This website is no longer being updated but remains for the convenience of users and as a matter of record

  What Works - The Work Program

Icon Note

The Middle Years: Courallie High School, Moree

Indigenous adults in the school

The context | The issues | Ideas for change | An interview with an Aboriginal support worker | Next steps | The outcomes


The context

couralie school

Moree is in the north-west of NSW in one the richest agricultural regions in Australia. Irrigated cotton and wheat bring in many millions of dollars annually, but there is significant disparity in wealth in the town of 10,000 people. The Aboriginal nation of the area is Kamilaroi (Gamilaroi).

Factors affecting the Aboriginal community today include unemployment, welfare dependency and alcohol and drug issues, with their related social costs. However, a successful Aboriginal Employment Strategy has begun in the cotton industry and sections of the community are employed in agriculture and related industry and government enterprises.

Courallie High School was established in the early 1970s because of population pressures at the (then) single secondary school in Moree.

In the 1980s, the student population approached 600 but today there are 212 students. Figures show, however, that the Aboriginal population of the school has remained relatively static (100-125).


The issues

Historically, Courallie has faced a number of issues, some of which continue to the present day.

  • Attendance and retention: Attendance figures for Aboriginal students are significantly worse than for non-Aboriginal students. A group of Aboriginal students regularly has 20 or more absences per term and even some who appear to be having positive experiences at school are regularly not present. Read on...
  • Suspensions: There have been close to 200 suspensions at Courallie each year for the past five years. Analysis of the data indicates that Terms 1 and 4 are the worst times of the year and that, on average, around 80% of the suspensions are of Aboriginal students. Read on...
  • Literacy and Numeracy Skills: Both internal and external data show that literacy and numeracy skill levels are low. A number of outside factors affect these statistics but it is clear that poor literacy and numeracy skills in Years 7 and 8 cause significant problems for students in their schooling. Read on...


Ideas for change

First steps

Former Principal, Ron Sweaney

Ron Sweaney

In 1997, then Principal Ron Sweaney applied for a VEGAS grant to employ two Aboriginal tutors to work in a withdrawal program to pre-teach selected students the following week's work. It was thought that the students would already have a grasp of the concepts when back in the classroom, so they would be more confident, more successful and less disruptive. In general, this proved to be the case and suspension and referral rates dropped by 30-50%.

Moving on

When IESIP SRPs became available in 1998, Ron and his Deputy, Steve Harvey, decided to build on the initial success by combining a program which employed Aboriginal tutors with an in-class support worker program.

Years 7 and 8 were targeted, for both in-class and withdrawal support and the program was to last 12 months. The general aim was to improve student outcomes in all areas through increasing the number of Aboriginal support workers in the school and making the Aboriginal presence in the school and class much more visible. Ron and Steve believed that, if students saw a significant number of Aboriginal adults in the school (valuing education, encouraging positive performance and working alongside teachers), then improvement would result. The Aboriginal community supported the idea, both in theory and in practical terms, making people available to fill the support worker positions.


Preparation and training


From left: Aboriginal Tutor Bruce Carr, School-Community worker, Nolene Carr and Steve Harvey

The initial vision for the project was that the support workers would be most effective if they were enthusiastic, positive and had a degree of confidence in their roles. They were to be seen as part of the school staff, both socially and professionally.

To help build their confidence and skills, and with an eye on future work prospects after the end of the project, a component of training was to be provided. So a specially designed five-day TAFE course, based around the Key Competencies, was designed. As well, the course was to deal with Department of Education guidelines, issues of child protection and practical concerns about working in a school, such as confidentiality and who to talk to.

News of the support worker positions spread by word of mouth in the Aboriginal community and there were 15 applicants, all of whom were given access to the training. Nine people finished the course and all were able to be employed because some wanted only part time work.


Support workers in the school


Each of the four in-class workers was to be allocated to a particular class for a four-week period and would follow the class through all lessons. At the end of the four weeks there would be a review of progress and the worker would move to another class to avoid personality conflicts or favouritisms developing. The two withdrawal tutors were seen as separate positions and would work closely with a casual teacher employed to provide the tutoring program.

As the project developed, several workers moved on as they gained more suitable or permanent employment or because of personal circumstances. At each leaving the whole staff had a traditional farewell morning tea to thank the workers for their efforts. Fortunately, through word of mouth and other connections, other members of the Aboriginal community were able to fill the vacancies. These new people adapted well to the roles and fitted in with the team approach.

As time progressed, the withdrawal tutoring program became less successful due mainly to student resistance (being 'singled out') and the positions were filtered into the in-class support role. This enabled more classes to be targeted with both teachers and students keen to get workers into their classes.

Student reaction was positive.

They told the class to keep up the good work and made us feel good by saying that.

They help us work together and sort out our own problems.

They settle people down when they are angry or upset.

They made me realise I can do the work by myself.

They helped me fix up my mistakes.

And a typical teacher reaction was that the support workers were

...invaluable in class... worked well with students... have taken the initiative on many occasions... excellent role models.


An interview with an Aboriginal support worker


Nolene Carr comes from Moree and attended Courallie as a student. Later, she was one of the original tutors in the 1997 VEGAS program and has been a part of ongoing projects at Courallie. She is currently employed as a School-Community Worker in a wider project between DETYA and the Moree secondary schools, and is interested in developing her skills in student counselling.

Steve Harvey interviewed Nolene in the middle of 2001.


When I first came to the school it was a little bit daunting, being actually part of the staff. I was unsure of myself... but as I got further on into the programs, the support from teaching staff really encouraged me.

