A Thousand Aboriginal Teachers by 1990 Revisited

Paul Hughes and Eric Willmot (Reproduced with Permission)

NAEC News Clip 1982
Professor Paul Hughes and Dr Kaye Price at National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC) conference, December 1982

Stephen Albert said in 1979 that the role of the Aboriginal people in education had changed during the 1970’s from consultation to involvement and was moving towards one of responsibility.

Mr Albert, the first Chairman of the National Aboriginal Education Committee, was addressing the National Aboriginal Education Conference in Brisbane in November.

The consultative phase began in 1974 with the establishment by the Schools Commission of the Aboriginal Consultative Group, through which the Aboriginal peoples were able to advise the Commonwealth Government on special provisions being made for their education.

The second phase, involvement, began with the appointment of Aboriginal adults to positions in education.  Most worked with Aboriginal children as teacher aides, but a number graduated during the period as fully qualified teachers.  A few attained relatively senior positions as education officers in federal and some state education departments.  Here they became involved in the planning and administration of Aboriginal education but not really in decision-making.  This involvement phase culminated in the formation of the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC) in 1977 whose primary role has been to advise the Commonwealth Minister for Education and his portfolio and, through them, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC) meeting, circa 1982

Responsibility, said Stephen Albert, is the ultimate goal of all Aboriginal people involved in education.  By this he meant responsibility for the outcomes of their plans and actions and, perhaps, even their own dreams.  Individual responsibility is fairly easily achieved; this is the responsibility of classroom teachers for their students.  The NAEC is seeking responsibility for Aboriginal peoples as a society for their own education.

To achieve responsibility a number of problems or obstacles must be overcome.  The main problem is that of embeddedness, the degree to which the elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Society are socially, economically and geographically connected to the wider Australian society.  They are under the influence and, indeed, the control of the wider society.  This raises the question of whether responsibility is possible.  Most Aboriginal educators believe it is but they realise that some practical strategies will need to be designed to make it happen.

A great deal of research on Aboriginal education was carried out during the 1970’s.  Virtually all these studies were fact-finding exercises that tended to paint a rather gloomy picture of the achievement levels of Aboriginal students, at least in terms of returns for effort and money.  Yet these studies were not generally able to provide understandable descriptions of the situations that they looked at, certainly not in the way that would allow the NAEC to undertake planning.  The National Inquiry into Teacher Education (NITE) offered the NAEC the opportunity of carrying out for the first time a piece of research oriented towards its own needs.  The NAEC therefore decided to undertake their own National research project upon which they would base a substantial submission to NITE making recommendations for a major policy development for the 1980’s.

Professor Eric Willmott
Professor Eric Willmott circa 1986

The project was carried out between April and September 1979.  The project report, ‘The education and employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers, attempted to construct a framework for Aboriginal society that was understandable in Aboriginal terms.  This framework, or model, was based on what had always been quite obvious to Aboriginal people:  Aboriginal society is unlike the pyramidal, class-structured society of white Australia in that it consists of a collection of different kinds of communities.

The report used social, economic and geographic data obtained from the 1976 Census and other statistical data to identify four main categories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society.

Category 1:  traditionally oriented communities consisting of people who have the greatest degree of geographic and social separation from the rest of Australian society, though usually retaining some degree of economic connection.

Category 2:  rural communities living in reserve situations who also have considerable social and geographical separation from the rest of Australian society but are not as traditionally oriented as Category 1 people.

Category 3:  urban communities who are highly geographically and economically embedded in non-Indigenous society but, because of their community organisation have considerable social separation.

Category 4:  urban dispersed communities who are highly socially, economically and geographically embedded in non-Indigenous Australian society.

These groups differ in many ways from each other, but all groups remain culturally distinct from white Australians.

The report then examined the educational needs of Indigenous children in each of these broad categories in relation to the training of Indigenous teachers.  It reached important conclusions about the numbers and kinds of Indigenous people being trained.

First, teaching was the only profession in which substantial numbers of Aboriginal people had penetrated to become full members.  A total of 72 Aboriginal people, identified by state education as qualified teaches, were found to be teaching in schools.

This was a long way short of the number of Aboriginal teachers who ought to be in schools to serve the Aboriginal population in the same way that white teachers serve the white Australian population.  On an equivalent population basis there should have been 2,001 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders teaching in Australian schools in 1979.  The report also found that over 200 Aboriginals and Islanders were currently training as teachers and, at the present rate of training, the number of graduates would not be likely to exceed 400 by the end of the decade.  It estimated that there ought to be about 5,000 Indigenous teachers in Australia by the early 1990’s to match the number of which teachers on an equivalent population basis.

On the kinds of Indigenous teachers being trained, the report pointed to the considerable disparity between the distribution of the Indigenous school population and the distribution of Indigenous teacher trainees according to the four main categories of Aboriginal society outlined above. The report argued that teachers from one category of Aboriginal society are not necessarily effective when working in a different category; for example, a teacher from a dispersed urban community in Melbourne might have difficulty adjusting to a school in a traditional community in the Northern Territory and vice versa.  While white Australian society does not expect an equivalent number of teachers to come from each of its social classes, the report took the view that what should happen in Aboriginal society may be something quite different.  Moreover, the report argued that in general Indigenous people were being trained as teachers at the educational convenience of white society.  It argued that, of all professions, the kinds of people who are to become teachers should be determined by the sociological processes of the society that they are going to serve.

