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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs
01/06/2017
Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

O'BRYAN, Ms Marnie, Private capacity

[12:00]

CHAIR: Welcome. As these proceedings are public they are being broadcast and recorded by Hansard. If you wish to have evidence heard in private, please let us know. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I do need to advise you this is a formal proceeding of the parliament, so giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. If you object to answering a question, please let us know and we will consider that.

Ms O'Bryan : First of all, I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners here and acknowledge elders, past and present, of the Ngunnawal people and all first Australian people who are here today—in particular, my friend over there, Kade Alexander, who is studying law at ANU and has accompanied me today, which is very kind of him.

Mr SNOWDON: You need the support!

Ms O'Bryan : I need the support, absolutely. I recently completed a PhD looking at the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in boarding schools around Australia. I probably need to put into some kind of context why I began this research. For 10 years prior to undertaking my PhD I taught at Scotch College, in Melbourne, as a classroom teacher and had the good fortune to work closely with a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at that school.

I was also responsible for establishing the Indigenous partnership program and, therefore, came to know young people studying in schools around Melbourne. Over time, many of them came through our family life—sometimes when boarding houses were closed for exeat weekends and they would stay with us, sometimes when things had gone pear-shaped at school, sometimes in those fragile points of transition between school and higher education. On a number of occasions, young ones came to us with their bags packed and a caveat from the boarding house that they were on suicide watch. So both as a teacher and as someone who has worked in that more intimate pastoral setting I came to appreciate that the uncomplicated narrative of success that very often accompanies the notion of sending Indigenous students to Australian boarding schools was more complex. Therefore, I undertook this work, which is a qualitative piece of work that seeks to go inside the lived experience of these people.

I interviewed alumni of boarding school, parents and grandparents of people who had been away to school, most of whom were under the age of 40. I was very keen to capture the contemporary environment, given that that was where my own professional interest had come from. I interviewed a very small number of staff in boarding schools as well but the AIEF had recently completed a piece of work on best practice in boarding schools and, therefore, I did not feel I wanted to deflect attention from the lived experience of young people. I would draw the committee's attention to the fact that that piece of work, which is being promulgated around schools as best practice, was actually completed without reference to any Aboriginal people and without reference to any of the academic literature around these issues and issues that emerge for—

Mr SNOWDON: What is that, the—

Ms O'Bryan : The AIEF, the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

Mr SNOWDON: When was that completed?

Ms O'Bryan : It was published in 2015.

Mr SNOWDON: We have not received that?

CHAIR: No. But we will certainly track it down.

Ms O'Bryan : I felt that the kind of unfiltered assumptions and practices that are going on in schools are probably presented in that document. There are some aspects of it that may be good, bad or indifferent, but they have not been tested by any independent evaluation.

I would draw the committee's attention to the fact that there is a paucity of any literature that supports this current policy initiative. There is no baseline or longitudinal data on the outcomes of Aboriginal kids in boarding schools. We do not know where they go to live after they have completed boarding school. If they transition to higher education, we do not know how long they stay in higher education. Importantly, we do not know what the impact is on language and culture for people coming from remote communities. I note that it is government policy in some places in Australia that young people be sent away to boarding school in preference to secondary education being provided close to where they live. If you go onto the Northern Territory Department of Education website, you will see that for young people who elect to stay at home in their communities they have access to 'post-primary literacy and numeracy'.

We do not know what happens to young people who go away to boarding school for a short time, find that they cannot cope and then go back home. My research would indicate—and older people in communities tell me—that very typically these young people say, 'I've done school now; I don't need to go to school locally,' and that kids who have been selected as being the best and the brightest sometimes drop out of education altogether. That is an issue that needs serious research as a matter of priority.

In terms of language and culture, in very remote and remote communities where there are strong linguistic traditions, older people in those communities wanted to express to me their anxiety that we are watching the systematic dismantling of language and culture in those communities. They say young people go away to boarding schools and they come back and ignore ancient cultural protocols that have kept communities safe for millennia; that they have seen life beyond, and life in community no longer satisfies them. In fact, a number of alumni have said that to me. The rhetoric that accompanies scholarship programs often says that kids go away to school and they are empowered to orbit between two worlds and enjoy the best of both. In my research I come to the conclusion that for many young people they are condemned to orbit between two worlds and they do not have a taproot that has gone down in either place.

