Tammy Anderson has spent most of her life at one school — as a student, teacher and now principal — but after all these years her greatest classroom challenge may still be ahead of her.
- The Federal Government has set ambitious new Closing the Gap education targets
- Nearly 80pc of Indigenous students attend public schools but only 1.3 per cent of teachers and principals across the country are Indigenous
- One principal says “you can only be what you can see”
One of the first things you see as you walk through the gates of Briar Road Public School in Sydney’s south-west is a mural emblazoned with the Aboriginal flag.
The school has a long tradition of educating Aboriginal families.
About half of the nearly 250 students are Indigenous and once, Ms Anderson was one of them.
Across the road from Briar Road is the local high school she attended, but just next door sits the local juvenile prison.
It used to be that kids ended up in one or the other.
“I always knew when I started teaching, I wanted to come back here,” Ms Anderson said.
“As Aboriginal people, we have such a responsibility to our community.
National data shows Indigenous children are trailing behind non-Indigenous students in literacy, numeracy, attendance and high school graduation.
It has been a career goal for Ms Anderson to turn that narrative on its head and set high expectations for her students.
“We challenge the deficit. We raise the bar and give people the support to reach it,” she said.
But now, a new challenge is ahead.
For the first time, all Australian governments have committed to closing the gap in Indigenous high school graduation rates as part of a historic new agreement.
To achieve that, Australia needs to pull the current year 12 attainment rate for Indigenous students up about 30 per cent in the next 10 years, from 67 per cent to 96 per cent.
It is a challenge that will fall mostly to public schools, with nearly 80 per cent of Indigenous students educated in government schools, compared to 65 per cent of non-Indigenous students.
There have already been big gains in recent decades, with a 15 per cent increase in Indigenous year 12 completion between 2006 and 2016, but this new target would mean almost doubling that success.
Ms Anderson is up for the task and believes it is primary schools like hers that can make all the difference.
“For me as a child, the primary setting was so influential, it’s where you get your grounding to believe in yourself,” she said.
“I think that high school can be quite a difficult time for kids and knowing who you are before you get there is critical.”
‘You can only be what you see’
Ms Anderson believes the same thing that is helping attendance and results in her classrooms is missing from most others.
One of her biggest sources of pride is the Indigenous staff at the school — from support workers, to teachers, to herself as the principal.
Under her leadership, the school has worked to include Aboriginal language, stories and culture in the classroom, but a school led by an Aboriginal principal is rare.
Federal Government data shows only 1.3 per cent of teachers and principals across the country are Indigenous.
“You can only be what you can see, and I want to see our students leave here knowing their worth and their value,” Ms Anderson said.
One of her pupils, Tyleaha Tonkin, is already eager to follow in her footsteps.
“When I grow up, I want to be a teacher at Briar Road because it looks really fun and I know my principal went here and I could be a leader like her,” she said.
She said she hoped to go to university to “be the teacher and a role model”.
Tertiary education ‘another challenge’
Fiona Kelly has also been a student, teacher and principal at the same school, but hers is in outback New South Wales.
She returned to her home community of Menindee, east of Broken Hill, to “try and do the best by our kids”.
“I used to get frustrated when I would go and see Menindee school perform somewhere and we weren’t up to the standard because we were only keeping our kids down,” Ms Kelly said.
The school once trailed far behind minimum standards in literacy, numeracy and writing skills, with attendance once falling as low as 75 per cent.
The biggest education gaps exist in remote areas, according to national data.
But Menindee Central School is exceeding on many fronts and currently boasts a 100 per cent year 12 retention rate.
“Kids come to school because their friends are here,” Ms Kelly said.
Ms Kelly believes it is the relationships they have built with parents, elders and the community in the last decade that have helped change things at the school.
“It was also just respecting the kids, tailoring lessons to their needs and listening to them … you can do that in a small school like ours,” she said.
But even with success under their belt, the students face another challenge.
As part of the new Closing the Gap agreement, governments have also committed to getting 70 per cent of Indigenous young people to hold some form of tertiary education.
It will be an ambitious undertaking, with the latest data showing only 42 per cent of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people currently have a certificate III or above.
“We don’t have a lot of kids interested in that tertiary education, but we have found that seven out of the eight kids had some form of employment,” Ms Kelly said.
“While they are not going on to university, they are coming out of school as a responsible young adult ready to engage in the workforce.”
Both Fiona and Tammy were the first in their families to go onto university and they believe they ended up there for the same reason.
“I had a teacher who pushed me, and who saw something in me, maybe I didn’t see in myself … and so I decided I would go off to teachers’ college,” Ms Kelly said.
Ms Anderson said: “University wasn’t something I saw for myself — none of my peers were considering it — but I had a teacher who said to me that she thought that I could definitely do university.”
“It was nice to have someone who believed in you and your potential … that’s what I’m trying to do to our kids now.”