A lack of harmony continues to exist in the relationships between some schools and their respective Aboriginal communities. Previously, Australian school systems have developed policy frameworks to assist educational institutions to plan for improved outcomes for Aboriginal[1] students. Despite decades of attempted intervention, and a growing awareness of Aboriginal perspective in curriculum direction in education policy, Aboriginal communities continue to fight for their voices to be heard in school decision-making (Lowe, Harrison, Tennent, Guenther, Vass, & Moodie, 2019).

Research indicates Aboriginal parents have highlighted that their contributions and local knowledge of their school community is essential to prevent further misrepresentation of their views, experiences, languages and culture, in-school decision making and curriculum delivery (Lampert, Burnett, Martin, & McCrea 2014; Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009 in Lowe et.al. 2019).

Previous policy frameworks have encouraged partnerships with Aboriginal families, but there is limited evidence (CESE & Goodall 2015 in Lowe et.al. 2019) of how these have improved outcomes for Aboriginal students but highlight the need to work alongside our Aboriginal families when negotiating curriculum delivery and pedagogic practices (Guenther, Disbray, & Osborne 2015; Klenowski 2009, in Lowe et.al. 2019).

[1] School visits were conducted under a WAPPA grant in Western Australia. The term ‘Aboriginal’ will be used when referring to Indigenous Australians unless including Torres Strait Islanders in which case the term ‘Indigenous Australians’ will be stated referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, policies, programs and activities.


Public School Accountability Process in Western Australian Schools

The Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework (ACSF) (DoE, 2015) was released to public schools in 2016, forming part of public school accountability processes in all Western Australian public schools. The ACSF framework, comprising five cultural standards, aligns to the National Standards (AITSL, 2011) for principals, school leaders and teaching staff in Australian schools. School leaders are required to set expected standards guided by the ACSF for all staff when working in public schools with Aboriginal students, their parents, families and the wider community.

Currently, there is little evidence on how relationships have been brokered in schools using this policy framework, or on the impact this guidance has had on relationship improvement, ultimately affecting student achievement (Lowe, et.al. 2019). Given the necessary and essential place of Aboriginal peoples in enacting the mandated ACSF within school accountability processes in Western Australian schools, and with an intended focus on Standard One-Relationships, this proposed study seeks to find examples of school communities who have engaged with Aboriginal people’s voices, facilitated through dadirri (deep listening) (Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman; Morris, 2019). This action research, sponsored by WAPPA, aims to showcase some of the great work already being done in our Goldfields schools and provide information on how enactment of Standard One - Relationships in the Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework influences everyday events, in-school encounters in schools and how we include Aboriginal voice to create a third space between policy and practice in school communities.

Yarning with South Kalgoorlie PS Principal, Katherine Grant & Deputy Principals, Nicole Pestell and Jenny Bruce

We yarned with Principal Kath Grant, who gave us some insight into how she leads her team to engage with the Aboriginal community in her school. Kath says, “Never assume anything. Ask!” The key to everything is relationships alongside building staff capacity. Kath believes strongly in supporting and empowering people. The school staff are trained in trauma informed practice with 30% of students in the school identified as having encountered trauma.

South Kalgoorlie Primary School has five Aboriginal staff linked to the community- language network through the work of the Wangkatja teacher and Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) team leader, Amanda Sambo. It has a lower socio-economic demographic with 15% of students being Aboriginal and a 30% cultural representation from other countries. Amanda links strongly with the school community and works daily to build cultural competency in students, through the Wangkatja LOTE program. There is a strong visual presence of connections to the school’s Aboriginal community throughout the school.

In 2018, Amanda collaborated with staff and community organisations to have local artists work with students, to develop murals around the Wangkatja classroom.

Students learnt the ways that painting communicates and tells stories in Aboriginal culture. They told their own stories through art and helped to develop the beautiful mural around the Wangkatja classroom. The mural tells the story of the school and the local area. In conjunction with the mural, they developed a Yarning circle which is a wonderful outdoor classroom and integral part of the Wangkatja area; a very special part of the school. The school’s Acknowledgement of Country in Wangkatja language welcomes visitors into the school and is spoken in classrooms each morning. Its development was a major part of the school’s first RAP that was published in 2021. Their second RAP will be published at the end of this year.

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Yarning with East Kalgoorlie PS Principal, Sally Fowler & Deputy Principal, Nicholas Reghenzani

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We yarned twice with Principal Sally Fowler about her school, East Kalgoorlie PS. Contextually, the school has 100% Aboriginal students attending. Sally has built a strong Cultural Leadership Team at East Kalgoorlie PS, with an unrelenting focus on building relationships within the school community. She credits asking the school community at every chance she gets, to bring their perspective on decision making and hearing their voices in what they want for their school. The regular use of Aboriginal names highlights how culture is a focus in the school.

The Karlkurla, a native plant of Kalgoorlie, is a vine that bonds with other plants always growing upwards to reach its potential. In partnership, these plants provide nourishment and strength together for their future success. Sally says, “The children of our school represent the Karlkurla. The school represents the supporting plants.”