A young person who goes away to boarding school because they have been selected as a single person in a community comes back and faces all sorts of issues reintegrating into community. Words like lateral violence roll off the tongue and can be downplayed, but, when I have presented at conferences and put verbatim transcripts from young people up on screens, on occasion I have been told, 'You shouldn't have put that quote up; it was too confronting.' I think of one young man who went back home and his mother said: 'You've just become a white C. Go home to your white C family in the city.' That young man described himself as the only male in the family and the rock for the family. He recognised that that was his mother's pain talking; that it was not a rejection of him but just this grief that was coming at the sense that her son had gone away.

There are, of course, people who go to boarding schools and get great results, but it is not across the board. It should never be seen as the only education option that is available for young people, wherever they come from. It concerns me that when government contracts out its responsibility to provide secondary education wherever it may be to private providers it then runs the risk that it is making serious public investment in programs that are in private hands and scholarship providers may choose not to provide scholarships to some people—so some scholarship providers will provide a scholarship to two members of a family but not a third. What happens in that situation? Some schools are recognising that people who come from language backgrounds other than English, who come with low levels of literacy and numeracy from communities where there is serious education disadvantage, cannot just go into the mix in schools whose core business is to turn out kids with the highest possible ATAR score that they can manage. So, of 35 alumni that I interviewed in my thesis, four of them received ATAR scores that were sufficient to get them into university on mainstream entry. I note that about 11 of my alumni participants were purposely selected because they had transitioned to university, and I thought that that would show the best thing that could be shown about boarding school. I coordinate the Victorian Indigenous Education Network—

Mr SNOWDON: We have been trying to get Mr Bamblett to talk to us.

Ms O'Bryan : That is VAEAI—that is different. The Victorian Indigenous Education Network is a volunteer network of people working in independent schools. I have a great relationship with Uncle Lionel, and Uncle Lionel says he has his hands full in the public sector. VAEAI people come along to all our meetings. We work closely with them. But it is a matter of trying to get information around what are the academic outcomes for kids coming out of schools, where the average ATAR hovers in the high 80s or early 90s. In a good year for some of these schools the average ATAR will be 92 and in a bad year it might be 89. The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids coming out of those schools come out with ATARs of sub-50, sub-30 or no ATAR at all. That tells you that things happening in the school or in people's lives are preventing them from engaging. In my research I sought to understand what were the constraining elements on kids and what were the enabling elements.

Of the constraining elements, trauma was one of them. I will read a quote that came from a boarding house master in one of the independent schools. He was sitting at his desk in the boarding house and a year 7 student came out. He said: 'One night he came out just sobbing and sobbing. He came out and he said to me. "I just keep seeing it in my head, like a video, of my mum being hurt and injured and bleeding." This was his step-mum, who he saw as his mum. It was his dad who had inflicted these injuries but he had never acknowledged that.'

Schools in middle-class suburbs that have a fairly homogenous clientele do not always even recognise the backgrounds that some young people bring to school. I asked one young woman what was the benefit of going to school, and I said to her, as I said to all participants, that this was her opportunity to speak back to the system, so what would you like to say. She said: 'You told me I didn't talk the right way, so I learnt to talk your way, so now I will tell you in your language what needs to start happening here, and you'll have to listen to me because I am talking your way.' She really nailed it. She said to me, 'You can't understand what it's like when you speak to your mum at six o'clock at night and you can hear from her voice that there is something going on and you don't know what it is, and the boarding house mistress comes and says, "Thank you very much, I'll have your phone—it's prep time" and takes the phone.' She said it was 'beyond distressing'. She was one of the young people who was very keen to communicate the fact that schools describe these types of things as homesickness. Many young people, particularly university-age students, said that homesickness was one of the major constraints they faced when they were at boarding school, but they wanted to explain what homesickness was. It was not transient and it was not minor; it was a sense of incremental disconnect from their home community. It was like they were on an icefloe and they felt themselves being dragged farther and farther out to sea with less and less ability to fulfil the roles that they had—culturally inscribed roles that they had in families. She was a young woman who said, 'You must understand that we have different types of relationships in our family. It's not a vertical parent-child relationship; it's a much more horizontal relationship. We have responsibilities in that family setting that schools must understand.'

