I want to tell you a story. A grim story, but a true one. In 1999 former senator Bob Collins was asked by the then Northern Territory government to prepare a report on Aboriginal secondary education in the Northern Territory. Among other things he found that there were more than 5000 Aboriginal secondary school aged kids who did not have access to a school! Put that situation into Melbourne or Sydney and you'll see how serious it is. 5000 kids without a school to go to! There would be an uproar. Questions would be asked in Parliament. Governments would fall.
But nothing happened in the Northern Territory! In fact, the situation is more difficult now than it was then! But a man named Andrew W., who was employed at Mararra Christian school in Darwin, read it and became angry. Angry that such an injustice was being perpetrated in our country, and nothing was being done about it.
He brought this to the attention of the Northern Territory Christian Schools Association (NTCSA) board and they reckoned that if they were to bear the name of Christ they had to do something! They reckoned they could not bear the name of Christ and let this disaster go without doing something to help.
So what did the NTCSA board do? Well they rented a house in Darwin and brought in 14 aboriginal kids. The house parents they employed, Brian and Sandra H, taught them every thing, from scratch. All the normal things for operating in a society that we see as a matter of course. From simple hygiene to being able to work through problems without resorting to violence. Domestic skills – cooking, cleaning, making beds, cleaning rooms – you know, the things that parents do every day. The normal tasks of preparing children to live and operate in our society.
Of course they went further and trained the kids in the normal school curriculum areas like reading and writing and mathematics and all the other stuff that you need to know to effectively participate in our society. And then they worked with different businesses to find them jobs, to let them develop their independence. And then they went out and found them jobs.
It didn't take long, of course, for other parents of Aboriginal kids to want to have this for their kids. And it didn't take long for this house to get too small for the job. Within twelve months, one year, they had 9 houses in Darwin. And still there wasn't enough. Aboriginal parents are like all parents and want the best for their kids.
To cut a long story short, after a couple of years Woolaning Homelands Christian College was born in Litchfield National Park about 50 or 60 kms south of Darwin. Then came Gawa Christian School on Elcho Island, And a Christian school at Nhulunbhuy. And a new one in a homeland about 130 kilometres west of Nhulunbhuy. And, of course, Tiwi College. And still they are flooded with requests.
5000 kids needing schooling. And they are doing something! Talk about a needs based outreach. Talk about responding with compassion.
I want to tell you about that. Now, in the Northern Territory, the situation is more difficult than it was in 1999 when Bob Collins wrote his report. There are even more kids without schools to go to. Governments are still not able to respond properly.
How did Tiwi College come about? What was it that made things happen? Well, the Tiwi Land Council on the Tiwi Islands 80 kilometres north of Darwin realised that the Tiwi nation was in dire straits. The literacy of the previous generation, that they had learned at the mission, was declining rapidly, with most of the younger generation being functionally illiterate. Drug and alcohol abuse was rampant. Pornography and its accompanying abuse was a problem. In their own words 'we have lost a generation'.
What do they mean? They mean that they have lost a complete generation of their people to drugs, alcohol, pornography with its accompanying child sex abuse, and suicide. They are desperately trying to save the next generation after that – their grandchildren – from the same fate. Jesus raised people from the dead. The Tiwi Land Council is trying to save a generation from the dead. Listen to this stuff: From a population of 2500 they have lost 100 people to suicide in 20 years.
Welfare is killing us! Welfare money – well-fare, for the well being of the people - is killing them. It is money for doing nothing, and that is not a healthy thing for any society. And when it happens across a whole society, like it does for the Tiwi nation, it is killing them, and the traditional elders recognised it, and decided to try to do something about it. Aboriginal culture today is afflicted by drugs, alcohol, pornography, and suicide. The Land Council, comprising of the traditional elders, knew they had to do something.
Some of their elders visited Woolaning Homelands Christian College in Litchfield National Park, and afterward they approached the NTCSA and asked them to do something similar on the Tiwi Islands.
So now Tiwi College has been built. And again there is hope in the islands. The people are so keen for their kids to be enrolled that they seek out the enrolment officers. The school started operations in February 2008 – but the place wasn't finished. They wanted to start with 48 kids. But finished or not, school started in February 2008!
But its tough. Taking secondary school aged kids who have effectively no ability to read and write, and who have had it tough at home ever since they were born, and trying to teach them how to live in modern western society is a tough job. Getting the right staff, who are prepared to live in an isolated environment at Pickertaramoor on Melville Island is a challenge. Keeping them there and keeping the morale up is hard. But the need is desperate, and there are people who come. Who give of their lives for the sake of the Tiwi kids, and the Tiwi nation.
Tiwi College is set up as a skills based College, with the emphasis on developing work skills and habits, in a Christian context. The idea is that eventually the graduates of Tiwi College would be able to operate properly and effectively in Western culture, and thereby be able to make an effective contribution to the world around them.
One of the very notable things about Tiwi College is that the whole project is driven by the Tiwi Land Council and the Tiwi Education Board. It is the work of the Tiwi people themselves, and Tiwi College belongs to them. The NTCSA is contracted to run the College for a time, but it is owned by the Tiwi people. They asked the NTCSA to help them, but the project is driven and owned by the local people themselves.
This story of Tiwi College, which reflects the story of so many Aboriginal communities around the the Northern Territory and the rest of Australia, moves me. The Tiwi people have been able to do something about their impossible situation, and now there is hope in the islands. Other communities also have had the opportunity to do something about their situation. But there are very many that have not, and still have to face the despair of their children growing up without the education that will give them a chance to operate effectively in the western society that surrounds them.
That despair is real, and it is reflected in the statistics of the communities themselves. There are appalling rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, child abuse, and so on. This has been recognised at every level of government, and yet there is little that is done about it. We have had an intervention by the Australian government, which has, no doubt, had its benefits. But it is a short term response to a long term problem. Tiwi College is a long term response to a long term problem. It will be very interesting to see how it fares and what long term effects that it has.
Which leaves just one more detail to add. Andrew W mentioned to me that the NTCSA is part of a group of Parent Controlled Christian Schools that operate around Australia. He said that the Parent Controlled Christian Schools movement was brought to Australia 60 years ago by a post war movement of Dutch migrants who not only brought their faith in Jesus Christ with them; they also brought a vision for Parent Controlled Christian Schools with them. Migrant parents wanted their children to have a truly Christian education in their adopted land. It moves me to tears to see that vision picked up sixty years later by Aboriginal parents who are desperate for their children to have that same hope also.
The greatest need felt by the NTCSA at present is for suitable staff, for people able to commit to working in remote communities in difficult circumstances, in what one person described as 'the toughest gig in Australian education!' But like all tough gigs, the rewards are great. Their contact details can be found here: NTCSA
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