A new report is proposing a transformative solution: an Indigenous-led education system that embraces First Nations knowledge, practice, and culture in an effort to improve educational, employment and health outcomes, as well as ensuring students don’t fall behind.

The MK Turner Report - a plan for First Nations-led and designed education reform was developed in consultation with more than 60 Indigenous educators.

A delegation of First Nations elders, senior leaders and representatives from Children’s Ground and Utyerre Apanpe (First Nations Educators Network) presented the co-design strategy on Wednesday at Parliament House in Canberra at a gathering hosted by NT MP Marion Scrymgour.

Embracing First Nations knowledge, practice and culture could change the status quo, the delegates said.

“Governments want First Nations people to fit into a colonised, Western education system that deliberately removed First Nations language, connection to country land and culture,” the report reads.

“Evidence shows that this system is not fit for purpose and is failing many First Nations children.”

Among the six recommendations outlined in the Report was the establishment of an Indigenous governing body to oversee the education system, as well as to set up a national network of Indigenous language centres for every language group.

The latest Closing the Gap report showed Indigenous educational outcomes were not on track to reach the targeted goals by 2031.

Children’s Ground and Utyerre Apanpe representatives explained in Canberra that the recently released Productivity Commission review on Closing the Gap highlighted that governments need to fundamentally rethink their systems, culture and ways of working, as well as the importance of giving First Nations agency in designing and implementing solutions for their communities.

“We are committed to successful education outcomes for our children, that protect our cultures and identity while equipping our children for a global world,” Children’s Ground chair and 2023 NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year, William Tilmouth, told the National Indigenous Times on Wednesday.

“First Nations people have solutions, and evidence that our solutions lead to positive outcomes for our people.

“We will continue to grow this evidence. We don’t want to see our kids on the streets. We want to see our kids in education, run by us for us, where they are safe and supported to succeed,” he said.

Tilmouth said Indigenous children succeed when their learning environment is founded in their identity, their culture, their language and their Country.

“I invite the Australian Government to support bold reform that is backed by international evidence,” he continued.

“Our Elders have been campaigning for education reform for generations. We know this is where the answer lies. These old people are passing away. We continue to champion their legacies by asking for change now for the sake of our children and before these old people and their knowledge are gone. Put our education back in our hands.”

Earlier this month in parliament, the Federal Government tabled its Closing the Gap annual report for 2023 and implementation plan for 2024, promising to drive cultural change across all levels of government to help address entrenched Indigenous inequality.

Only 11 out of 19 socio-economic outcomes under the national agreement on Closing the Gap are improving and just four are on track to meet their targets.

Children’s Ground chair and 2023 NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year, William Tilmouth, says Indigenous children succeed when their learning environment is founded in their identity, their culture, their language and their Country. PHOTO: YouTube screenshot

Jane Vadiveloo, CEO of Indigenous organisation Children’s Ground, said the Report offers a real-world example of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations towards Closing the Gap.

“The report speaks to local and international evidence that shows First Nations children educated in their first language and culture have improved learning outcomes, improved economic outcomes, improved health and wellbeing and increased engagement of family in their learning journey,” she said in a statement.

“This undeniable evidence base clarifies a response to the worsening or stagnant Closing the Gap program outcomes.

“In the regions that Children’s Ground operate, First Nations children are consistently falling out of mainstream schooling.”

Vadiveloo said a shake-up of education practices was needed.

“A First Nations designed and led learning system leads to positive outcomes for the individual, their community and beyond.”

Vadiveloo said a First Nations-led system could be instrumental in suicide prevention, mitigating child removal and risk and will create critical employment for First Nations people across the country.

The report also suggested Australia was lagging behind other countries like Hawaii and New Zealand, where huge strides have been taken in establishing Indigenous-led, more culturally-centred schooling systems.

For New Zealand, it was as long ago as the ‘80s, with an educational and schooling revolution that occurred there.

In the Report, Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith, a prominent Māori educationalist who’s been at the forefront of numerous Māori initiatives, said the revolution “developed out of Māori communities who were so concerned with the loss of Māori language, knowledge and culture that they took matters into their own hands and set up their own learning institutions at preschool, elementary school, secondary school and tertiary levels”.

However, Smith said in the Report, the ‘real’ revolution in that decade was a shift in mindset of large numbers of Māori people.

“[It was] a shift away from waiting for things to be done to them, to doing things for themselves; a shift away from an emphasis on reactive politics to an emphasis on being more proactive; a shift from negative motivation to positive motivation; a reawakening of the Māori imagination that had been stifled and diminished by colonisation processes,” he said.

The report offers six recommendations, that:

  • Australian governments commit to the establishment of a new First Nations education system.
  • Government recognises and partners with an independent national First Nations governance body to develop and oversee the new First Nations education system.
  • Australian governments support the teaching of First Nations languages in the new system, through a new national Language of Instruction policy.
  • Australian governments establish a comprehensive national network of First Nations Language and Literacy Centres for every Nation/language group.
  • Australian governments develop and support a First Nations education workforce.
  • Australian governments establish the MK Turner Institute as a national centre for First Nations knowledge, practice, research and evaluation in the new First Nations education system.

The Report is named after Dr MK (Margaret Kemarre) Turner OAM, an Arrernte woman, who belonged to the Akarre people. A celebrated Elder in her community, an interpreter, artist and author, Turner was also involved with the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs where she taught language, culture and cross-cultural courses. At the forefront of First Nations language and education for 50 years, she led the Report’s creation. Turner died in July, 2023.