The small number of people I spoke to from schools indicated that they had been given no cultural awareness training. Typically, Aboriginal kids had landed in their classrooms. In the words of one teacher: 'We just expected them to get on with it.' With apologies to people on the other end of the political spectrum, she said, regarding her qualification for teaching Aboriginal kids, that she was selected as a teacher because the school knew that she was basically left-wing and knew a little bit about Australia's history. Even people coming out of teachers' college now are saying that there is no compulsory teacher training around cultural awareness.

There was another constraint that young people identified very strongly. The constraints were consistent, despite the fact that it was a very heterogeneous participant group. They represented people from urban settings, from regional settings, and from remote and very remote settings. Despite this, common to all of them was having experienced racism in one of a number of different incarnations when they were at school. That included some interpersonal racism. A young man told me that, if you were not black enough or good enough at footy, you would be considered to be a waste of a scholarship at his school. That young man said he did not contribute to class until the beginning of the football season in his second year because, by that stage, people knew that he was a good football player and not a waste of a scholarship. A school showed a video of Rabbit-Proof Fence when Kevin Rudd delivered the apology—to mark the day they showed Rabbit-Proof Fence—and the English teacher stopped the video after the children were taken away and said to the class, 'What do you think about that?' A girl stuck her hand up and said, 'Why didn't they take all the children?' Those were the types of issues that young people identified in terms of interpersonal racism. Sometimes it was normal teenage conflict at school, but race was, for many people, a first go-to when they could have chosen any other issue to have conflict over.

The second form of racism was institutionalised racism. I was interested that a number of young people put that label on things like the fact that there was no representation in the school. In the history curriculum, people said to me, 'Why am I learning about ancient China and ancient Greece and I hear nothing about ancient Australia?' The irony was not lost on a number of participants that we boast that we have the longest continuing culture in the world, but we have an education system that does nothing to celebrate it or to factor it into our national imagination, in terms of our national identity.

Mr SNOWDON: Excuse me, Marnie. I am going to have to go shortly. I assume this will go a little longer.

Ms O'Bryan : Maybe.

Mr SNOWDON: Will it be a long conversation? I will be back at half-past.

CHAIR: We may or we may not. Do you have a question or do you need to go?

Mr SNOWDON: I am interested in having a conversation.

CHAIR: We may not be here. We are going to continue regardless.

Ms O'Bryan : Maybe I should stop talking.

CHAIR: You have finished your research now? You have finished your PhD?

Ms O'Bryan : Yes, it is under examination. It has been accepted subject to minor changes, and they are just going through the system.

CHAIR: Perhaps we could fast-forward to the conclusions of your research. Is there a model that you recommend or is there a variety of models or are there just different things we should be doing better?

Ms O'Bryan : There is no one silver bullet or uncomplicated narrative of success, and the funding of one particular model of education means that, of necessity, there are people who do not benefit from that. Within schools and university settings, Chris Sarra's Stronger Smarter model had worked so that professionals actually worked with families and with communities to enhance a young person's sense of dignity and strength coming from their own cultural background. The young people in that study had succeeded at school, gone on to university and were succeeding well at university, but that came from an absolute commitment to maintaining connectedness—social connectedness, cultural connectedness and, where necessary, geographic connectedness—for young people. The director of one of these programs said to me, 'When I see a kid growing weak in his or her spirit, we send them home, because that is where they have to be empowered.' So there isn't one singular prism of success to meet the diverse educational needs.

Certainly, strength based programs are needed. Most of the young people in my study did not attend schools that had any understanding of the need to work from a strength base. One young woman said to me, 'I wish people would just stop talking about the gap, because I live in the gap', and there was that very deep sense of coming from a deficit background. Many young people had internalised that, and it became something that meant they had defeated themselves before they even walked into school. That young woman spoke five languages but, when she got to school, her lack of proficiency in English was seen as a weakness. As my examiner pointed out to me: imagine if she had spoken five European or five Asian languages; she would have been feted as the best linguist in the whole school. The lack of recognition of prior knowledge and prior cultural capital was a problem.

It is well described that there is a strong link between health and education and, in particular, education is noted as one of the social determinants for Indigenous health; however, so is freedom from racism and community social connectedness. A significant number of young people in my study had attempted suicide either while they were at school or, more typically, after they had left school. Some of them had completed year 12 and had gone on to university but, within a very short space of time, had dropped out. Yet they are being used statistically to justify government investment in programs like this, and it highlights the need for further research and further quantitative research to understand exactly what the numbers are. It would also be very useful for anybody working in this space to understand how scholarship providers come to the calculation of statistics that they present. I particularly note: where retrospective funding models are in place, I would like to know—and I know other teachers in this space who would like to know—when people say that 94 per cent of kids finished year 12 or were retained at school, does that include young people who were not funded until the end of their first year? In other words, anyone who dropped out of school in that first year may or may not be caught up in that statistic, and there is no clarity around that.

