and offers suggestions outside of the bleak picture of Australian Aboriginal education that currently holds sway. But ultimately it is in education that he places his hopes for the future: “I have hope. Our hope is dependent on education. Our hope is how serious we become about the education of our people.”

As the principal of a relatively large Aboriginal school (fluctuating in the vicinity of 200-plus students) in the Tanami Desert, where I lived and worked for the best part of a decade, I too once shared the same hope. And while I still believe that education is of key importance, after many years of engagement in this area I have come to the realisation that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change. These are by no means autonomous fields. 

Until such a concerted approach is made, there will continue to be small, localised success stories in the area of education, but no broad, permanent change markedly for the better. Equally, there will always be those people whom French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described as “des miraculés” or the “miraculous exceptions,” those educationally highly successful children who emerge from the ranks of the working class, the underclass, the unemployed or from other materially insecure families, and who really “make it.” Of this group, Noel Pearson is an example par excellence – perhaps the most miraculous of exceptions. And such exceptions are all the more miraculous because they serve to prove the rule. In order for large numbers, indeed a critical mass, of remote-area Aboriginal children to succeed in this fashion, housing, health and employment will need just as much urgent attention as education.

At Lajamanu School the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers mostly worked extremely hard, and the majority were highly competent. Together we were relatively successful in the education enterprise. In retrospect, however, I see that placing one’s hopes in education alone is not enough. When children live in houses with thirty-plus people, they do not sleep soundly, there is nowhere to do homework, health and hygiene (physical and moral) become compromised, and if the children come to school at all in such circumstances, they are tired, listless and often hungry too. No matter how competent the teacher and no matter what whizz-bang teaching methodologies teachers might embrace, such children cannot be receptive learners. If they never or only rarely see their parents engaged in meaningful work, on whom do they model themselves? On what basis do they conceptualise their adult lives? These are simply realities. 

Equally, if a significant percentage of the adults and children in any given community (even if it is a “dry community,” as was the one in which I lived) suffer from kidney problems, heart disease as a result of rheumatic fever, eye problems such as trachoma, scabies, hepatitis, tuberculosis or even leprosy (which has been eradicated since the time I lived there), it is difficult for these children to put energy into learning and for their communities to give the necessary support to the educational enterprise.

Likewise, when 95 per cent of the children in the school have otitis media, leading to educationally significant hearing loss, then it is virtually impossible for those children to learn effectively, especially when instruction is in a foreign language. Year after year Lajamanu School was visited by teams of interstate experts who specialised in the diagnosis of hearing loss caused by otitis media. Up to ten people would arrive at the same time. These team members tested the hearing of every child in the school and the news, predictably, was always bad. This was, of course, a very costly exercise for the government, but never – not even once – was any funding put into actually fixing the problem. Eventually I wearied of this over-diagnosing, and, in desperation, wrote a submission to the Disadvantaged Schools Program and finally received modest funding to put microphones and loudspeakers into two classrooms.

Only a tiny minority of teachers in the school was trained to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). Over a period of more than a decade, only a handful of qualified ESL teachers was ever appointed to Lajamanu School, despite numerous requests. Nor, for the duration, were any qualified teachers of the deaf appointed to the school. There are no trained ESL teachers at Lajamanu School now. Inexplicably, the education department sees absolutely no need for teachers in these communities to have these vital skills as part of their educational repertoire. While English is now the mandated language of instruction for the first four hours of the day in Territory Aboriginal schools, these children are only just beginning to learn it. Children are expected to master initial literacy in a language that they do not understand – in other words, to learn a new language at the same time as acquiring literacy. Obviously, this is a “double jeopardy” situation, adding an unnecessary extra layer of complexity to their already compromised learning. Little wonder that school attendances have plummeted since the introduction of the “new” initiative.

Faced with all these major challenges, Aboriginal people also find themselves repeatedly confronted by illogical, inadequate and often ill-supervised government projects. Let me provide one example from the area of housing. In the late 1970s and into the early 1980s a builder was sent to live in Lajamanu, where he “worked” for four years, presumably on building houses for the local people. For this the man received generous government funding through the local Lajamanu Housing Association. In theory, he was also supposed to be training local men to continue building houses after he left. This did not happen.

