WA school Beeliar Primary leads the way in embracing Indigenous culture

For Kaye Thorne’s class of pre-primary and kindergarten students, Noongar language lessons are the highlight of the week.

“They say: ‘We’re going to Noongar!’

“They have been so enthralled by what they have learned, the students have independently returned to class and begun a scrapbook with Noongar words and pictures to keep in our class library, to show our kindergarten classmates.”

The students are some of the youngest in a whole-of-school Aboriginal language and culture program adopted by Beeliar Primary School in Perth’s southern suburbs.

The school is one of many in Western Australia to have embraced First Nations culture under the guidance of the WA Education Department, where Noongar man Kevin O’Keefe is principal adviser for Aboriginal education teaching and learning.

He has drawn upon several decades of experience to assist schools in integrating Indigenous language and culture into education from kindergarten to year 12.

Developing cultural awareness

“This is a country that has 60,000 years of culture… all Australians should be proud of that,” Mr O’Keefe said.

Headshot of a First Nations man in a light blue shirt with dark blue suit jacket and yellow tie
Noongar man Kevin O’Keefe is the WA Department of Education’s principal adviser for Aboriginal education teaching and learning.(Western Australian Department of Education )

“There is an increasing expectation across Australia that we embrace Aboriginal language and culture, develop our respect and understanding.”

The department has developed the Aboriginal cultural standards framework through consultation in 2016 and Mr Smith said it has been the basis of the approach to Indigenous education over the past five years.

He said a review of the Australian curriculum showed there needed to be much greater visibility in the curriculum of Aboriginal history, culture, and language.

He also said more needed to be done to ensure that all teachers knew more about First Nations culture and could share it with their students.

“There’s work going on, to not only ensure that there’s a greater focus on languages, but also ensuring that right across the curriculum in history, and science and art, the indigenous experience is presented.”

Mr O’Keefe said programs included providing kids with the chance to go “on country” to learn from elders.

“The Aboriginal community is very excited about it, because a lot of the concerns that they’ve had about their kids not doing well at school is that they simply haven’t been engaged in what they’re being taught because it doesn’t relate. to their own life and experience.

“What we’re finding is, even with those aspects of Australian history, which are very challenging, the stories of the massacres, and so on, what we’re finding is an incredible thirst for greater knowledge by students.

A schoolgirl draws on a large exercise pad while sitting outside
Beeliar Primary School student Holly has used Noongar words to create graffiti-style graphics.(Supplied by Beeliar Primary School)

Teaching the teachers

While the initiatives are being embraced, Mr O’Keefe said the challenge for schools was that teachers were generally no more knowledgeable about Aboriginal language and culture than the wider community.

At Beeliar Primary, principal Daniel Mort and teachers including Marie Lynden and Kailee Maree have been taking a “holistic approach” to teaching with the hope of intertwining Indigenous language and culture into the school’s.

Students have started with learning basic words, before progressing to forming sentences using picture books.

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