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Access, equality and opportunity? The education of Aboriginal children in Western Australia 1840-1978

Green, Neville, J. (2004) Access, equality and opportunity? The education of Aboriginal children in Western Australia 1840-1978. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis is a history of schooling for Indigenous children in Western Australia between the commencement of the first Aboriginal school in Perth in 1840 and 1978. The thesis represents the view that, for most of this period, and regardless of policy, education for Indigenous children was directed towards changing their beliefs and behaviours from being distinctly Aboriginal to recognizably European. Four major policies for Aborigines provide the framework for the thesis, these being amalgamation (1840-1852), protection (1886-1951), assimilation (1951-1972) and self-determination (1973-).

The amalgamation of the Indigenous population with the small colonial society in Western Australia was a short-lived policy adopted by the British Colonial Office. Protection, a policy formalised by Western Australian legislation in 1886, 1905 and 1936, dominated Aboriginal affairs for the first half of the 20th century. Under this policy the Indigenous population was regarded as two distinct groups - a diminishing traditional population to be segregated and protected and an increasing part-Aboriginal population that was to be trained and made ‘useful’. In 1951 Western Australia accepted a policy of assimilation, coordinated by the Commonwealth government, which anticipated that all people of Aboriginal descent would eventually be assimilated into the mainstream Australian society. This policy was replaced in 1973 by one of Aboriginal community self-determination, an initiative of the Commonwealth government and adopted throughout Australia.

The attempts at directed cultural change were evident in the ‘Native’ schools that opened in Perth, Fremantle and Guildford in the 1840s where it was assumed that the separation of children from their families and a Christian education would achieve the transition from a ‘savage to civilized’ state. For another century the education of Indigenous children on missions and in government settlements was founded upon similar assumptions. The thesis acknowledges that the principal change agents, such as the Chief Protectors of Aborigines, mission administrators and the teachers in direct contact with the children, seriously underestimated both the enduring nature of Indigenous culture and the prejudice in Australian society.

Between 1912 and 1941 a few government schools in the southern districts of Western Australia refused to admit Aboriginal children. The exclusion of these children is examined against a background of impoverished living conditions, restrictive legislation and mounting public pressure on the State and Commonwealth governments for a change in policy. The change did not begin to occur until 1951 when the Commonwealth and States agreed to a policy of assimilation. In Western Australia this policy extended education to all Aboriginal children. The thesis explores the provision of government teachers to Aboriginal schools in remote areas of Western Australia between 1951 and 1978. The final chapter examines Indigenous perceptions of independent community schools within the first five years of the policy of self-determination and contrasts the objectives and management of two schools, Strelley in the Pilbara and Oombulgurri in the Kimberley.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Arts
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Currie, Jan and Smart, Don
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