Why schools should have mandatory Aboriginal Studies K-10 across NSW

Aboriginal Studies is a subject that has seen very low enrolments across NSW public schools. As a new Labor government takes the reins, is it time that we see education reform to mandate Aboriginal Studies in NSW classrooms?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have inhabited this land for tens of thousands of years, passing down cultural knowledges from generation to generation. Yet, for many years, Indigenous voices and perspectives have been silenced or excluded from mainstream education. Since 2018, I have been advocating the need for compulsory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education within the HSIE Syllabus for K-10. The incoming NSW Labor government has made a number of commitments to Indigenous issues such as a Treaty – should we also be asking them to legislate reforms to the Education Act 1900 (NSW) to include Aboriginal Studies as a compulsory subject in all schools?

Currently, Years 7-10 are provided with a standardised Aboriginal Studies syllabus, but students in Year K-6 have no such provisions. To ensure Aboriginal Studies is taught to primary school students would be to ensure these students enter high school with at least a basic knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories. Armed with this background knowledge, Indigenous students can feel more comfortable in their identity and sense of cultural belonging, and non-Indigenous students would be equipped to handle questions of race and cultural identity with sensitivity and understanding. In short, making Aboriginal Studies a compulsory subject would be an important step towards reconciliation.

While — as with many aspects of the NSW curriculum — the precise form and mode of delivery for mandatory Aboriginal Studies will differ, it is undeniable that it will benefit the cultural wellbeing of Indigenous students, and the cultural competency of non-Indigenous students.

Mandating Aboriginal Studies would contribute to alleviating the crippling workforce shortage in NSW, inviting First Nations educators and knowledge-holders to the education sector in roles providing cultural and pedagogical guidance to teachers. First Nations educators and knowledge-holders are broadly unique in their teaching style — in that they approach teaching from both a Western perspective of standardised education, and from an Indigenous perspective of collaborative and reciprocal learning. First Nations educators and knowledge-holders have a deep and valuable understanding of both Indigenous ontologies and Euro-centric ideals of hierarchical education, and are often highly competent in marrying the two in the way they approach teaching. Making space for First Nations educators and knowledge-holders in the NSW education system is an effective way to radically decolonise and Indigenise the way in which we teach children about First Nations cultures and histories.

While mandating Aboriginal Studies is just a small step in the larger journey of reconciliation and decolonisation within the NSW education system, it would serve as a vital catalyst for real change in other areas of Australian society, and largely benefit Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and the community more broadly.