From my research, the retrospective funding model acted to put great pressure on young people who had very good reason to want to leave school in the course of a year. I cite, as evidence of that, one young woman whose mother contacted me to say that her daughter had gone away to boarding school and that there had been a crisis in the family. She did not tell me what the crisis was, but her daughter became very, very distressed at not being with the family at that time and wanted to go home. The school said to the student, who was a year 8 student, 'If you go home now, your parents are going to have to pay the full school fees for this year because we do not get the funding until the end of the year.' That young girl then felt that she could not go home. She felt that she was trapped at school. She was eventually, ironically, expelled because they found her in the toilet drinking UDL cans by herself. She was one of a number of young people who had self-medicated to deal with the distress that she had.

I contrast that with the school that has implemented that Stronger Smarter model that recognises that community social connectedness. As one participant said to me, land, language, culture and identity are the cornerstones of Indigenous wellbeing. If schools recognise that land, language, culture and identity need to be built into the model, and if they are built into the model, young people can achieve great things. For the young people in this study, not a single one of their parents or grandparents were unaware of the benefits that can accrue to a person through education. I would say that of 74 participants in this study there were 74 people who cared very deeply about their education outcomes. Despite that, a singular prism is put upon success for education outcomes.

I have one participant from the Torres Strait Islands who was told that he could not go home for the birth of his baby because were he to go home he would never come back to school and the best thing he could do for his child was to stay in education. That is how he described it—'I was forced to stay at school. I wasn't allowed to go home.' He got to the end of year 12 and said he was forced to go to university. When I said to him, 'What would you like to say back to the schools and the system?' this is what he said: 'Don't do it for the statistics. Do it for the people. Sometimes I feel it is just like it looks good but it is really pretty crazy what is going on inside a kid's head.' And it would be dangerous—well, not dangerous but annoying to them if I am going to ask, 'What's wrong with you?' over and over again. It would be annoying and it would make it worse. He is one of the young people who left university and, within six months, had attempted suicide.

I said to him, 'What's your relationship with your partner and your son like now?' And he said he did not see his son for the first four months of his life, and by that stage his partner said to him, 'You don't care about us. I don't want you as part of my life anymore.' At that point, he was 22 years old. He had not seen that son for a year. He had fathered five children by five different girls. I said to him, 'When you were at school, did you have any sex education? Did people talk to you about this stuff?' He said, 'No. They knew I didn't need it because I already had a child.' It points to the fact that when we take people from very remote communities and we put them into highly academic, middle-class/upper-class very affluent schools and we expect them just to slot in and get on with it, we may not be providing them with the type of education that they need and that is going to relate to their future life.

When I asked this young man—I interviewed him in a regional centre—if he saw himself going back to his very remote community, he said to me, 'I can go back there just before I will die because nothing really will happen in that place.' There was a sense that he had no contribution to make. When I said to him, 'Would you see yourself as a leader in your community?' he said, 'I don't have the relationships with people in my community to be a leader.' In fact, in my conclusion I cite another young man who said to me, 'People say that they go off and do bigger and better things. Well, who says they are bigger and better things?' He was a young man who dropped out of school before the end of year 12. He had gone home and had begun to smoke gunja—heavily. He had attempted suicide. It was not anything to do with having been to boarding school, but he had attempted suicide. He has gone on to be involved in founding an anti-youth-suicide initiative in his community that has won awards for the work that they do as a community-led, grassroots Indigenous program. And yet people like him are being counted as failures within the education system.

CHAIR: On the Closing the Gap measures, we have heard from a couple of different witnesses that, unless you have finished year 12, it is almost like you are not counted. In fact, if you have stayed in school until year 12, you have learnt a lot more than what your cousins might have done if they had left in grade 9. To say success is only year 12 is actually missing the point. As you said, we are coming from a deficit perspective. We should actually be celebrating. If a young girl leaves in year 11, but she ends up being a mother very quickly, the chances are that she has all of these other skills that she would not have had if she had actually left school in year 9. It occurs to me that we need to change the measurements because, otherwise, we have all these people feeling, 'Well, I am still in that gap,' as you described.

