Stumbling Block for school plan
Author: Joel Gibson
Date: 6th March 2007
Source: Sydney Morning Herald

A plan by St Andrew's Cathedral School to set up a campus for indigenous children in Redfern has exposed divisions in the community, writes Joel Gibson It is lunchtime on a Wednesday and Ethan, 5, and Toovanahoo, 10, are at home in Woolloomooloo, eating hot chips. Schoolbooks are scattered throughout their cosy public housing living room. Jesus hangs crucified on one wall, cradled by the Madonna on another. Are they looking forward to starting at their new school?

"Sort of," says Toovanahoo, between chips. "You get to wear uniforms."

"And you can make jokes," Ethan adds.

"Knock-knock jokes," Toovanahoo says.

For now, the brothers are being schooled at home, as their three older brothers were when they grew up on the Block, in Redfern's black ghetto. They were supposed to start this term with five other children at Gawura, a small school tailor-made for indigenous students by the St Andrew's Cathedral School. But after 12 months, 12 site inspections and a political stoush with some of Redfern's most vocal community groups, who variously saw it as divisive, missionary and exclusive, Gawura remains a school without a campus.

The headmaster of St Andrew's, Phillip Heath, had the notion of an Anglican World Vision-style school in the Redfern-Waterloo area, where 20 to 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and two or three teachers are sponsored by donors.

The need is acute. By the time indigenous children in NSW reach year 7, their benchmark numeracy rates are 30 per cent below the state average, according to the National Report on Schooling in Australia 2005. Reading and writing rates are 17 and 19 per cent lower, respectively. So Heath put together a taskforce of community members including Ray Minniecon, pastor of Crossroads Aboriginal Ministries, and Ethan and Toovanahoo's mother, Faith Landy-Ariel. She says other attempts have f ailed to solve the "truancy rates and behavioural problems" of indigenous children, but she believes this method will work.

"They're going to 'own the school'. They love being with their own people. Knowing that they are going to go to school with kids from their own community is great," she says. But Gawura has inadvertently become a political football in Redfern, where some see it as a blessing and others as a curse.

In January, St Andrew's met vocal opposition when it proposed to open the small school at the Redfern Community Centre on the Block. Nine out of 13 submissions to the City of Sydney Council objected to the development application. One was from the Aboriginal Housing Company chief executive, Mick Mundine, who says having the school next to the Block would segregate indigenous children from the main school, when students at St Andrew's could learn from having them at the main campus. It is akin to setting up "another black school", he says. The Redfern Residents for Reconciliation group also objected, saying it was inappropriate for a church school to occupy space in a public community centre, and that Gawura's small size and selection criteria would make it exclusive and divisive. They urged St Andrew's to give scholarships to the school's main campus in the city instead.

Geoff Turnbull, the convener of the community group Redwatch, says many Redfern families also had negative memories of their experience on religious missions. "There's a lot of anti-private school feeling ... It opens up a whole pile of baggage." Heath says the taskforce had been naive. "There's an ecumenical question as well as an assumption that we're do-gooders and new kids on the block and why are we any better than the people who've been working here for years?" But the taskforce is content to be tested and determined to pass, he says. "We're pretty committed to this and it's fair that we should be brushed aside by some sectors to see if we're serious. We are serious."

Landry-Ariel says: "It wasn't the community, it was the activists ... the same old people who come to every meeting and say the same old thing because they don't want to watch TV that night. " Some are not Aboriginal, while others had judged the plan without knowing the details, she says. Cathy Miskovich, Gawura's foundation principal and a former teacher in Moree and Walgett, says taskforce members have spoken to some of the critics since.

"People who aren't going to be involved with the school, I'll listen to them and get opposing views. But as far as I'm concerned, it's the parents who've said they want in that I'm most interested in listening to."

To formulate the St Andrew's model, Miskovich has doorknocked in the Redfern area, looked at private schools that offer indigenous scholarships and Aboriginal schools in Kempsey, in Victoria and in South Australia, and spoken to parents. Noel Pearson, the Cape York indigenous leader, has expressed his support and lent his advice. Now, with "seed funding" from a handful of former St Andrew's parents and with seven children ready to begin, the school will execute plan B. If all goes to plan, on April 23 the children will begin lessons in a "school-within-a-school" at the Town Hall Square campus of St Andrew's.

On the ninth floor of St Andrew's House, work has begun to accommodate the children from the Block and its surrounds in a purpose-built classroom. For half of each school day they will study intensive literacy and numeracy, an Aboriginal language and "social sciences from an indigenous perspective". For the other half, they will be integrated with the school's mainstream sport, music and religious activities. They will wear the St Andrew's uniform - Heath says the parents wanted it that way - but pay fees of $250 a term, compared with the $10,000-plus a year paid by full-fee students. "We were faced with the decision of whether to keep going or hold back and we've decided that we will keep going," Heath says. In the meantime, St Andrew's continues to look for a middle ground with Redfern's community groups.

Landy-Ariel's mother, Gloria Mackintosh Bon, was born on Murray Island in Torres Strait. She says Gawura will eventually bring the splintered indigenous people of Sydney closer together.

"There were eight tribes on Murray Island, all in their different parts of the island," Bon says. "When the missionaries first got there, they brought everyone to the front of the island so people could go to church and school together. That's what we're talking about.".