Before being hit with COVID, East Kalgoorlie PS had improved attendance from 50 to 80%. The school’s Cultural Leadership Team has worked hard to invite parents to morning teas, involve the community in making and selling hairbands and to foster trust building in the community. The school’s Aboriginal & Islander Education Officers (AIEO), are treated with respect and equality in school decision making. A school bus picks the kids up, so they can attend school. They have embedded Two Way Science – Language through On Country Learning and a PBS focus throughout the school on ‘Being Deadly’.

Sally says that the community must know that the principal will support them and listen to their views. Asking the people in the community to bring in the information to schools and communicate what they want, comes down to simple decisions to create ‘buy in’. For example, at East Kalgoorlie PS Faction names – Birds Emu Eagle came from listening to the school community about bird colours. Languages Teacher/AIEO Tania, credits the school’s success to voices that have not only been heard but acted on. Sally intends to keep supporting generational changes of routines with families and that first and foremost she needs the kids to attend school. She asks the question of her staff often, “How do we make space for them to learn?” Our school contextually needs a third space when working with policy and curriculum. How do all policies fit with Tier 3 – ‘The Bush Kids’. We need to keep exploring how to meet the needs of our kids, as suspending kids does not work.

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Kambalda West DHS Principal, Candice Brown & Deputy Principals, Danielle Larkin, Tara Schmidt and Patrick Longbottom

Principal Candice Brown has led her team at Kambalda West DHS to embrace Aboriginal culture and develop relationships with community members. Previously, the school did not have Aboriginal students attending, but now proudly has 7% student population and is working towards strengthening links with the community. Candice has developed her cultural advisory team at the school and is working towards building a future for the school, focusing on Aboriginal perspectives and cultural inclusion. The school is currently developing a yarning circle and cultural appreciation throughout the school in the form of murals and artworks.

The challenge currently, is to succeed in inviting Aboriginal community members to be a part of the working group. The school is working towards establishing a RAP action, planning two excursions a year for On Country Learning with teachers.

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O’Connor PS Principal, Stephen Delfs & Deputy Principals, Damien Dickinson, Allison Hunter and Carmen Gallagher

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Teacher Hamish Arnold is O’Connor Primary School’s Cultural Leader and Chair of the RAP Committee. The school has approximately 20% Aboriginal students and is currently focused on how the staff’s cultural responsiveness can be measured.

Under leadership from Principal Stephen Delfs, the school has been a leader in culturally responsive education and was the first regional school in Western Australia to have a RAP. Initially, the school took this idea to the school’s Cultural Advisory Group. The school is actively using the current RAP in 2022 and credits this process as integral to improvement in culturally responsive practices amongst staff.

The school is continuing to strengthen use of the Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework and says relationships in the school community are becoming stronger. There is a huge focus in the teaching of Aboriginal perspectives in curriculum delivery across classrooms. There is also a focus on the recruiting of a network of confident Aboriginal peoples within the school community. Primarily, the school is focused on learning how to improve relationships within a third space in the school, with Parent Advisory Groups meeting twice per term.

NAIDOC Week is a big celebration at O’Connor PS with ‘On Country’ learning occurring through parents, community dance performances, spear throwing and the cooking of kangaroo stew. The school actively involves their AIEO staff in embedding On Country learning in everyday curriculum delivery. AIEOs work between two schools, lending each other’s knowledge to all schools involved. Aboriginal educator Tania Tucker, from East Kalgoorlie PS, taught bush medicine for NAIDOC week in the school.

A student RAP Group – Year 6 TAGS program is run by two AEIOs and the HASS teacher. The HASS teacher is a specialist in the integrating of the ASCF and cultural studies as specific lessons in the school. Staff have engaged in Professional Development in Two Way Science and HASS.

Nulsen PS Principal, Krystal Wiggins & Deputy Principals Megan Johnston and Janet-Marie Wombell

Nulsen PS located in Esperance, has 38% indigenous population, of the 207 students attending the school. The school was re-classified to a Level 4 and the principal Krystal Wiggins has been leading the school for the past two years. The school mantra led by Krystal is ‘not every child fits in the same box and not every child fits into education (traditional classroom)’. Principal Krystal Wiggins is a foster carer and says this has changed her way of thinking and understanding trauma.

Krystal credits a focus on relationships and the mapping of connection within the school as the successor in getting students to attend school. Previously the school’s leadership team went to Challis PS in Armadale, to observe that school’s widely recognised model of support. Currently, a parent centre is being set up and strong connections with allied health are being fostered, as many incoming students are non-verbal or have limited communication skills when first accessing the school environment. Work with SSEN:BE has evolved within the school, with an understanding that the school must adapt to meet the needs of the students, rather than students adapting to the school.

The Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework underpins everything that the school does, and staff are focused on auditing this collectively. The school is culturally responsive, teaching Noongar as the local language and uses as many dialects as possible.

A map of local families is available for students to look at in the Principal’s office, with all family names and connections in the region visible. Principal Krystal Wiggins outlined that it is of the utmost importance for Aboriginal students to feel connected to the school and unfortunately connections with families during COVID have been severely disrupted. The school has developed and executes ‘a range of learning spaces’ focused on social and emotional learning, which sees up to 20 Tier 3 students for up to three hours, each day.