Mr SNOWDON: In terms of data, did you talk to ABSTUDY?

Ms O'Bryan : No, I did not.

Mr SNOWDON: One way of finding out whether kids have started school is to talk to ABSTUDY, presumably. That is something that we might need to do, to ask—

Ms O'Bryan : I was purely interested in a piece of qualitative research, so I was interested in the life stories of these participants. As I say, it is a small sample size. It contributes to a small but growing body of academic literature around this stuff. There are a number of studies that are coming out. This is the only one that has taken a slightly more longitudinal look, to the extent that everybody who I interviewed was over the age of 18.

Mr SNOWDON: I am just conscious that we keep hearing that kids go away and kids come back, so we recycle kids. They might go for a semester or six months, or it could even be nine months, but then say: 'I've had enough here. I am going back home.' They are counted as part of the data for the school as being—

Ms O'Bryan : The question is what happens to them when they go home—

Mr SNOWDON: That is my point.

Ms O'Bryan : and what education opportunities are there for them when they go back home.

Mr SNOWDON: That is true and that is part of the point. I am aware of a particular school that came and recruited kids out of the Northern Territory. They took them away from urban centres, not just bush communities. Within a very short space of time, the bulk of these kids were home, but by that time, the ABSTUDY money had been paid into the school account. Of course, the incentive for them was to recruit, not to retain. There is a real issue about the correlation between kids actually going to school and kids succeeding at school, and kids coming back from school without succeeding at school and the reasons why. As far as I am aware—others on the committee may have a different view—I do not think we have seen the evidence of what success looks like, apart from individual stories of individual kids who—

Ms O'Bryan : I think there are programs around Australia where people are getting really good outcomes from their education, but they are all programs where there is an absolute commitment to working with communities and to working with Aboriginal communities. Many schools do not really understand what that means. It requires them to look at their own school culture and say, 'Where does an Aboriginal kid in this school see himself reflected back as a reflection of strength in this school?' They say that you cannot be what you do not see. If you go into a school, you are one of nine kids and you are asked to stand up and tell how it has changed your life, what a lucky person you are and how you are going to change the future of the world, for some young people, that may be true. But they need to have a holistic network of supports around them. Many people in remote communities cited the reasons for going away to boarding school as no secondary education being available. I note the Northern Territory Department of Education at the moment cite that they provide postprimary literacy and numeracy to people who elect to stay at home. Well, a lot of these people have higher aspirations than that. They want more than that for themselves.

The other reason that is cited often is that kids were sent away to boarding school because of norms in community that work to make young people unsafe—particularly around drugs and alcohol, but for many young women it is sexual norms in communities too. You will find that there were mothers and grandmothers who would say, 'I don't want my daughter to be a mother at the age of 13; therefore I'm sending her to boarding school.' The question is: how inappropriate is it if that young person has been sent, as Professor Atkinson said, to an affluent girls school on the North Shore of Sydney? She may have low literacy and numeracy, but she has just been put into an environment where she feels like a fish out of water. Do we want her coming out not just surviving school but thriving at school? There need to be conditions in those schools to make that happen, and it does not just happen unless schools have really engaged with the complexity of young people's lives.

I note with some consternation the discrepancy in gender in the funding, including government funding at the moment. I note from AIEF's last annual report that 64 per cent of their scholarship holders were male and 36 per cent were female. I note that $40 million was granted to the mentoring and support of young men just last week, compared to $9 million for young women. Yet people in remote communities say to me that young women are in a particularly vulnerable position.

One of the interviewees in my research was a lady who had lived for 64 years in a very remote community, and she said to me, 'I can't understand why all this funding is going to sending kids away and we get no funding to support young parents in how to be parents in our community.' In that same community, an old man who is a member of his land council and who has been a warrior for education in his community said to me: 'Why are our kids not getting flying colours? Why are they not even coming back at all after they've been away to boarding school or, if they come back, why do they very quickly fall into the same patterns of behaviour as kids who haven't been away? They're not emerging as leaders in our communities.' A number of leaders in remote communities said to me, 'We need more focus on supporting the emergence of leaders in our community, on our terms, within our cultural frame, in ways that support the continuation of language and culture in our community.' They were very concerned about this particular focus.

Mr SNOWDON: Marnie, when might we get hold of a copy of your PhD thesis?

Ms O'Bryan : I was hoping, actually, that the okay might have come through before today, but I am very happy to send it to you as soon as I have it.