Warlpiri people bestowed the nickname of “Warlkanji-pardu” upon this man. In English, this means something akin to Liar, Bullshit Artist, Big-Noter or Trickster (although the -pardu suffix has a slightly attenuating effect – “Dear Old Bullshitter” probably hits the mark). The man, big-talking but excessively lazy, had been employed by the Lajamanu Building Association to build accommodation for the citizenry of Lajamanu, most of whom were living in humpies or outdoors at that time. His grandiose verbal schemes for single-handedly revolutionising the housing situation at Lajamanu resulted in the construction of only half a mud-brick house, which in any case partially disintegrated while he was in the process of building it. Despite the waste of thousands of dollars of public money that had been allocated to ameliorate the parlous housing situation at Lajamanu, there were no repercussions whatsoever from the government or any other watchdog. Community members were clearly aghast, but their complaints were uniformly ignored or cast aside by authorities to whom they complained. Ironically, the man was fond of boasting to his mates that he had been “given a Warlpiri name,” under the misapprehension that this Warlpiri moniker was evidence of his high standing in the eyes of the Warlpiri. 

Government after government has raised expectations, dashed hopes and broken promises in situations akin to this one. Lest readers think that such episodes belong to the past, one need look no further than the current government’s multi-million-dollar disaster, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), in which the actual building of houses has been endlessly deferred. In stating this I am not blaming the present government alone, but drawing attention to the ongoing failure of successive governments in this area. 

Earlier this year, Yirrkala School, in remote north-east Arnhem Land, was in the second round of stimulus funding to build a greatly desired language centre, but the Rudd government pulled the pin on the project, preferring, it seems, to allocate more buildings to city schools. In addition, despite Yirrkala being a nominated “growth town” and a site for education-hub development, it appears unlikely to benefit from the new National Partnership funding. In the two separate streams of funding that it has been allotted, it will receive $214,000 over 2010–11. Coincidentally, perhaps, DET is allocating this to cover salaries of cultural advisor positions. These were established in 2007 as part of the Remote Learning Partnership Agreement. So, basically, there is no extra money on which to base new programs aimed at “closing the gap.” It seems that the first gap that needs to be closed is the gap between what governments say they will do, and what they actually do. 

In this I am not singling out the current federal government, but making a general comment about all Australian governments. When it comes to Aboriginal affairs, each successive government, regardless of party affiliation, seems to glide into office with a Messiah complex. Each one seems to want to go down in history as the one who “fixed the Aboriginal problem.” And in turn, each one fails, despite small, isolated pockets of success. This is not to say that all schemes and initiatives have been abject failures, but it is necessary to build on those small pockets of success. When governments repeatedly break agreements with Aboriginal people or refuse to take responsibility in terms of monitoring their own initiatives, this has a corrosive effect on communities and affects education, too.

If there were ever a case for bipartisan support on any issue affecting this nation, surely it is here, in the interrelated areas of Aboriginal education, health, housing and employment. While often politicians hold that their differences are major ideological ones, this is frequently not so. Rather, more often than not it is a matter of political grandstanding – if the previous government endorsed a particular project, method or approach, the current one won’t, simply on principle. And so the depressing cycles of failure and disappointment repeat themselves, because effective measures are irrationally discontinued.

So while I agree that education is of utmost importance, it is hard to envisage long-term qualitative improvement in education without equal attention to health, housing and employment. Only then will it really become possible to implement a No Excuses framework – a highly desirable goal, but, unfortunately, probably not fully achievable at the present time.

Noel Pearson is spot-on when he writes that governments and their bureaucracies (and, by implication, others in the field of Aboriginal education) have no cultural memory. This applies, par excellence, to the field of Aboriginal education. While Pearson alludes to policy failure, educational successes are just as easily forgotten, and some policies are not given sufficient time nor enough governmental or systemic support to have any real chance of succeeding. 

