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Game-changer in indigenous education honoured

The former headmaster of St Andrew’s Cathedral School and now head of Barker College, both in Sydney, has achieved what many educators have failed to do – closing the gap in educational outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous students.

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For this, Phillip Heath has been officially recognised with an AM (Member in the General Division in the Order of Australia) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

In 2007, he spearheaded the launch of Gawura, a primary school for indigenous students on the campus of St Andrews in Sydney’s business district. With 95 per cent attendance rates and NAPLAN results above the national averages, the school is succeeding in its aim of preparing indigenous students to transition to the coeducational high school.

As head of Barker College in Sydney’s north, Heath drove the creation of Darkinjung Barker campus for indigenous students on the central coast in 2016, and early data show “amazing” results.

“There’s a combination of a lot of care and a small environment where they feel safe, and a lot of support from the home.”

“To talk about the efficacy of the programme, no student has progressed by less than one chronological year – nobody in the three years that we’ve been operating. The average growth is three years in one year, and the outliers are sitting five years in one year,” he says.

“So the early signs are for dramatic progress, particularly in reading, writing and comprehension – those three areas, which are the building blocks to access the academic programme.

“Some of those children are now in year 5 – they joined us when they were in year 3 and they weren’t reaching benchmark in year 3. Some of those readers are now reading at year 9 level.”

Heath said the students’ progress was not a result of “anything miraculous that excellent and committed teachers are doing; it’s because there’s a combination of a lot of care and a small environment where they feel safe, and a lot of support from the home … Those are simple things, just simple stuff but it’s life-changing.”

Now, Heath is pushing to establish an indigenous school at Utopia, about 2½ hours out of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, to be called Jeddah Akaye, or Mulga Bore, to use the European name.

“They want to feel they have choice, they want to feel proud of their own capacity, they want to remove the idea that Aboriginal identity is synonymous with disadvantage and poor performance and incarceration. They want to disrupt all that.”

Importantly, the initiative is a response to a call from a local family, who is “totally committed to an education on country for their children.” He believes this has to be the starting point for successful indigenous education – it can’t just be about solving a white Australia problem of closing the achievement gap.

“They want to feel they have choice, they want to feel proud of their own capacity, they want to remove the idea that Aboriginal identity is synonymous with disadvantage and poor performance and incarceration. They want to disrupt all that. And then if those ingredients are in place, away we go from there,” he says.

“What we did at Gawura was important and Darkinjung again, but this one is a huge challenge because of remoteness and because the first language is the Anmatyerre, the local language. So we have to design a curriculum about blending law and Australian education programmes together into a harmonious concert and that’s something that has been very challenging in the past.”

Heath says he is dreaming of starting the school in the second half of next year – provided the funds can be raised and agreements reached with local and national bureaucracies, the Anglican Dioceses of Sydney and the Northern Territory and Barker School Council. “There’s about 30 children who live out there in Utopia homelands and wouldn’t it be amazing? It would be amazing.”

“The ability to walk in two worlds is perfectly in line with a Christian gospel, that in order to rescue us Jesus became with us, walked with us, and it’s not assimilation. It’s something more profound …”

Barker students would also benefit from visiting the area as part of the school’s outdoor education programme at Alice Springs.

“It will be two-way so from second half of next year onwards what we call our extended stay programmes will involve working with the Akaye mob directly. We’ll try to learn some language and law and how Aboriginal law and relationship with land and the spirit dreaming can be harmonised with a European way of looking at things and a Christo-centric way of looking at things, and I believe you can. I don’t think it’s wildly out of reach at all.”

He says the families in the Utopia community – who are known for their magnificent paintings – “are engaged and passionate and committed, and they’re sacrificial. They have turned their back on some of the things that other community are captive to, such as alcohol. There is very low to non-existent rates of criminality in the community – it’s a brilliant community – and they want to stand proudly in their own cultural heritage but embrace opportunities for their children to walk in the two worlds without tension, from a position of cultural safety.

“That’s a big change, I think, if we’re able to do it and I venture to say that, using a Christian view of reconciliation, the ability to walk in two worlds is perfectly in line with a Christian gospel, that in order to rescue us Jesus became with us, walked with us, and it’s not assimilation. It’s something more profound and that’s why this next vision – which is not my vision, it’s theirs and they reached out to me – but this vision is so captivating, so compelling.”

Heath says he was first inspired to try something new to change the game in indigenous education because of a desire to give back to the city of Sydney and work towards national healing in the aftermath of the Redfern riots of 2004.

“So that’s where it all began but sitting behind all that is an absolutely firm view that God is a God of justice and that I benefit and have always benefited from being in this country, and that others lived here before I did, and no matter what your politics might be, it is impossible to see it in any other way than that the land was taken, the culture was supplanted and identity was disrupted massively and people like me have drawn the benefit of that.”

He says the text, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his goodness” kept playing on his mind and he decided his response had to be “bringing justice in this state and in the process bring national healing and I’ve wanted to think on a national level on this not just the local level.”

“I don’t see it in terms of personal success at all,” he adds. “I think of it more in terms of providing an opportunity for people to express their choice and giving back to Aboriginal people some sovereignty and self-determination that they perhaps had been denied in the past. If there’s been success, it’s in that space because Aboriginal people themselves have said give us a go, will you? Move out of the way.”

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