The principal says this provision of a ‘learning space’ is also focused on the schools Tribes values and is integral to getting students through the school door and providing an environment that offers tiered support. By regulating their behaviour, students are more likely to access Literacy and Numeracy teaching and can transition into class positively.

Operationally, the school tracks suspensions, time out data tracking sheets and data of the Buzz room. The school re-adjusted the staff and class sizes to accommodate the space for social and emotional learning.

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The school has an Advisory Committee, which is starting to build momentum. The schools across the region have individual RAPs and the Esperance Network is supportive and also has a RAP. Independent staff have been employed to drive the RAP, but are developing an understanding of the context. There is provision of 1.7 AIEO FTE as part of the social and emotional learning space and Kindilink on site. The role also encompasses working with families and home visits. Teachers are teaching Noongar in the class. Local On Country experiences to learn Noongar and a focus for Year 4-6 girls cultural experiences, is part of the school’s strategy in fostering trust in relationships.

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Castletown PS Principal, David Vooght-Simpson & Deputy Principals, Julie Fetherston and David Mclaren

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Castletown PS has 545 students and approximately 10% of the student population is indigenous. The school is heavily committed to the repair of relationships in the local area and engaging with their Aboriginal community. The school operates a Breakfast Club and has above average attendance of Aboriginal students attending the school.

The staff attended a two day course on ‘Cultural Responsiveness’ with the trainer giving extensive advice on how relationships can be improved to engage with the school community.

The school is part of a Regional RAP with target setting focused on the retention of students attending school regularly. The Aboriginal Parent Reference Group is asked their opinions regularly in school decision making, so that their voices are heard. AIEOs are employed 4 days a week. The school holds a welcome BBQ in Reconciliation Week and hosts a Sorry Day walk around the school oval. The school also liaises regularly with Esperance SHS and supports the Follow the Dream program, to ensure transition for Aboriginal students is seamless and productive.

Esperance PS Principal, Gareth Palmer & Deputy Principals, Fabianne Lance and Todd Mcelroy

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The Esperance PS team has a ‘real’ energy in this space under Principal Gareth Palmer’s leadership. They have a committed long term staff and some new staff, with fresh eyes!

The school is invested in using the ACSF to support the 18% Indigenous students at the school and drive the improvement of whole school practice in this space. Principal Gareth Palmer spoke about the importance of student voice and outlined when he had an Aboriginal student write to him personally about the design of the athletics faction tops, that he wanted to change. The initiative came directly from the student and resulted in the factions becoming Noongar names.

Local providers support the school to identify Elders. This supports the staff with feeling like they understand the complicated system of how to interact in a culturally responsive way.

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Schools in the region are working together to make connections with families more intentional. A big part of the school strategy is focused on ‘Who’s your mob?’ to promote local connections within the community. The school is working hard to bring families on board and a Cultural Responsiveness Leader has been appointed to work with staff and the school community, with the school initially focusing on what they were doing well and what needed to happen next. The school decided that terminology through language being used needed to be a focus in the school with the embracing of the six seasons terminology, flying of the three flags, singing Noongar songs and the use of the ASCF, primarily focusing on Teaching and Relationships.

A standout aspect of the school’s strategies is relationships, with outside agencies and connections to Elders in the Esperance area. Staff have been engaging in Cultural Awareness Training and learning to become more responsive in their teaching practice and curriculum delivery. This is further enhanced through Performance Management, as a tool to improve cultural competency and stronger strategies to engage with families. The school has strong connections with the local high school and transition processes for year 6 students. An Aboriginal Advisory Group meets regularly and the school has an AIEO appointed one day a week.

Highlighted in this research conducted under a ‘Leading from the Front’ WAPPA Research Grant, is that many schools engage and uphold values and behaviours that are ‘cultural capital’ in schools (Jaegar & Karlson, 2018). Many of our teachers are attempting to teach the mandated National Curriculum and incorporate Aboriginal perspectives to engage students with the histories, cultures and experiences of Aboriginal peoples. They are doing so with a desire to learn. Although the intention in this space is sound, many practitioners are delivering curriculum through a lens of limited understanding or input from Aboriginal voice. We are all trying and we are all learning, but as highlighted here, we are all at different stages of this journey. Thank you to all schools who welcomed us to ‘yarn’ about their story. We all agreed, that pivotal to the success of the Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework in Western Australian schools, is the cultural responsiveness of schools, when leading and developing capacity within themselves and their communities.

This work, whilst at different stages across all schools in the state, remains to be at the forefront of Department planning. The release of Focus 2023 paves the way for a greater focus on culturally responsive approaches to education; a more informed leadership group, prominent voice of Aboriginal community stakeholders and greater opportunities for staff.

I would like to sincerely thank WAPPA for providing me the opportunity to undertake this research project, to benefit from the learnings that came from it and to share these learnings with my colleagues. I would encourage all WAPPA members to seek out the opportunities that arise from WAPPA’s Awards and Grants program.