Tiwi College: A Case Study
Tiwi College is a unique Indigenous boarding school located at Pickataramoor, Melville Island, off the coast of the Northern Territory.
NEARLY 2400 INDIGENOUS BOARDERS ATTENDED 117 INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS IN 2016.
THE Independent sector is the major provider of boarding school education for Indigenous students in Australia, with almost 2400 Indigenous boarders attending 117 Independent schools in 2016.
Many of these Indigenous students comes from remote communities where primary level education is the only local schooling available, and leaving their communities for boarding school is the only option for secondary studies.
Tiwi College was formally opened in 2008. In 2010, the Tiwi Education Board comprised of senior men and women from all Tiwi communities – took full responsibility for the governance of the college.
Principal Ian Smith believes that his previous work on the islands and familiarity with the Tiwi culture was what landed him the job.
“They wanted someone who understood the people, understood the Tiwi way of going about things and who understood that Islander people have certain protocols which are very, very important,” Mr Smith said.
Tiwi College took a holistic approach to learning, and balanced weekly boarding with students returning home on the weekends.
“The kids would come in on a Monday morning and we’d take them out on a Friday afternoon; we’d balance that out with a lot of activity after school, homework tutorials and sessions,” Mr Smith said.
“It was quite an intense structure, but they had the balance of being with family and being able to go hunting and being on country on the weekends.”
Mr Smith said the students don’t have the same homesickness as those that travel to Darwin for boarding school because kids are on country.
“There are eight countries that comprise the Tiwi Islands that you inherit from your father, so if we’ve got students that don’t belong to the country the school is placed on they still feel that they are on the Tiwi Islands; that’s really really important to them,” he said.
Tiwi College approaches boarding holistically.
To facilitate independent living, Family Group Homes aimed to develop daily and weekly routines to provide clarity of purpose and improve the student’s home management knowledge and skills.
The group homes also taught meal planning and preparation, personal health care, and basic household budgeting.
“It’s really important to acknowledge that instead of boarding houses we have family group homes,” Mr Smith said.
“So that means there’s a married couple in each home displaying how to be a loving and caring family through the good and the bad.
“We’ve got a boys precinct and a girls precinct, with about 12 maximum in each family group home. They’re a home away from home and that’s what we pride ourselves on.”
The college placed equally high value on the life skills learnt in the Family Group Homes just as those learnt in their academic programs, aiming to balance the strengths of the Tiwi with the knowledge and skills required in a Western workforce.
The Association of Independent Schools in the Northern Territory executive director, Gail Barker said that every single community was an entity unto itself with many unique features.
“There are people in the community [Tiwi] that want their children to be at home with them, so boarding school is not the best option for them,” Ms Barker said.
“There are others who want their children at boarding school but closer than Darwin where they’d be away for ten weeks at a time, or if they’re down south up to twenty two weeks at a time.
They want something a bit closer and Tiwi College fits that group of people.”
The Association of Independent Schools in the Northern Territory associate director Cheryl Salter is an experienced Indigenous educator and is supportive of the Tiwi education board’s methods.
“The board is very pro-active, and its representative of all the different family groups on the island and the board is mainly made up of the Elders,” Ms Salter said.
“They’re the people who are listened to in the community; they come together and have board meetings, [then] go out and [are] pro-active in their communities in saying how important it is to educate kids.”
University of Canberra associate professor in Teacher Education Jessa Rogers is an expert in Indigenous education and believes that attendance happens when schools create a culture of family and support around students.
“Students want to attend schools they feel connected to, and that they feel excited about attending. Student-centred schools are those that build everything around the families and students they serve,” Professor Rogers said.
“A holistic and community centred approach with deep and continual home-school connection is the only approach I have seen to be truly successful for students as well as families.”
Tiwi College takes in to account the culture of the islands and the children’s different learning styles and aimed to provide a flexible and diverse curriculum that promoted the strengths of the Tiwi while encouraging rich exploration of new concepts.
The emphasis was on a team-based approach to learning, having developed and adopted a Tiwi based pedagogy to provide an effective and relevant approach to teaching and learning with strong links to students’ lives, land and community.
“A balance is needed,” Mr Smith said. “As a directive from the Tiwi Education Board, the students must learn literacy and numeracy daily, and they must have the skills and knowledge to make it in the Western world.
“At the same time, from an emotional perspective and a wellbeing perspective, you can’t lose your identity. So a culture program embedded in the curriculum in some form is vital.”
Teachers aimed to provide a teaching and learning style which is relevant to students’ interests, delivered in context, and which draws on Tiwi students’ strengths as visual, kinaesthetic and aural learners.
Professor Rogers is an advocate for embedding Indigenous culture in to subjects studied at school.
“Research shows that Indigenous students achieve better outcomes when Indigenous culture is woven through the curriculum in meaningful ways. This also allows the non-indigenous students to learn and develop a better understanding of Australia,” she said.
Ms Barker and Ms Salter agreed that culture needs to be embedded into the curriculum.
“All education needs to look at who you are working with and needs to be flexible to meet the needs of that school community,” Ms Barker said.
“It’s also empowering the community too,” said Ms Salter.
“You’re also empowering the people working in the schools because it’s showing a sign of respect for their culture and also showing respect for them [personally] and puts them on equal footing.”
Student’s results at Tiwi College were openly explained to students and the wider community via ongoing teacher-student feedback, reports to parents, and reporting to Tiwi Education Board members.
The college aimed to develop students both academically and personally with the capabilities necessary to be both work ready and contributing citizens to their Tiwi communities and Australian society.
There were many cultural and community considerations in the education of Indigenous students and many students who had to move large distances from their homes faced a variety of cultural challenges.
“Besides the issues of being away from home and community, Indigenous students often face cultural issues when being moved to predominantly non-indigenous boarding schools in large cities, where teachers also report feeling underprepared to teach Indigenous students and content,” Professor Rogers said.
“This leads to a push and pull of complicated and often challenging situations within boarding schools, as well as between school and home.
“Often school expectations are not made clear to Indigenous families, especially around how often children can return home for cultural business, for example.”
Principals and teachers need to work in close consultation with Indigenous families to ensure cultural traditions and heritage are respected and Indigenous culture was embedded in to mainstream subjects to help build a bridge between Indigenous culture and Western concepts.
Tiwi College ran a thorough induction program for new teachers, particularly those not of an Indigenous background.
“We go through a lot of information about the Tiwi Islands, the geography and the seasons and then the culture, Tiwi protocols and language and that forms the foundation of how we structure Tiwi College and why we have certain arrangements, because it’s all based around the Tiwi identity,” Mr Smith said.
“As the induction unfolds we get more and more specific to the school, but it has a broad sweeping foundation of, this is where you are, this is what you’re about to expect, and witness and experience and this is why we do these certain things here.”
Mr Smith believed that the model of education at Tiwi College could be successfully replicated in other remote ares in certain cases.
“It all depends on the arrangements. We’re in the islands so the geography is relatively small. If you’ve got say, a group of communities in desert country or on the mainland and they’re reasonably close together then a strategically placed boarding school based on the approval of community members, that’s relatively and politically central to those communities would work,” he said.
“Here on the Tiwi Islands it has worked and I suspect top end/salt water country it would as well.”