Early childhood education and Indigenous Australia: what is our responsibility?

You may have missed it in the general political chaos of the last couple of weeks, but a new Government report has revealed some truly alarming statistics regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

According to the Report on Government Services, 14 991 Indigenous children are currently in out-of-home care. This represents almost 35 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system, despite the fact that Indigenous children only represent around 4 per cent of the total number of Australian children.

Over-representation of Indigenous children in both the out-of-home care system and the juvenile detention system (where, according to ARACY, Indigenous children are also 10 times more likely to be represented) appears to now be embedded in Australian society. As SNAICC points out, these statistics have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, which was meant to mark a turning point in reconciliation within our country.

The annual Closing the Gap Report released this week has confirmed that work towards a number of targets, including early childhood education enrolments, is not progressing.

Leadership is sorely missing from this issue in Parliament. Nearly 40 years after Gough Whitlam travelled to Wave Hill Station and symbolically handed the land back to Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, it is difficult to see any of our current crop of leaders as capable of such leadership.

At first glance it may seem that those of us who work in early education and care cannot do anything about this. Surely this is a political issue. Why do we have to do anything? What can we do?

We can start with the National Quality Framework. This large-scale reform of the sector was based on a key foundational document, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which, as quoted in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), ‘commits to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and strengthening early childhood education’. The EYLF also directly states that ‘early childhood education (with educators who are culturally competent) has a critical role to play’ in achieving this goal.

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research  demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life. Given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Indigenous Australians, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Indigenous perspectives in early childhood education and care—first with educators, and through them young children and families.

We can draw a direct line between our work as professionals in the early education sector and the potential for improved outcomes for young Indigenous children. A quality start to primary and secondary school could be the difference for any number of children and their families.

Addressing disadvantage and vulnerability is our responsibility because it is happening on our watch.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Australia has a long way to go in closing the gap for Indigenous children. As professionals, we should not have to be forced to take ownership or responsibility for this issue—we should embrace the opportunity to influence change with both arms.

Regardless of your own background, your own community, your own cultural competence—what will you do to be part of the solution?

I state clearly here that I do not and would not presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land that was, is and shall always be Aboriginal Land.

For the perspectives of Indigenous people regarding these issues, I recommend visiting the websites of SNAICC and Reconciliation Australia, as well as the specific support of your local Indigenous Professional Support Unit.

Liam McNicholas

Liam McNicholas is a Canberra-based early childhood teacher, freelance writer and advocate, particularly focusing on early learning in political and policy contexts. He writes regularly at liammcnicholas.com, and can be found on Twitter @liammcnicholas.

5 thoughts on “Early childhood education and Indigenous Australia: what is our responsibility?”

    […] This article was originally posted on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke. […]

    theresa pulu says:

    i would love to see a significant investment made into quality education and care specifically catering for Indigenous and Torres strait islanders, as we know the early years are vital in laying the foundations for further education and success later in life. i would like to see this happen in the form of language nests ( total language immersion) childcare, and the provision of specific educator training and incentives scholarships/trainee-ships for aboriginal and Torres strait islanders to study and train to be skilled and qualified educators. i do believe that Early childhood education should be widely accessible and affordable for all Australian children. if we could introduce these types of strategies to increase participation in ece from this community i believe this would make a significant difference in an effort to close the gap! we need to investigate why participation is so low and develop a plan to reduce the barriers

    Jen D'Alessandro says:

    I agree with Therese’ comments whole heartadly.
    I believe Aboriginal children benefit from having aboriginal educators however in many cases Aboriginal children are being educated by non Aboriginal educators
    Clearly we are not providing ‘best outcomes’ for these children and families.
    Obviously there is a need for further training and modification in methods currently implemented by non Aboriginal teachers.

    Network SA says:

    We really appreciate this thoughtful article and agree that we all need to be part of the solution.

    Adrine says:

    I mean no offence to anyone about what I am about to write. Why are we creating a rift? Are we not all Australians? Yes I do respect the Aboriginal culture, like all cultures in Australia. I think that if we are to become one as a nation we learn from our mistakes and go forward as one people. Early childhood educators can be taught and learn Aboriginal ways, why is it always mentioned that Aboriginal children? from today’s Australia specially need Aboriginal teachers? Is there such things as ‘Aboriginal children’ if we are to be one as Australia’s children.I do value the knowledge of every culture that exists in Australia especially that of the early Aboriginal people, but why do we always have a separation, stereotype and emphasize deficiencies.Are all Australian children not equally important.

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