Bilingual education, for example, was constantly undermined by the Northern Territory education department in a range of ways, despite strong endorsement and support from Aboriginal communities and – albeit limited, for reasons that should be clear from this response – evidence of success. The greatest furphy about Aboriginal-language programs in schools is that they involve orality and literacy exclusively in Indigenous languages. In fact, in the majority of cases these programs were seriously subverted by the education department’s failure to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers to the Territory’s Aboriginal schools. Virtually all of the Aboriginal schools in remote parts of the Territory are in fact bilingual – this is the daily on-the-ground reality – whether or not it is official policy. Therefore, whether or not official bilingual education programs are in place, children in these schools merit qualified teachers to teach them English. Since newly arrived migrant children receive such consideration, it is scandalous that Aboriginal children whose first language is not English do not. 

In addition, a quality document is urgently needed for prospective ESL teachers working with Aboriginal students whose first language is not English, identifying the particular areas of difficulty the children encounter when learning English. To give just one example, at Lajamanu, where I worked, Warlpiri children had difficulty learning the correct use of both the definite and indefinite articles, because there are no articles in Warlpiri. Therefore ESL teachers need to teach directly to this area of difficulty. This is not to imply any kind of deficit; there are no articles in Japanese either, and sometimes even the most sophisticated and fluent Japanese speakers and writers of English experience continuing difficulty in mastering the use of English articles.

Furthermore, Aboriginal education in remote Australia is not entirely dysfunctional (an impression one might gain by reading Pearson’s essay). Unfortunately, successive governments have forgotten the success stories just as much as they have airbrushed over their own policy failures. The latter becomes evident because these failures are recycled at regular intervals, in the guise of new schemes or initiatives. (I have observed at least three such cycles now.) There are curriculum and other education-related initiatives that have worked resoundingly well, and these need to be documented and published for use by prospective teachers in Aboriginal schools. Gathering and publishing stories of “best practice” in Aboriginal education is a matter of urgency, especially because of this endemic problem of faulty institutional memory syndrome.

I will provide one example from my own experience. After I had lived and worked at Lajamanu for at least five years, the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers in the school decided that everyone in the community would benefit from a clearly articulated school policy. To this end we organised a pupil-free day and invited every adult member of the community to contribute to the policy-formation process. A highly regarded senior educator working at the University of Western Sydney was asked to convene the process, to ensure, inter alia, neutrality. Many people turned up on the appointed day, including Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members, very old Warlpiri people, young Warlpiri people, the local Christian minister, missionaries, nurses and the plumber. The process of obtaining people’s views was a fair one and people could speak in whatever language they wished – either Warlpiri or English. Interpreters were at hand for the monolinguals present. The entire day was recorded in order for there to be clarity about the issues on which consensus had been achieved. It took all day and many issues were thrashed out. The result was a policy document that gave me, as the school principal, a clear mandate to act in certain sensitive areas on which I had previously wished to act, but had met with resistance from certain powerful individuals in the community. Among these was the vitally important question of school attendance, which was strongly supported by everyone who attended the policy day. As a result, I could confidently begin work on improving school attendance, which at that point was sitting at about 65 per cent to 70 per cent. 

After this, the local Aboriginal police aide, a senior man in the community, served, on my behalf, “Intention to Prosecute” notices to parents who repeatedly failed to send their children to school. Although the measure did not always proceed without a hitch, Lajamanu’s school attendance soared to the highest in all Aboriginal schools in the Northern Territory, by 1989 hovering between 90 per cent and 97 per cent. This was more than comparable with that of non-Indigenous schools in the Territory. By that time, most absenteeism was explained by illness rather than truancy. As a result of this measure, one boy who continued to resist attending school with what seemed to be the constant excuse of “I’m feeling sick today” was consequently examined by the local health clinic. It was found that he had serious kidney disease. Thus this action probably saved his life. 

The point about this story is that addressing the problem of habitual school truancy had (more or less) full community support, and could not have been achieved without it. The school also garnered community support because of the large number of Aboriginal trainee teachers working in it to deliver the bilingual program. Many Aboriginal people feel more comfortable in delivering their children into the hands of their own people, rather than non-Aboriginal teachers about whom they know little or nothing, unless they stay for lengthy periods.