Mr SNOWDON: Thank you. I think you have affirmed a lot of things that we have been thinking about.

Ms O'Bryan : I am sorry to talk so much, but I did say to these people, 'This thesis is totally built around the voices of young people and their families.' I said to them that this was their opportunity to speak back to the system, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have a chance to put their voices to you.

CHAIR: Thank you. Did you come across any boarding schools that were fairly local to the community? We hear a lot about kids from the Kimberley going to Melbourne and kids from the Northern Territory going to Perth. Did you come across any models where the school or the boarding house was only 50 kilometres away from the actual town?

Ms O'Bryan : It is not part of this research project, because this research project was aimed at schools down south, because that is where I have come from. Teachers are flying blind with these kids, so my objective was to help teachers have some knowledge about what they needed to do. However, in other aspects of my work, I have worked closely with Tiwi College. I do not know whether the committee has visited Tiwi College, but I think I said last time I appeared that it is a jewel in Australia's education crown. Last year they had 12 girls complete their NTOEC certificate. They are young people who are supported holistically. For example, at Tiwi College, one of the components of the school that they see as very important is alternative dispute resolution so that they are giving kids in that community a different way of dealing with problems that they know the kids go home every weekend and deal with. They are very committed to giving young people really great education outcomes but also the life skills that they need.

Why I appeared last time, Melissa, was that I was speaking about the potential for interschool collaboration with remote communities. I continue to be absolutely convinced of this. We have an education system in Australia of which we are all aware which produces differential outcomes depending on which system you go through. We know that highly funded, highly academic, well-resourced independent schools are overrepresented in elite universities. There is no way that I want my research to foreclose any educational opportunity for Aboriginal kids. I would like them to be able to make all the free choices that my own children have been able to make in their education. However, things need to happen in that system before it can happen.

Mr HAMMOND: Marnie, listening to you talk, I picked up a couple of key themes from your observations of your dealings with the students who are the subject of your thesis in terms of the challenges that it sounds like they have to face throughout the course of their schooling. I made a list. On a day-to-day basis, they deal with issues in relation to direct racism.

Ms O'Bryan : Yes.

Mr HAMMOND: They deal with issues in relation to institutional racism and the barriers that that creates for them.

Ms O'Bryan : Yes.

Mr HAMMOND: They are also having to manage trauma in relation to—my guess is—mainly family violence situations from the past that they need to try to manage in the course of their boarding experience.

Ms O'Bryan : Not solely family violence, but certainly—

Mr HAMMOND: No, I would not possibly exclude others, but my guess is—

Ms O'Bryan : Actually, often it is bereavement as well.

Mr HAMMOND: Conceptually, I can kind of see how one would build supports around those, but it still leaves us, doesn't it, with a real problem in how we manage dealing with the unique connection to country in terms of that reintegration issue you were talking about in the context of that orbit analysis. If that is right, do you have any sense as to what could be done in relation to that rather unique situation? How does that actually play out if we want these kids to try to land the best outcomes that they can from an educational point of view? My guess would be continuity of education in that kind of system. How do you wrap that around the risk of falling through the cracks and not feeling like you belong anywhere?

Ms O'Bryan : Psychologists tell us that, for a young person, mental health and social and emotional wellbeing require them to be able to construct a continuous narrative of their life. At the moment, I think it is fair to say that, for many of the young people in my study, boarding school represented an abrupt severance of life as they knew it and the beginning of a new narrative that really bore no relation to their pre-boarding-school life. By contrast, programs where schools and institutions are absolutely committed to working with families and communities both on country where the young person comes from and on country where the school is located—

Mr HAMMOND: Yes, that is interesting.

Ms O'Bryan : actually can be really powerful.

Mr HAMMOND: Yes, I am sure.

Ms O'Bryan : So the school says: 'We know we're separating you from country; however, you're still on country here, even though it's urban country, but we want you to feel country. We want you to feel that connection.' And we cannot do that; as a white colonial institution—

Mr HAMMOND: That is a really good point.

