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Advantage to Aborigines

The first government schools to be specially created for Australian Aborigines, offering education from kindergarten to the end of the secondary years, have opened in Victoria.

Terry Kildea, 46, is the first Aboriginal headteacher of Melbourne's Koori Open-Door Education Centre - one of two newly-established schools in Victoria - set up to cater for black children from the first to the final years. The other is attached to a large secondary college in Gippsland, in rural Victoria.

Mr Kildea said he can empathise with his pupils: "I went to school barefoot and without breakfast, or lunch. I often went home to a place where there was no gas, no light, and no food in the cupboard."

A survey just published reveals that Aborigines endure four times the unemployment rate of white Australians and twice the chronic ill-health, but receive only two-thirds the education. More than a third of them say they are worried about where their next meal is coming from.

The federal government announced last year that it would collaborate with the state governments in Victoria and Western Australia to establish four of the special schools. Despite this forewarning, the two Victoria centres opened in early February after only two weeks' planning.

Even so, Koori parents across the state immediately enrolled more than 150 children and numbers have been steadily climbing as word has spread around the black communities.

Later this year, a kindergarten or pre-school unit will open at the Broadmeadows centre so children as young as three and four can be cared for.

At the Melbourne centre, seven teachers, all but one of them white, work with children whose ages range from five to 16. Some of the older students are in year 11, the penultimate year, and they take many of their classes at the nearby secondary college.

"We provide them with as much support as possible while they are on the other campus," Mr Kildea said. "The aim is that as we grow, we will expand our secondary options. When we were selecting staff, we were looking for teachers who were multi-skilled."

Mr Kildea says the intention is not to set up a blacks-only ghetto school. Any child who wants to enrol will be admitted, and he pointed out that half a dozen of those who turned up on the first day were white.

"You could say that mainstream schooling has failed to deliver education services to the Koori population.

"Our objective overwhelmingly is to redress the disadvantages our people have endured and provide the best quality programmes we can for these children - to ensure that they finish their secondary schooling and go on to further education and training."

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