New land, same old problem

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Stairhead education could be a Scots contribution to ending the alienation of Aborigines from Australia's system of schooling, says George Currie

Australia is celebrating its centenary, having started with a magnificent New Year fireworks display on Sydney Harbour Bridge. I have recently returned, having travelled to all corners of the country over some months and at times I thought there were more Scots than back home.

At both federal and state levels education is seen as a vital force in developing the country. The pressures, dilemmas and contradictions in education revolve round the strong presence of the traditions from the British system and the resentments created by the terrible Anzac experiences in war, the unsettling relationship between the settler descendants and the Aborigine population, and the remaining feeling of colonial inferiority.

With Britons needing a visa to enter, the days of the pound;10 immigrant are certainly over. The children are not taught that they are second or third generation Australians but that they are Australians, period.

Education is also seen as a major vehicle for the country to establish itself as a world power. That is witnessed by recent efforts in East Timor to the north, where the Australian armed forces have stabilised the country after its recent traumas.

Gone are the days of the tea and biscuits brigade, the well-meaning do-gooders, and in their place are the high-grade, hard-boiled professionals. So when I was asked to outline and advise on a 40-week qualifying course for East Timor teachers to be recognised by and administered in an Australian university, I recommended that it should be based in East Timor itself in order to train the maximum number of teachers.

I got the idea from the British model after the Second World War when there were one-year emergency training programmes. Hopefully, it will all take off and help rebuild that sad nation.

At 11 o'clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month I was in Alice Springs to attend oneof the most moving ceremonies of my life. A guest at the Remembrance Day service in the outback, I was privileged to meet the Probins. He was a survivor of the terrifying Murmansk convoys to Russia in the last war and his wife had been an officer nurse who landed with the troops on D-Day. On the way back from the ceremony I took a wrong turning and ended up in a public park full of Aborigines who had just received their government allowances. They were in the process of getting drunk, both men and women. I was the only white man and I was not welcome.

I had been staying in Alice to look at educational provision. In the mornings I would travel in the school bus to collect the Aboriginal children, and it was then that I learnt about their way of life. Many do not go to school and many do not work, simply because they do not define the work ethic as we do. The cultural differences are so great that they cause enormous stress and strain in their lives.

They still feel they live in an alien environment because of the enforced assimilation, the stolen generation and the hurried policies of discrimination. They are resolute in their resistance to the white man and to the laws of imprisonment for very minor offences. Some have committed suicide in detention.

Educationally, Australia is a land of contradictions. The philanthropy is sincere and of first-class quality. At the same time the country has a seemingly insoluble domestic problem.

Many years ago I was involved in a project to get truanting Scottish children back to school. It was called "stairhead education". One would visit the family at home, do some teaching and encourage the child to go back to school. Perhaps we could offer Australia this idea to sit alongside the East Timor project. Recalling the Sydney Harbour Bridge fireworks, I would hope for a New Year bridge to reconciliation for us all. Happy birthday, Australia.

George Currie introduced conductive education to Scotland and is a consultant on special educational needs.

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