Ms O'Bryan : we cannot do it. But what we can do—and it is why connections to people like Uncle Lionel, or other Koori people, absolutely guide and direct the work that we do through the Victorian Indigenous Education Network. I do not think we could do any useful work unless we were being led by our Koori guides. I am actually very grateful to Cade for being here today, as a young Aboriginal man who has come through this system. To me, it is actually part of me having integrity in this research, and in this space, to be answerable to a young man who represents the future of our country. To me, that is hugely important. And yet we see these asymmetries of power between schools and communities. A mother who I interviewed in this research, who sought to advocate for her daughter at school, said to me, 'I feel like a jack-in-the-box. They will wind me up and press a button so I pop up and do my routine, and then they will push me back down again as soon as I try to speak back to the system.' It is about schools actually recognising that there is a colonial legacy of an asymmetry of power and that they need to actively work to reverse that. And if they say that this is an illustration of the school's commitment to social justice, then they need to have the humility to say, 'There are aspects of our school culture and our school life that are going to need to change.' So I cite the reference of the young man who tried to get his flag flown at school—and I have heard this now from a number of different schools. They will fly it in Reconciliation Week, they will fly it in NAIDOC Week, but this particular young man said to me that the principal had told him: 'People might not like it if we were to erect another flagpole and have it there all the time.' So they put the flag up on the noticeboard outside the school library. I said to him, 'How did you feel about that?' And this is a young man. He is at an age where I would not have expected people would necessarily have thought about this, but he said to me, 'A flag thumbtacked to the wall does not send the same message as a flag flying from a flagpole.' I thought that was incredibly insightful about the recognition of sovereignty that is associated with flying the flag from a flagpole.

Mr HAMMOND: Thank you, that was very helpful. One last question: did you get a sense in your research that there was any material difference in outcomes for these kids if their home was in an urban setting as opposed to on community? And if so, how?

Ms O'Bryan : Yes. Thank you for that question; I think it is a really important question. As I mentioned before, we do have this differentiated education system. There were young people in this study who had aspirations that they knew they could not fulfil coming from their local government high school. For them, having a place where they could be immersed in a learning environment—40 weeks a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day—was actually very empowering for them. And a number of parents in urban settings said, 'Why are our kids being overlooked in favour of kids from remote communities who actually cannot reap the academic benefits that would come from those schools? Why are our kids being overlooked?' One young fella said to me, 'I have aspirations too, you know. Everyone in my home community is a tradie. I do not want to be a tradie. I want to be something more than that.' And so, for those young people: yes, quite different.

Ms CLAYDON: I would love to be able to read your qualitative research at some point down the track, Ms O'Bryan. I heard some very clear messages there around the constraints on the boarding schools, but you also mentioned that your research was to look at both the constraints and the enablers.

Ms O'Bryan : The enabling factors.

Ms CLAYDON: I am interested in what you thought those enabling factors were. I have heard your praise of the strength-based programs—like the Stronger Smarter model—but it did not sound to me as if you had found that working in any of the schools that you were—

Ms O'Bryan : Yes. It was working in some of the schools.

Ms CLAYDON: Can you please talk to me a little bit about that. What are the enabling factors?

Ms O'Bryan : Yes. I would love to talk to you about that. The enabling factors basically anticipated and answered the constraints that other people have mentioned. So, for example, one was a zero tolerance of racism. It anticipated that racism is unfortunately a factor of Australian life, and young people were given permission by the school to call out racism as it happened and to trust that the school would be proactive in dealing with it. Sometimes people said, 'Look, I understand that racism often is a lack of understanding; it is cultural insensitivity', but, in fact, the schools were proactive rather than reactive.

Another enabling factor was, of course, the involvement of families and the support that was given by families to young people while they were away at school. People often say, 'Parents in remote communities say to us that they want their kids to go to boarding school', but my evidence would suggest that people are not making informed choices. They do not actually understand what it is—the types of expectations and the types of pressures that will be on young people. Young people whose families were empowered to support them benefited greatly from that support and from that sense of cultural continuity.

They were also trauma-informed schools. They were schools that recognised the types of traumas that young people came with. They were basically schools that saw the young person in the totality of their life experience and were committed to relationships. If there was one word that would summarise the empowerment of young people it was 'relationships'—strong, holistic, supportive, proactive, positive relationships—and schools had different ways of making those relationships happen. I think this narrative of success that is promulgated, sometimes through the media as well, actually has a very homogenising effect, and that homogenising effect works to occlude a view of the diversity and complexity that different kids coming from different environments bring with them to school.

Ms CLAYDON: We have heard a lot of evidence, from a student perspective, about the lack of Indigenous teachers and significant role models in the school environment.

