The Aboriginal Literacy Foundation undertook the support and mentoring of an initial group of 220 students in mid-2015. Although the program is based in regional New South Wales (Goulbourn) the administration and much of the tutoring took place in Sydney. We were fortunate to have access to classrooms provided by the University of New South Wales and also our own office space at Redfern.
Our modus operandi for selection was to follow the directives of the former ATAS program (the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme). Whilst this government program no longer functions – having been a victim of earlier cost cutting in 2009/10 – the selection process based on schools and aboriginal cooperatives is still in existence and works quite well.
Students who are selected for the program tend to be in the lowest percentile in their group and are typically five reading years (Schonnell scale) behind their peers at school. So a Year 7 student aged 12 or 13 years chronologically would have a reading age of an 8 year old who would be typically in Year 3 or 4. One of the main reasons why indigenous students drop out of secondary school early is that they cannot keep up with the reading programs and assignments.
The other group of students from both primary and secondary are young indigenous people who have stopped going to school. In metropolitan areas this tends to be for social reasons (family disunity, bullying, etc.) In the rural areas, for which we have most interest in this program, the usual reason is difficulty in getting to school through distance or cost of petrol or the intrusion of traditional aboriginal cultural requirements. (A funeral many hundreds of kilometres away might result in a student being away for a month or more. Coming of age ceremonies can cause a similar disruption.)
Long experience of tutoring indigenous students has taught us the value of small groups or one on one tutoring. Securing experienced aboriginal tutors, those with ATAS registration or similar is particularly difficult.
Many of our tutors in rural areas have to travel many kilometres, often from the city. We are also extremely wary of recent publicity concerning tutoring and paedophilia activities in aboriginal groups, therefore all our tutors are required to have police checks and working with children certification.
An important part of teaching literacy to slightly older indigenous students (late primary and secondary) is to have good mentoring. This can also extend into life skills and health. We prefer to use indigenous young adults as mentors. Our mentors have mostly been recruited from successful TAFE and uni students who volunteer. We often find that in the local aboriginal community the mentor or some member of his family is known to the student being tutored. This is a great advantage and helps the student become motivated to want to learn to read.
The Aboriginal Literacy Foundation is very grateful for the support from the James N. Kirby Foundation, and will be seeking to continue the program in future years. Individualised tutoring and mentoring is not offered in schools or in any other venue and it is the key to successful reading and writing and a good future for many young indigenous Australians.
Anthony Cree OAM