Koori History Newspaper Archive

Voices of dissent

- February 26th, 2009
Author: Paul Toohey

THEY were the most celebrated teachers in the Northern Territory. In 2003, at the Kalkaringi Community Education Centre, a bush school on what was once known as Wave Hill station, husband and wife teachers George and Robyn Hewitson put the first remote area indigenous students - three of them - through year 12. They put another three through in 2005.

The six received only basic certificate passes but it was big news. In 2007, the Hewitsons were asked to take on the NT's biggest remote area school, the bilingual, government-run Shepherdson College at Elcho Island's Galiwinku community in Arnhem Land.

Now the Hewitsons are on the scrap heap, having paid the price, they say, for challenging local Aborigines, the NT Department of Education and Training, and the bilingual system, which treats English as a second language. "I think they think English is evil," George Hewitson says. "The notion is promoted that if you learn English, you lose your culture."

They uncovered what they believe to be fraud, with 700 students enrolled and supposedly attending Shepherdson but, at best, just 220 turning up each year. The Hewitsons, as Shepherdson's principal and assistant principal, believe attendance figures were distorted to maintain high numbers of teachers and to attract better funding.

Indigenous school attendance is a national issue, with Australian of the Year Mick Dodson last week demanding full schoolrooms within 10 months.

Cape York's Noel Pearson has gone further, insisting governments and parents be held accountable should this not happen. Pearson argues the literacy and numeracy gap must be closed within 10 years.

As this happens, the Hewitsons - who were already putting these views into practice - are suing the NT Government for breach of contract, loss and damage to reputation after they were booted off Elcho. They claim the department refused to back them in the job they were employed to do: to get better results for students.

The Hewitsons believe they uncovered more than the NT Government could handle: 70 per cent of students from years 7 to 12 could not read beyond early year levels; 50 per cent of years 7 to 12 students could not recognise letters from the alphabet; and of 45 students from years 7 to 10 who sat an equivalent year7 writing test, only four could write more than one sentence.

They say students had a developed a bluff mechanism - or possibly a pride-saving technique - of pretending they could write, but would hand in unintelligible scrawl. They claim children with no literacy were being scored bare minimum 10 out of 20 passes for tests that should have been failed. "The attitude was that it was better to lie and for people to think you were doing well than to tell the truth," George Hewitson says.

At Shepherdson, the Hewitsons say, the opposition to English from teachers and the community was entrenched.

"I proposed that there should be an indigenous literacy test, to prove to me that bilingual was working," George Hewitson says. "Our bilingual teachers had a fit about this. They would argue that you learn your own language and at about grade 5 you swap over, and then English becomes really easy. It's crap."

Although he is not involved in running the school, Elcho elder Djiniyini Gondarra strongly disagrees with this thinking. He says the Hewitsons presented them with an example of their "product", an Aboriginal boy whom they'd taken on to university.

"They were convinced that this is the way education works," Gondarra says. "They wanted us to stop speaking our mother tongue and act like a white man. You cannot expect everyone will be like that. They stopped bilingual education, they would not allow it. He was a hard man to talk to and convince. His understanding is that you can shape a Yolngu person and the only way is to teachEnglish.

"I don't tell myself to stop speaking my own mother or father tongue. When I was growing up, I was hungry for education and I wanted to learn. I knew English could open up a world for me. But for me to understand English, I had to go back to my own language, to really understand the intellectual language." And this, at its heart, is the bilingual argument.

There were 36 teachers at Shepherdson - about the right number for a 700-student school - but with only 200 children, the Hewitsons raised concerns that it was overstaffed. They were seen as a razor gang.

The Hewitsons say that when they arrived in 2001 from South Australia, the education department told them to treat Kalkaringi as a primary school, even though it could take students through high school.

"We found there was no expectation from the department to get kids past year 9," Robyn Hewitson says.

"The government's view was that they were different kids in a different context. No one was even trying. I met a girl at the school called Rosie. She said she was 20. She said she'd been in year 9 for eight years. She just kept going over and over." Rosie was the granddaughter of Vincent Lingiari, leader of the Wave Hill walk-off.

"These people had fought for equal rights and equal pay, so they found it very easy to grasp the concept of equal education," Robyn Hewitson says. "We took the view that we should see it as just an ordinary, everyday school, and apply normal beliefs and values. There was no problem in physically doing it, but it was breaking NT government policy."

They put their own son through year 12 at Kalkaringi, which the community saw as talking the talk. For the Aboriginal Kalkaringi students who completed year 12, there would be long days and weekend sessions. The Hewitsons would later be accused of hot-housing these kids to get their results. But they say they were not hung up on getting the students through year 12.