Ms O'Bryan : Yes. Absolutely. In most of the schools, with the exception of those schools that were committed to that more holistic, culturally appropriate education, there would not be a single Aboriginal staff member. I can tell you, from the schools in the Victorian network, something that schools are becoming more and more aware of is that they have never had Aboriginal staff members. It would be unusual to see adult Aboriginal people walking through the school on a day-to-day basis.

Ms CLAYDON: Of these schools—and I do not know the ones that you have examined the background of—were there efforts made to reach out to the local Indigenous community around the school? You made the point earlier that, yes, these kids are coming off country from all over the place, but they are still on someone's country. So I am wondering if that is, or might be, one of the enabling factors, where you would reach out to the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which the school premises are.

Ms O'Bryan : Absolutely it is an enabling factor.

Ms CLAYDON: Did you find good examples of that?

Ms O'Bryan : I know, through the work that I do in Victoria, that the local communities say: 'It's all very well for you to bring remote kids down and expect us to support those kids on our country. We've actually got particular needs with our own kids, and they're not the ones who are being given the opportunities in these schools.' So there is a great deal of frustration that they seem to be being locked out of these special education opportunities, when they perceive that they are in the best position to really provide that holistic, culturally appropriate support that their young people need.

Ms CLAYDON: There is that tension with their own kids' needs.

Ms O'Bryan : There is a real tension in that.

Ms CLAYDON: You make the point around scholarships and the way that they are assessed, and we have certainly had questions amongst ourselves sometimes.

Ms O'Bryan : I think there needs to be an independent evaluation of those programs. It is all very well to rely on the publicity that comes out of the programs themselves, and clearly that is very effective in terms of fundraising; it is less clear whether it is effective for young people in those schools. As I say, I do not want to shut down those opportunities, but we still need to know what is going on for young people.

Ms CLAYDON: What is your sense of why those elite boarding schools will continue to go down this pathway, when they do not have data to support the sorts of longitudinal impacts of removing kids from country and putting them into a fancy boarding school in Melbourne or wherever? You have talked a lot about the narrative of success, and I think that is what those schools are trading on a lot, but why do you think there is such a commitment to that narrative, without evidence to support it?

Ms O'Bryan : I think most thinking Australians really care. I think none of us want the types of injustice and disparity in outcome that we see across the country. People want good-news success stories. We all want success for Aboriginal kids in schools. I was a lawyer before I was a teacher, and I see a direct correlation between education and the criminal justice system. If we can keep kids in schools, then we are going to be actually creating outcomes that are better on a whole range of levels. There is a very compelling logic to saying that excellent schools beget excellent outcomes for young people. I just think there is a risk that sometimes we can believe our own publicity. That becomes a kind of self-sustaining narrative.

Ms CLAYDON: Given that goodwill to start with, there is enormous benefit to actually have that well informed and to have some good research and data, to get the best from that goodwill that is generated there in the schools in the first place.

Ms O'Bryan : Absolutely. We are all aware of the difficulties of providing really quality education in remote Australia. It is a vast continent that we live on. How do we spread finite resources? I would like to think that people begin to use their imaginations in terms of how well-resourced schools can work with remote communities. I look at the work that, for example, Phillip Heath is doing through Barker College in Sydney, with his Darkinjung project. Before that he was the principal of St Andrew's Cathedral School in Sydney that set up the Gawura project, working with kids from Redfern. He is someone who is committed to saying, 'Let's think outside the square for how we can provide education with Aboriginal communities, not for Aboriginal communities, and let's be responsive to them.' I find that really exciting. I think educators generally find that exciting—to bring them on that journey of saying: 'We are much blessed in these schools with the resources that we have; how do we actually deploy them in different, interesting ways?' I think it can be done. Wesley Melbourne is working very hard on its Yiramalay partnership, and I know the committee has heard from Wesley.

CHAIR: Yes. We know about those guys.

Ms O'Bryan : So there are interesting different ways that people are doing it, but I do not think that taking a simplistic one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate or helpful.

CHAIR: I think we might leave it there. Thanks, Marnie, for the update. We could sit here all day and chat with you about your research. Congratulations.

Ms O'Bryan : I can talk under wet concrete, as you can see!

CHAIR: No. Thank you for the work. You will get sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence today, to which you may suggest corrections. Thank you very much and good luck with the final analysis and assessment.

Ms O'Bryan : Thank you, and I am very happy to send that through to you as soon as I am given the all clear to do so.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Committee adjourned at 13:00