Indigenous students from bilingual school in Arnhem Land first in community to qualify for university

Lorena Allam
·3-min read

A handful of Yolngu students from Yirrkala bilingual school in north-east Arnhem Land have become the first in their community to graduate year 12 with an Atar that should see them go on to university.

Eight students finished year 12 and four of them received an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (Atar). They’ve applied to study a range of courses including medicine, teaching and arts.

Yirrkala school’s bilingual program and “both ways” approach uses students’ strengths in their own Yolngu language and cultural identity as a way of accessing the mainstream curriculum.

In 2020, students could undertake study in their first language for the first time. Students also worked with the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre to produce works inspired by their traditional clan designs, which are now being sold commercially, and were mentored by elders in the learning on country program.

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The “both ways” approach to teaching and learning is the most effective way of educating kids from remote communities to walk in two worlds, teachers at Yirrkala school say.

“Bilingual ‘both ways’ schools are a vitally important part of closing the gap in educational attainment for Yolngu people – but it is more than that,” the Yolngu co-principal and director of Yolngu studies, Merrki Ganambarr-Stubbs, said.

“The existence of bilingual schools shows us that the education system respects our language and values our culture.”

The 2020 graduation is the culmination of a four-year plan with intensive support given to the students since early in year 9. The students had a graduation ceremony last week and were painted in traditional clan patterns and danced in by their families.

“I am feeling happy to have completed my year 12 studies and get the opportunity to go to university and study to be a doctor and explore different options for my future,” the dux of the school, Kenisha Winunguj, said.

Dhawuthawu Mununggurr hopes to become a remote area teacher “and teach my own culture and my own language in the future”. Kaya Mununggurr is planning a career as an artist and printmaker.

“It has been really difficult at times but our amazing teachers pushed us along through the whole journey,” Munungurr said. “It was amazing learning and experiencing both ways in our bilingual school. We are feeling so proud of ourselves for being able to complete year 12. We are looking forward to our future.”

Remote senior secondary programs have limited resources compared with larger urban schools, balanda (non-Indigenous) co-principal Katrina Hudson said. Having eight students in one school graduate was a major achievement that involved the whole community.

In 2019, the board of studies reported that just 13 students from remote schools across the whole Northern Territory completed year 12 and only seven did so through their local school. The other eight were enrolled in distance education.

“Yolngu and balanda teachers work with community elders and people with specialist skills to develop and deliver the program, often through intensive, focused workshops,” Hudson said.

Djalinda Yunupingu mentored the graduating students for the past four years.

“We are all so proud of these young people and what they have achieved,” Yunupingu said. “But this is just the start. We elders who have been on this journey know how important it is for their education to continue on strongly from here.”

Teaching Yolngu young people in their own language makes it easier for them to understand deep ideas and can only be done by local Yolngu teachers like herself, Vanessa Marika said. “We are very excited that two of our Atar graduates will be starting their bachelor of education soon because they are the future of bilingual education.”