This leads to one concern that I feel I must express about Pearson’s essay: his lack of focus on the need for adult Aboriginal presence in schooling. I believe this to be essential for success in Aboriginal education, where the preconceptions of teachers often differ markedly from those they are teaching. Some of the current approaches to and orthodoxies about Aboriginal education run dangerously close to interfering with or even usurping the normal parenting process, and border on treating all Aboriginal parents and extended family members as if they are, ipso facto, dysfunctional. This is not so and if this (largely unspoken) policy direction continues, the effect will be disastrous.

The “lap-reading” program at Lajamanu School was one means of including Aboriginal adults in the school. Each morning, first thing, mothers would come along to the preschool, transition and grades one and two classrooms, and read books to their children in either Warlpiri or English. It is essential that Aboriginal adults become part of their children’s education, not just in some flaky “parents as partners” mode, which has turned into a meaningless mantra, but in ways that actually take older family members into classrooms to play a meaningful role. Such programs also allow families to learn what actually takes place inside those classrooms. It is not enough for Aboriginal children to have Aboriginal teachers, although it would also be a great advantage if more could be done to recruit young Aboriginal students into tertiary programs in the field of education. 

The late Eric Willmot, an Aboriginal man and former director-general of education in South Australia, suggested that Aboriginal children frequently acquire what he described as “technical literacy” at school, but do not take on board the “culture of literacy.” This is why many of these kids, even when they have been taught by methodology that includes phonics (as were the children at Lajamanu School), never actually become readers. In cultures where the intergenerational transmission of knowledge is predominantly by word of mouth, children need exposure to real books if they are to become readers. In the 1980s, with a few exceptions, there wasn’t a single book in any Warlpiri home at Lajamanu. Incidentally but significantly, in the very successful lap-reading program, in many instances the mothers’ own literacy levels soared, because they were reading to their children on a daily basis. Importantly, too, those mostly very young mothers were acting as role models for their children, just as Noel Pearson’s own father had for his son by demonstrating his love of books, particularly the Bible.

Of course, phonics has an important place in the early literacy education of all young children, because they do need word-attack skills and they do need to know how to sound out words. I don’t know of any teachers who would deny that, and I don’t think that this area is as ideology-riven as Pearson would have us think. It seems to be more of an issue among politicians, academics and shock-jocks than it is among classroom teachers. But on its own phonics (and any other strategy for beginning readers) is not enough. No single approach to teaching literacy is enough, in isolation. 

Encountering real books – that is, literature, not just commercial reading schemes that deliver scripted and frequently convoluted texts to provide opportunities for “pattern practice” – needs to be part of the equation. If children do not develop a love of books and literature, notwithstanding their mastery of the so-called “basic skills” of phonics and sounding out, they are destined to become functioning a-literates. That is, they will be able to function at a very basic level of deciphering individual words, filling in forms etc., but never develop that real love of reading that will lead them towards tertiary education and beyond. In this respect Pearson’s basing his faith on one particular commercial reading scheme is simplistic and naive. Besides, the particular scheme that he endorses has real shortcomings, although that is beyond the scope of this response. Direct Instruction (or DISTAR) will certainly teach children to “bark at print,” but that is not literacy in any fundamental sense. Direct Instruction, which has been marketed aggressively and effectively, has had limited success in inculcating word-attack skills, but more often than not that is because it’s the first time ever that the child has been the recipient of one-on-one or small-group teacher instruction. I would reiterate that I am an advocate of phonics-based instruction for beginning readers, so long as it is one part of the teacher’s arsenal, not the only strategy – because it can take a child only so far. 

It seems that Pearson is unwittingly projecting a very narrow conceptualisation of what constitutes literacy in his essay. The great majority of successful teachers, including myself, utilise a range of strategies in teaching children how to read – designed to lead children into taking the next step, that of becoming literate, and “hooked on books.”