I think the relationships that did develop were supportive relationships. Also, on social levels where you could just go up to a staff member and have a friendly talk with them about work. I think that really helped as well.

...any Aboriginal worker in the school is a role model so if the kids see that you can communicate with a teacher in school then it breaks that barrier down.

What the Aboriginal staff could give to the teacher was an insight into the Aboriginal community that we come from, into the social backgrounds that the students come from. Once teachers were aware of certain issues, the way they communicated to the students was different.

Working in the classroom with the kids is very positive. I like the atmosphere in the classroom. I like the interaction. Working in the classroom, in a bigger group, made the students feel a little more relaxed, a little more at ease.

One of the things in classrooms which wasn't working well, and especially for Aboriginal students, was a teacher up front teaching to the kids with no interaction, no individual interaction. What I found was, when teachers moved around the classroom, spoke to the kids one-on-one, explained things more appropriately, it was better.

It's important that the Aboriginal workers see it as a job and that they can be seen as equal as the staff and being part of the staff.

Aboriginal communities and schools need to meet half way. I think schools have to look at the way the curriculum is put together. If more Aboriginal people in schools were involved in writing the curriculum that would be positive.


Next steps

After the end of the IESIP SRP, the school had to explore other avenues to continue its Aboriginal support worker program and initially it was only possible in a reduced form.

But then, a local initiative brought together people from the two Moree secondary schools, DETYA in Moree and the Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (LAECG). The objectives were to coordinate and consolidate a variety of successful programs which were operating to support Aboriginal students in the schools. It was believed that 'a spasmodic application of support initiatives will lead to disjointed and mistrusted outcomes and is logically viewed as detrimental to the Aboriginal community.'

Cathy Duncan, of DETYA Moree, explains.

Tom French and Cathy Duncan, DETYA, Moree.

Tom French and Cathy Duncan, DETYA, Moree.

We have started to look more at how do we work together rather than how do we work in isolation. We're keeping our Aboriginal consultative group involved as well.

We have these kids in our homes so a lot of the program ideas we come up with are from our own kids or kids that we know, whereas maybe the non-Aboriginal teachers don't have Aboriginal kids that are at risk in their homes in a social sense.

But the one thing that we have been trying to work on is more community involvement. We have lots of things going and you can see this overlapping like a jigsaw puzzle, so we try and look at how do we merge all of these things together. We need to have a longer term strategic plan where, for instance, Aboriginal support workers continue to provide role modelling and support and then maybe through their own aspirations in education, the same people might come back in five or ten years as teachers in our schools.

As a result, in 2001, Courallie has been able to employ (in addition to its two AEAs) four Aboriginal support workers, most of whom work in the classroom situation. Moree Technology High School also has a similar program.


Eddie Pitt, of the Moree LAECG, adds:

The thing we are trying to get across to parents is that education is a shared responsibility, it is not something to do in isolation any more. It is a shared responsibility between teachers and schools and parents and students. The students themselves need to take some ownership of their own education, parents need to support that and I guess it is the old adage of expectations. If we are all in alignment then we will get some results.


Tom French, of DETYA Moree and the state Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee, was asked about how teachers can be part of the partnership.

We get a lot of new teachers out here and a high turnover. With first year teachers, they might come from Sydney and a lot of times they meet their first Aboriginal people out here. The first Aboriginal people they've ever met are when they walk into a classroom. We actually spend a lot of money on cross-cultural training.

What matters is the relationship that that teacher builds up with the kids and the community. The community will judge teachers by the relationship they've built up with the kids, not by whether they have a Masters Degree in Rocket Science. They'll have confidence in the teacher they get to know.

Teachers need to respect the kids for who they are and what they are. And the other way around, it doesn't work for teachers if they demand respect. It works when they earn it.



Between 1998 and 1999, outcomes in Literacy for Aboriginal students were as follows:

  • 125% increase in number 'proficient' or 'high' in Language.
  • 50% increase in number 'proficient' in Reading.
  • 21% movement from 'proficient' to 'high' in Writing.
  • 27% better than state average improvement in Writing.


A comparison of statistics about suspensions of Aboriginal students between 1998 and 1999 showed good reductions until the funding for the project ceased in Term 4, after which numbers again began to increase.

Data for 1999-2000 tests were skewed because of industrial action taken around the time of the tests but the improvement trend continued. Between 2000 and 2001, outcomes in Literacy for Aboriginal students were as follows:

  • 20% increase in number 'proficient' or 'high' in Language.
  • 66% increase in number 'proficient' or 'high' in Reading.
  • No improvement in Writing.


Writing is a major area of concern. While there are a number of external factors, overcoming students' reluctance to write is a major focus for the school.

However, analysis also shows that:

  • 77% of students were consistent or progressed well in Language;
  • 77% of students were consistent or progressed well in Reading; and
  • 36% of students progressed well in Writing.


Steve Harvey comments about the data.

All improvements are very pleasing, but it must be acknowledged that the students at Courallie were and are coming off a very low base. Some Aboriginal students seem to go backwards in literacy data and we are still to achieve our goal, which is to meet state average performances in literacy and numeracy testing.

Although there have been improvements, longitudinal examination of data seems to indicate that we may have reached a plateau in behaviour and attendance data. Continuing problems with falling enrolments and staffing have also had an influence on outcomes. The data are being used by the school to reinforce and inform planning and to reappraise the use of support workers.

In qualitative terms, though, the support workers have lots more positive effects.


© Commonwealth of Australia 2020