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Inside Teaching : April 2011
inside teaching | April 2011 INDIGENOUS INSIGHT 12 country. Such an approach was intended to encourage the development of support structures that would enable newcomers to fit into Australian society while still retaining the languages and cultures that they brought with them and which they valued as central to their identity as people. From an Indigenous Australian perspective, such diversity of language and culture had never been valued by mainstream Australian society as evidenced by the implementation of government policies such as the removal of children from their families. There were no structures in place to support the maintenance of Indigenous identity. Having been relegated to the lowest socioeconomic status in the country, scorned and neglected, our First Australians managed to survive only as a result of their own resistance and persistence. Many people argued the importance of multicultural policy as a way to enable those from different cultural groups to achieve equity. Following the implementation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy (NATSIEP) in 1990, there was considerable discussion about the implementation of equity and social justice policies. By the time the NATSIEP was reviewed in 2004, Indigenous Australians were strongly arguing that equity was not a matter of parity, nor was simply being Indigenous a disadvantage in itself. They proposed a model of equity based upon an equality of regard that recognised the specific or different learning needs of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who valued diversity. Considering this model within the contemporary context of Indigenous Australians across the nation, I’d argue that we have yet to achieve such a desired outcome. Interestingly, Indigenous policy, like multicultural policy, addresses issues associated with languages, cultures, and values and beliefs that give individual people their sense of personal identity. But there the similarity ends. While the one must address issues associated with the devastation caused by the destruction of cultures as part of the process of colonisation, the other must address issues associated with people voluntarily choosing to relocate to a new society and a different culture. The implementation of Australia’s multicultural policy in schools has reflected an evolution through various stages, from the expectation that migrants will simply assimilate into the mainstream, through to the current claims concerning how much students from different ethnic backgrounds are valued in our schools, but it’s generally acknowledged that the level of such change has tended to directly reflect the demographics of the school community. Hence, where there’s no significant immigrant presence there’s little evidence of multicultural education, despite the fact that schools are supposed to prepare students for life in contemporary Australia, a country that annually welcomes thousands of migrants from a diversity of cultural backgrounds. So what is driving the current push for multiculturalism? The sudden attention being given to the issue by the Commonwealth government looks like an attempt to address contemporary perceptions about the increasing numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat, coupled with the increasing number of non-white people and particularly Muslim people gaining entry as asylum seekers. Obviously, to use the concept of multiculturalism to allay quite different sets of communal concerns about racism and religion would be to put quite a different spin on the policy. That may be about calming the waters, so to speak, but it begs the question, how prepared are our schools to deliver empowering education programs that address the very different learning needs of our First Australians and our most recent Australians? Professor Jeannie Herbert holds the Chair of Indigenous Studies at Charles Sturt University.