There is absolutely no substitute for highly skilled, intelligent teachers. Attempts to “teacher-proof” (or even child-proof) reading instruction or any other form of instruction are nothing short of insulting to all involved and, for obvious reasons, are, in the longer term, bound to fail. Teachers need to make critically important educational decisions all the time. To resign oneself to supposedly teacher-proof alternatives smacks of desperation. Aboriginal children (and all children) deserve more than that. 

Quality teaching cannot be disentangled from quality teachers as readily as Pearson suggests. This part of his essay is also somewhat contradictory. Earlier Pearson had acknowledged the critical significance of several inspirational teachers in his own early education. In addition, there was one teacher he does not remember very well, but nevertheless he describes her as being effective in a plodding way, despite being less than inspiring. He contends that this teacher was adequate, on the grounds that the learning materials she provided were sound. An alternative explanation is that the young Noel Pearson survived a year of being taught by this rather lazy-sounding teacher (we’ve all had one at some point) because he had already received the life-altering gift of exciting, motivating teachers who took a real rather than merely passing interest in his future. Moreover, it seems that this “average” teacher did not actively perpetrate any harm with respect to the children in her care – but it has to be remembered that poor teachers can have a seriously and permanently deleterious effect on impressionable young children, regardless of the particular armoury of instructional materials they use. 

Substandard teachers are frequently the strongest advocates of the “culturally appropriate” curricula that Pearson so rightly scorns. Often the latter are simply an excuse for lazy teaching. Practically no teacher effort is required for teachers to set aside two and a half hours in the morning for children to write a two- or three-line “I went hunting for bush tucker on the weekend” story.

With respect to Noel Pearson’s ideas about governments having a formal responsibility in terms of protection of Indigenous cultural diversity and languages, I can only concur strongly, and agree that both individuals and governments need to take a No Excuses approach to this, too. Indeed, Australia’s remaining Aboriginal languages are in urgent need of legislative protection, otherwise soon there may be none left to protect.

However, I firmly believe that Pearson’s idea of divvying up the school day into “Class” and “Culture” is not tenable. To allocate the less serious part of the day – by which time children in remote areas have become tired, bored and hot – to learning in and about their own languages and cultural heritage sends out a powerful negative message about their relative lack of importance both in the curriculum and in everyday life. Besides, language and culture are not “things” to be artificially separated or quarantined from learning generally. Nor can they be disentangled from the specific subject matter being taught, if one is committed to a serious approach.

There is a lot more that could be said in response to Radical Hope. Pearson deserves widespread, generous praise for rethinking the nature of contemporary Aboriginal education, and especially for aspiring to transform the lives of many disadvantaged Aboriginal children through education. Equally, his aspiration to hold on to Aboriginal knowledge and cultural practices, languages and traditions, some of which are experiencing severe strain, is of the utmost importance, as is his insistence that governments, as well as individuals, have critically important responsibilities in this respect. 

Nonetheless, at times Pearson has a tendency to offer simple answers to some very complex questions. For example, it is well nigh impossible to isolate educational disadvantage from the closely connected areas of health, housing and employment; and there is no single commercial reading scheme that is capable of “doing the trick” when it comes to inculcating “cultural,” as opposed to merely “technical,” literacy. Nevertheless, Pearson should be commended for opening up the discussion in a way that is both urgent and necessary. If Aboriginal education cannot be conceptualised in a different way than it has been in the past, the cycle of failure will be repeated inexorably. Returning to Wittgenstein, it is vital that we do not remain captive to the cheerless picture that we have of Aboriginal education, eternally unable to get outside of it. While Pearson may not have sketched out an entirely new picture, he points to its very real possibility. I sincerely hope that Australians will rise to Noel Pearson’s implicit challenge by responding to his provocative essay creatively, constructively and energetically.


Christine Nicholls is a senior lecturer in Australian studies at Flinders University. She is a former principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 35, Radical Hope. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 36, Australian Story.


Jess Hill
How #MeToo is Changing Australia
Lech Blaine
The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power
George Megalogenis
Politics After the Pandemic
Alan Finkel
Australia’s Energy Transition
Laura Tingle
What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand
Katharine Murphy
Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics