National

Hero’s treatment for remote NT graduates

By AAP Newswire

A group of Aboriginal teenagers were cheered as heroes at home this week.

Bininj Aboriginal elders performed traditional dances and songs for the eight, who walked down a red carpet dressed in their finest clothes.

The group were not star footballers but Arnhem Land Gunbalanya School students who completed year 12 last year and were being celebrated at a graduation ceremony.

It was the type of happy occasion the community needed after a horror car crash that killed five of its young men in Kakadu last month.

Gunbalanya, about 300km east of Darwin, did not even have a senior secondary school until 2012.

Before then, children mostly didn't go to high school, NT Education Department chief executive Vicki Baylis said.

"You and I would never have thought that you couldn't have completed year 12 in Australia because that's just what you did," she said.

The graduates all want to work and earn their own money - which they are often forced to share or which is stolen by relatives - rejecting a cycle of welfare reliance in indigenous communities.

"I wanted to do this, it was important so I can pass it on to the next generation or others like my youngest brother," year 12 graduate Leonardo Nabulwad said.

Leonardo has already secured paid work as a teacher's assistant but his dream is to be a secondary school teacher.

He has had to overcome great disadvantage just to achieve the NT's high school certificate - English is not Leonardo's first language and he's from a remote community so far removed from mainstream society it can be difficult to attract teachers.

The area also can't be accessed by car during the wet season, and young indigenous males are often ordered to participate in initiation ceremonies for months during years 11 and 12.

To become a teacher, Leonardo will have to complete a diploma before he can go to university - as he did not achieve an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank - plus develop his English and life skills to survive in Darwin.

"His pathway will be longer but that is the case for most of these kids because they don't have the literacy," school principal Sue Trimble said.

The only female graduate of the group, Staceyanne Nawirridj, is already working as a youth worker in the local council's Youth, Sport and Recreation area.

Her older sister completed school in Darwin, but Staceyanne wants to live in Gunbalanya among friends and family.

"I worked very hard, I used to get stressed, then walk out (of school) and go home but my father used to come and pick me up and take me back to the school," she said.

Gunbalanya's young women are increasingly gaining work in childcare while the boys often go into ranger work with the Kakadu National Park nearby or a local abattoir, Ms Trimble said.

Based on current trends, the literacy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students won't close until next century, but more indigenous youths are graduating from high school than ever before.

Last year's 2018 NAPLAN report showed indigenous students significantly improving and progressing faster than the general population, but still trailing on literacy and numeracy.

Gunbalanya is described as the NT's "star community-led school" and the territory's only very remote independent public school.

Student attendance is a major problem, however.

The school has two principals, local indigenous woman Esther Djayhgurrnga and a non-indigenous principal, and its board has more control over its budget and curriculum than others.

The decision to run school terms at different times due to the wet season - while still meeting national requirements - gave locals a feeling of empowerment that they could run the school, Ms Baylis said.

As well as maths and english, the school offers classes in early childhood work, getting a driver's licence, financial literacy, social and emotional learning, construction, and perhaps most importantly, Bininj culture, to make the curriculum relevant to local children.

Education Department general manager Tony Considine said that whatever the graduates choose to do, they now have an NT secondary school qualification and nationally accredited training certificates which they can take anywhere.

"People can go to their homelands too, choose to go be on country and live a more traditional life, it is a reasonable choice," he said.

"The kids that complete year 12 become heroes, other people see it and it becomes an expectation and slowly changes the cycle."

"There are no silver bullets, we are six years into an indigenous education strategy and we can see that we are taking bites everywhere. The data is showing us making a real difference."