"It is about developing graduate qualities, such as resilience, independence, self-confidence, critical thinking, problem solving," Robyn Hewitson says. "What is the point of passing if you do nothing with your life? You will have the most graduated welfare recipients in the world."

The Hewitsons felt they were breaking through when their once painfully shy year 12 students were standing up and asking direct questions. For some of the year 12 Kalkaringi graduates, the tertiary experience has not proved a happy one. But the prevailing view that remote Aboriginal kids could at best hope for primary grades had been challenged. In December 2005, the NT government announced the inaugural George and Robyn Hewitson Top Remote year 12 Graduate Award. The couple was on a roll, but that all changed on Elcho Island.

According to George Hewitson, the Elcho boys told him they were desperate to shake off their illiteracy.

He says they feared off-island excursions because they couldn't read street signs. It confounded the Hewitsons that some Aboriginal parents, taught by missionaries and literate in English, saw little value in their children learning the language.

George Hewitson says Shepherdson is in the grip of certain teachers, black and white, who have adopted a view that the proper approach, nowadays, is to support Aboriginal languages ahead of English. This is partly borne of guilty knowledge that old-time missionaries frowned on Aboriginal languages and, in some places, extinguished them. However, in most (but not all) locations in Arnhem Land, languages were never killed off, nor warped into pidgin. They have survived. The Hewitsons think it's simple: children should speak their own language at home and learn English at school.

Elcho Aborigines are fighting what they see as language imperialism. Complaints about the Hewitsons led to an education department audit of the school in July last year. The Hewitsons felt it was an audit of them.

"I was accused of lowering the Christian ethos of the school, even though we are not a Christian school," George Hewitson says. "The community was unhappy with morale, the Christian staff were unhappy."

He went to see the department. "They started talking about trauma and offering us counselling. We were told we'd get paid leave, but that we could relinquish our positions. They said if we accepted the (new) positions the draft audit report would remain in a restricted file. We considered that to be somewhere between a threat and blackmail."

By September, 13 members of the school council had written a petition to the department saying they didn't want the Hewitsons, now off the island, to come back. George Hewitson went from being one of the equal highest paid principals in the NT - earning almost $160,000 - to being offered a job as a truancy officer in the town camps of Darwin. Robyn Hewitson, a secondary teacher, was offered a primary school position in Darwin.

"We have been betrayed because the Government is frightened of Yolngu people and they don't really want to close the gap," George Hewitson says. "I think they didn't want to take on some influential Aboriginal people in the community, which is gutless."

Bilingual education has existed in the bush for 30 years. It is under heavy attack. Gondarra thinks it's all white noise.

"English is Japanese to us," he says. "To understand it, we go back to our language. We cannot ignore our own language. It's our foundation. That couple don't want to do that. They saw bilingual as taking up time, stopping mainstream education. There's no problem with learning English. But don't tell us it's the only way to learn the world.

"Why is Japan a leading nation? Did they learn English? Or did they learn English on their own terms? If the Japanese want to speak to the Australian Government, do their businessmen speak English? I don't think so. They take an interpreter. I'm saying that English is an extra language we can learn. It's not a super language."

Gondarra says Aboriginal children don't think in English. "They think in their own terminologies. When I was educated, I didn't tell myself I would get rid of my Yolngu Matha. That was my education. With English, I sit with my teacher and ask questions. When I was at home, I didn't ask questions. I listened and I stored.

"There is a balanced way of education. I run my own business. How did I learn? I learned because my forefathers traded with the Macassans, not with the English. A lot of the words that I need to understand, I find them in my own language. The word rakuny, for example; it means mortgage. We were speaking our language before the invasion. We had language, tribes, law, everything.

"English is an invaded language. It's not only an invaded language, it is itself a pidgin, made up of many languages. It's not pure. That's what I believe."

Because the matter is before the court, the NT Government will not comment.

One teacher who worked with the Hewitsons at Shepherdson, a government employee who can't be named, says: "Robyn wears the pants." It is certainly true that Robyn Hewitson is an intense woman who demands a lot from her students but, especially, herteachers.

There is a view, as well, among some teachers, that the Hewitsons' year 12 Kalkaringi results were a beat-up, created to provide some relief to the NT's besieged education department, which has long stood accused of failing indigenous students.

Another says: "The Kalkaringi results were real. But there have been year 12 certificate presentations in other indigenous communities since then where the graduates were neither literate nor numerate. Robyn's sent teachers packing. But they had genuine interest in achievements. The Hewitsons are flawed because they don't maintain bridges with their stakeholders.

"The truth lies somewhere between."