Aboriginal students succeeding in the senior high school years
: a strengthening and changing Aboriginality challenges the negative stereotype

  • Alan Howard Day

    Student thesis: Other thesis - CDU


    The participation rates and success rates for Aboriginal students in the senior years of high school are very low when compared with their non-Aboriginal peers. The Northern Territory is comparably worse than the national average. While the numbers of Aboriginal students participating and succeeding is increasing most research has focussed upon those who are 'failing'. This research takes the opposite approach: an ethnographic study of a small group of academically successful Aboriginal students at the senior secondary level. If the factors that have influenced them to succeed can be found and replicated it can be argued that the numbers of such students should increase.

    Since the arrival of the European, Aboriginal people in Darwin have occupied the lowest socio-economic rung in society. Until 1962 Aboriginal people in the Darwin area were restricted in their movements and where they could live. This history of white domination of Aboriginal people and their low socio-economic status is a heritage young Aboriginal people growing up in Darwin today are acutely aware of. They hear this history in their homes and go to school with this knowledge. The special needs of Aboriginal students in Darwin had not been recognised until the mid-1980's. Even today most of the resources allocated to Aboriginal education goes to those living in remote areas. According to a recent Commonwealth Government report Aboriginal Education (1985), Aboriginal student achievement in urban areas is low because of the inadequacy and inappropriateness of past programs.

    The methodology used in this study is an ethnographic one. One of the aims of this project was to gain an emic perspective, that is, to see the situation from an insider's viewpoint. A sample of six students in the senior secondary years were chosen for this study. As well as structured and unstructured interviews with the students and their Aboriginal parents other informants included seven successful Aboriginal career people and six teachers and administrators at the school and one office-based administrator in the Education Department.

    One of the major findings of the project was that successful Aboriginal students have a strong Aboriginal identity and a strong personal identity. This strengthening Aboriginal identity is changing as students grow older and they begin to consciously challenge the negative stereotype of Aboriginal achievement in the wider society. A second major finding of the study was that the students and parents possessed some vital Western school cultural knowledge and beliefs necessary for success at school, such as individual effort bringing rewards in terms of career. Importantly, they did not see such knowledge as a threat to their Aboriginality.

    Some of the values and beliefs traditionally believed to be a characteristic of Aboriginal people such as not planning for the future are challenged by the results of this project. For example, all of the students have long-term career goals and the determination and desire to succeed at school. Some also consciously choose their peers depending upon their attitude toward school. Institutional racelessness, or the purported ethos of treating all students the same, was found to be prevalent at the school and a hindrance to Aboriginal students being able to possess a strong Aboriginal identity necessary for success at school. While professing to treat all students the same there is evidence that many teachers and administrators believe that Aboriginal students need more practical courses rather than being encouraged to choose academic subjects. Very few Aboriginal students chose academic subjects or sought advice from teachers about tertiary study and professional careers. The school tended to reflect the beliefs and values of the wider society with regard to low expectation of Aboriginal student achievement.

    If there is to be a positive improvement in Aboriginal student retention and achievement in the senior secondary years then there has to be positive and on-going support for Aboriginal identity. School cultural knowledge necessary for academic success has to be made explicit to students and their parents. Finally, educators have to challenge the status quo and make qualitative changes in their relationships to Aboriginal students.
    Date of Award1991
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMerridy Malin (Supervisor)

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