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Byron Shire
September 26, 2021

Storylines – the education gap

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This article is made possible by the support of Ninbella Gallery.

Access to a good quality education can ensure that an individual will be successful in life. Unfortunately for Indigenous Australians, equal access to educational opportunities have not always existed. Whilst some might argue that this problem is rooted in the past, such limitations continue to have a resounding impact on the quality of life for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

Equal access to educational opportunities has not always existed for Indigenous Australians. Photo Wallula – Pixabay

Australian school systems have existed in this country for over 200 years. Initially established to educate the children of free settlers, there has always been an education gap between the haves and have nots. Our education system, as we know it today, with its Government-funded public school sector, came about much later and it was not until the 1880’s that we saw an expansion into secondary education.

Throughout this time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not considered to be a part of Australia’s future. Initially, they tried to get rid of us through massacres, germ warfare, and attempted genocide. When that failed, we were marginalised and placed into small, easily controlled communities. Our gene pool was expected to wither and die out.

After some time, it was realised that Indigenous Australians were here to stay. Only then was it established by those in power that English language education was important for First Australians. But this realisation was not achieved with the best interests of Indigenous people in mind. Instead, it was brought about in the sense that our people could prove useful as a cheap source of labor.

Cabbage Tree Island Public School

A carving of Aboriginal children at William Ricketts Sanctuary, Mount Dandenong, Victoria. Photo Tanja Gerls – Pixabay.

Cabbage Tree Island Public School was established on the small island community on the Richmond River in 1893. This was the same year that the island was gazetted by the government as an Aboriginal Reserve.

Prior to this point, as our oral history tells us, the community of Cabbage Tree Island was self-sufficient and comprised of hard-working farmers, boat builders, and graziers. Such self-sufficiency came to a crashing halt with the establishment of the NSW Aborigines Protection/Welfare Board which brought about sweeping changes to the community. Self-sufficiency became government dependency.

My Grandfather attended school at Cabbage Tree Island during the 1940s. He remembers going to school up until he was around 10 years of age when he was then expected to work as a farm hand on one of the numerous white-owned cane farms situated along the banks of the Richmond River. His education was provided simply as a means of preparing him to work for these farm owners. The skills he learnt whilst at school were all focused on this end goal, with no further opportunities expected for him.

Such a system of education for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders continued for decades. My people were never expected to be anything more than farm hands or domestic servants. The purpose of educating them to any degree was to merely ensure that they would be hardworking and courteous to their white bosses.

Bundjalung man Eli Cook is a school teacher in the Ballina area. Photo David Lowe.

During the 1960s and ‘70s my father also attended Cabbage Tree Island Public School. His education took place in a period of transition in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy making; from segregation to assimilation. He vividly remembers that he and his siblings were never allowed to attend school at the nearby Wardell Public School because the white families did not want their children mixing with the blacks.

By the time he reached High School, the assimilation policy was in full effect. He attended Ballina High School during this period, making many friends of all races. However, the hangover of times-gone-by ensured that there was still a deep rift between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students and teachers at the school. For some, school became too difficult. Their attendance began to drop and eventually they pulled out completely.

Historical implications of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences

The historical implications of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences have a direct impact on the educational gaps we see in today’s schools. The government has earmarked school attendance, year 12 attainment, and English literacy and numeracy as their key target areas. However, is this enough considering the deep rooted and far-reaching impacts of policies gone by?

Remote communities are even more deeply affected with the results of targeted outcomes up to 20 per cent lower than for those along the East Coast of NSW. Whilst I agree it is important to have targets, the agenda must transform into how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children access education from their earliest days. It also comes down to how we teach our children and whether our system of education is set up for success or failure. Only when we fully understand and accept the past will we be able to progress forward into the future.

Eli Cook at Angels Beach. Photo David Lowe.


Eli Cook is from the Nyangbal clan of the Bundjalung nation.

His family are descendants of the South Ballina tribe.

As a local school teacher from the Ballina area he has worked closely with the Aboriginal community for the past eight years.

‘I hold a great interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement and seek to create stronger communities through truth sharing and shared cultural experiences,’ says Eli.


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  1. “Access to a good quality education can ensure that an individual will be successful in life.”
    This is untrue. In a racist country like Australia this can’t be true.

  2. What a clever young man and a teacher to boot. His students are fortunate indeed. Often I see smart Aboriginal people appearing “half baked” because of insufficient education. Alway was and always will be the key to successful lives.


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