On the rocky and stony land of the Arnhem Land Plateau, in one of Australia’s most remote corners, students take a break at a cool waterfall they call Kururrkkurduk.
As they dive and dive into their pristine playground, a short drive from their remote station 530 kilometers east of Darwin, the students are unaware that they are part of a new generation that is beating a a record of only 50% attendance in the most remote schools in the Northern Territory.
“It’s really good to have our children here, it’s really important, because as Bininj people we have a connection with the land,” says traditional owner Ray Nadjamerrek.
“I think that’s why the old people, like my grandfather Lofty Nadjamerrek, wanted to try to bring people back to the Stone Country and have better, healthy lives.”
Students at the Independent Nawarddeken Academy receive full-time education in a new ‘two-way’ program that blends their culture and language with Western numeracy and literacy.
Getting children to learn and play on their traditional lands was a long-held dream of elders and indigenous guards living and working in the remote station called Kabulwarnamyo, which has just over 50 residents.
The program has resulted in attendance rates of between 80 and 95 percent, as well as increased student engagement and increased number of students completing their assigned work.
The remote station’s group of landowners and rangers, Warddeken Land Management, which manages 1.4 million hectares of traditional land, established the school in 2015, and the Nawarddeken Academy began operating as a independent school registered full-time in 2019.
It is not just about educating children in the countries of origin so that they do not have to move to larger communities which makes Nawarddeken Academy unique.
It is part of a quiet revolution in the Northern Territory where a growing number of Aboriginal communities are seeking education “both ways”.
Nawarddeken Academy Executive Director Olga Scholes said a philosophy that “the country is a classroom” underpins the curriculum.
She says students learn as much from their elders as they do from their college-educated teachers.
The academy takes the “two-way” model a little further.
In February, Bininj Guardians from across Stone Country gathered in the larger remote community of Maningrida to establish a seasonal schedule that became the backbone of the two-way agenda.
Consultant Barbara McCaige helped document traditional ecological knowledge about plants, animals, seasonal indicators and weather.
Ms Scholes says the information forms the basis of classroom teaching themes that are “wrapped around what’s going on in the country and in this particular season.”
Dr Bill Fogarty, deputy director of the Australian National University’s Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, said Aborigines have been calling for decades for a two-way education that values local language and culture, but governments have failed. still not listened to.
A growing number of indigenous communities have sought more culturally appropriate forms of education, often through independent schools.
The Yothu Yindi Foundation, which runs the Garma Cultural Festival in northeastern Arnhem Land, opened the Dhupuma Barker School in April this year in Gunyangara land, about 40 kilometers from the place of detention of Garma.
The Anindilyakwa Land Council of Groote Eylandt is preparing to build a school on Bickerton Island as it prepares to take control of a range of areas, including education, as part of ‘a local decision-making agreement from the government of the territory.
The council intends to follow the model of a weekly boarding school set up on the Tiwi Islands.
The success of the Nawarddeken Academy with only two full-time teachers prompted neighboring stations of Manmoyi and Mamadawerre to call for it to take over their schools from the Government of the Northern Territory.
The remote stations had received limited to non-existent education in the first half of 2021, despite funding provided by the Commonwealth through the Government of the Northern Territory.
The territory’s Education Minister Lauren Moss said her team was looking to find out why there was no education in the homelands.
The traditional owner of Manmoyi, Terah Guymala, says he wants his children and his community to receive the same level of education as the children of Kabulwarnamyo.
“We want to survive in two worlds today. That’s why we want education in our homeland – full-time education,” he says.
Mamadawerre’s traditional owner, Conrad Maralngurra, agrees part-time education won’t help his children and says he would be “proud” to see his son go to school five days a week.
The Nawarddeken Academy requested last year to temporarily take over teaching in Manmoyi and Mamadawerre as it prepared to apply for permanent enrollment.
The temporary solution was turned down, but in April the academy submitted its formal request to the Northern Territory Department of Education to register the two schools.
Traditional owner Conrad Maralngurra says there will be big celebrations if the requests are approved.
“I’ll have a corroboree somewhere… I’ll be really proud.”
This report was funded by the Walkley Public Fund.