The report made two major recommendations.  The first was that a thousand Indigenous teachers be trained by 1990.

This would provide fairly quickly a large number of Indigenous people trained in a profession that would have the greatest impact on their children.  This body of people would also have a significant effect on both Aboriginal and white Australian society.  The report selected the figure of a thousand because it would be possible and practical to train this number, and because this number of teachers would lead to a ‘multiplier’ effect that would ensure future development in this area.  The second recommendation was that future Indigenous teacher training programs should be designed, or existing ones modified, to ensure a more appropriate selection of trainee teachers from each of the main categories of Aboriginal society.

A number of questions need to be answered about the report’s recommendation for training a thousand teachers by 1990.  Why was the teaching profession selected at a time when there is a serious problem in over supply of teachers in Australia?  Does not a very specialised approach like this deviate considerably from the aim of integrating Aboriginal peoples into the Australian social and economic system?  And will not the emergence within a decade of a relatively large body of people in a single but influential profession like teaching have some fairly profound effects upon aboriginal society, if not Australian society?

On the first question, one could never argue that there is an over-supply of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers.  On a population basis, where Australia should have 2,000 Indigenous teachers, it has less than eighty.  Yet the problem must be faced that most of the thousand teachers to be trained by 1990 will have to find employment in state or private schools.  Will Aboriginal and Islander graduates be forced into competition with other new teachers for employment?  In the early part of the decade, probably as far as 1985, there will be little problem obtaining the few positions within the state systems that will be required.  Beyond that period, however, considerable pressure will come upon those systems.  In the past the training and employment of Aboriginal teachers has been negotiated at the senior officer level between the federal and state education departments.   It would seem here that a strong case exists to ensure that negotiations regarding employment are raised to the ministerial level during the latter part of the project if these Indigenous Australian teachers are to be successfully employed within the state services.  This political approach would appear to be justified as the NAEC is asking for only one fifth of the number of teachers they ought to have by 1990 to represent their society on a population basis.

The second question relates to social and economic policy developments.  Current Commonwealth Government policy, described as self-management, is based very much on the concept of integration.  Integration simply means that Aboriginal society would become involved in the economic and political systems of Australia on the same basis as any other citizen.  Such a policy differs from the 1950’s and 1960’s philosophy of assimilation.  Integration does not demand of Aboriginal citizens that they become culturally the same as other Australians but does require a certain degree of social accommodation.  This will not be the problem.  The real problem of integration will be in the economic sphere.  While white Australians may open their social and political arms to their black brothers, their economic sorting machine is certain to steer Aboriginals to the lower end of the employment spectrum.  Such a process is linked with education, not so much in the effect that education has upon economic mobility, but through the educational barriers that prevent access to employment.  Unless education and training can provide Aboriginal peoples with a ‘ticket’ to advance beyond their present socio-economic level, the result of more education will employ be a better educated status quo.  If Aboriginal people wish to integrate more with Australian society they will need to be much better represented in the professions and trades on an equivalent population basis with the rest of Australia, and this means that an enormous educational task will have to be undertaken.  Experience from the past indicates that this is likely to take well beyond the year 2000 to achieve, if at all.  Clearly, a different kind of philosophy relating to economic development needs to be adopted.

The third question relates to social issues, and can be divided into two parts:  the impact of these teachers on the Australian population generally; and their effect on the education of Aboriginal children and on Aboriginal society.  This first part is difficult to answer, but the presence of many more Aboriginal teachers in the nation’s classrooms could certainly alter some stereotypes held by white Australians about Aboriginal peoples.  As far as Aboriginal children are concerned, the thousand teachers will have a profound effect on their self-image and on their aspirations towards finding a place in Australian society.  This effect has become apparent with the large body of teacher aides of Aboriginal descent now employed in state schools in Australia.  There are more than 500 Aboriginal people employed in this way, concentrated mainly in schools with high proportions of Aboriginal students.  There has been no attempt at a broad scale evaluation of the impact of these teacher aides, but two things have emerged.  First, that all the special provisions made for Aboriginal children in state schools, the employment of Aboriginal teacher aides has been the most valuable in improving the educational environment for Aboriginal children.  Second, that the time has come for these Aboriginal adults who appear in classrooms to become, as Stephen Albert suggested, truly responsible for Aboriginal education rather than simply involved in it.  If this does not occur soon, then the teacher aide program could begin to have negative effects.  The only way in which these adults can become truly responsible for the education of their children is to become qualified teachers.

The broader social effects of the thousand teachers on Aboriginal society are more difficult to predict, largely because they will be widely scattered across the continent.  The presence, however, of a thousand educated people with well-developed communication skills could be felt through political parties and government departments, and within industrial bodies such as teachers’ federations and professional groups.  But perhaps these teachers will make their greatest contribution through the multiplier effect.  From their children will come the economists, engineers, doctors, politicians, journalists and public servants of the future.  In one generation Aboriginal society will have produced its managerial and political head and, more importantly, an intellectual arm that will be able to contribute to the shaping of Australia’s destiny.


Hughes, P. and Willmot, E. 1982, A Thousand Aboriginal Teachers By 1990. In J. Sherwood (ed.) Aboriginal Education. Issues and Innovations. Creative Research, Perth, 45-49


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