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The Gumala Mirnuwarni Education Project

The context | A partnership | Strategies | What happened? | The results | Some lessons learned

The words Gumala Mirnuwarni are taken from the Yindjibarndi language meaning ‘Coming Together (Gumala) To Learn (Mirnuwarni)’.

The context

This project is operating at Karratha Senior High School and its Roebourne annexe, which are located on the north-west coast of Australia in the Pilbara region. Karratha, growing very rapidly, is the port which services the vast iron ore projects of the region, the North West Shelf natural gas development and a substantial saltworks.

Karratha Senior High School has a student population of 735, of whom 135 are Indigenous. It draws students from Point Samson, Wickham, Roebourne, Karratha and Dampier. Wickham and Dampier are distribution points for iron ore mined inland in the Pilbara and, although autonomous, are more or less company towns. Although some small industry exists in Point Samson and Karratha, these are basically service centres/dormitory towns for the fishing and mining industries that exist in the region. By far the majority of Roebourne’s population is Aboriginal and, although some of these people come from outside the area, most are local with strong ties to the land.

The desire of Hamersley Iron to employ Indigenous people in skilled categories of employment had been frustrated by the fact that Aboriginal students were not completing high school. It was the view of Hamersley Iron that the future opportunities for work in the Pilbara lay in skilled work and that, if there were to be satisfactory employment opportunities for Aboriginal people, there needed to be improved educational outcomes.

A partnership

The interest, participation and assistance of the Indigenous communities of Roebourne and Karratha was sought, along with other relevant bodies. The Polly Farmer Foundation is a non-profit organisation that supports projects to aid the development of young Aboriginal people across WA. Hamersley Iron, Woodside Energy and Dampier Salt are major local employers. The Education Department of Western Australia and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs were also intimately involved.

Representatives of this group became members of a Steering Committee with overall responsibility for the project. A smaller Operations Group consisting of family members, teachers and industry representatives was set up to oversee day-to-day work.



Selection of participants: the target group for the project was those students wanting to and having the potential to succeed, and having the family interest and support to do so. (The term ‘family’ is defined by the students’ and community’s views.) The selection criteria for students included

  • family commitment and support;
  • ability to succeed at school, and the attitude and commitment of the student;
  • the potential for siblings to be involved; and
  • links to the local area.

Strategies used to achieve the aims of the project include

  • the establishment of two enrichment or homework centres;
  • the provision of tutors;
  • the provision of school-based mentors; and
  • the organisation of camps as well as visits to industry sites and tertiary institutions.

Work is also done with families to help them assist their children to succeed. Schools were assisted with the professional development of their staff about aspects of Aboriginal education.

What happened?


In 1995, Hamersley Iron contracted the Polly Farmer Foundation, working with staff from the University of WA, to research how educational standards could be improved, the level of community support and interest for a project of this nature, and possible linkages with other activities. There was consultation with the community, education sector, government and other support agencies as well as industry. The findings of this feasibility study highlighted community support, and the likelihood of success if key principles were followed.

A plan and process for implementation was developed. The Education Department of WA and Hamersley Iron both committed part-time staff to the project. These staff took up their positions in 1996 and began the task of getting the project started.

In April 1997, a Memorandum of Understanding was developed between Hamersley Iron, Woodside Energy Limited, Dampier Salt, the Education Department of Western Australia and the Polly Farmer Foundation. This agreement committed parties to working together to achieve the vision. The key values of the project are family involvement and support, as well as valuing and support of traditional knowledge and culture. The Project aims to be inclusive, linking community, families, industry and the education sector.

In 1997, 20 students were selected for participation. Ten were from Roebourne/Wickham and 10 were from Karratha. Half of the students were boys and half were girls, and all from secondary school. The steering committee agreed the project needed to be low profile with no publicity. This was to avoid the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. A compact was signed by participating students, their families and the project steering committee. This compact committed each of the signatories to carry out agreed requirements, including regular attendance at school.

A significant development was the bulk funding arrangement made with the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs regarding the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme.

The project has been closely monitored to see what works and what does not. The pilot phase concluded in 2000, but the project is continuing successfully.

The results

In 1995, before Gumala Mirnuwarni

  • The absentee rate of Indigenous students was approximately four times the absentee rate of non-Indigenous students at Wickham District High School and Karratha Senior High School.
  • The dropout rate of Indigenous students in Years 8, 9 and 10 in the Roebourne area was approximately 50 per cent of the total Indigenous school population.
  • Statewide figures for 1997 show that, of 1012 Aboriginal students enrolled in Government schools in 1986, 148 (14.6 per cent) reached Year 12, 44 (4.7 per cent) achieved the Western Australian Certificate of Education, and 8 (0.8 per cent) had a score of 259 or better which enabled university entrance.
  • Eight per cent of Indigenous students in the Karratha Education Region had a chance of entering Year 12.
  • No local Aboriginal student had entered university through TEE.
  • Employment of Indigenous people from Karratha and Roebourne in apprenticeships and commercial cadetships in private enterprise was negligible.

By the end of 1999, four years on

  • Seventeen of the original project students were still at school, representing a retention rate of 85 per cent.
  • The average absentee rate for original project students is approximately 18 days per year and, for all current project students, is 24 days per year. This compares with a non-Indigenous absentee rate of 12 days per year and a general Indigenous absentee rate of 42 days per year at Karratha Senior High School.
  • Nine of eleven project students, having entered Year 12, will have completed the Western Australian Certificate of Education, and three of those nine have graduated with TEE results suitable for tertiary entrance. The three students from the project made nearly 40% of the statewide total of Aboriginal students who gained over 259 in their TEE results. Another three students will have achieved TEE results suitable for tertiary entrance by the end of 2000.
  • Four project students have gone on to university, studying law, nursing, computing and physical education teaching.
  • Four project students have been employed in traineeships/apprenticeships with Hamersley Iron and two in traineeships with Woodside Energy, while another has gone on to study business studies at TAFE.

Principal of Karratha Senior High School, Mark Whisson commented:

We currently have 30 Aboriginal students in Years 11 and 12 and, of these, only eleven are project kids. To my mind, the only thing different in this place has been the advent of the project. The project is having a real impact, even on kids who are not in it, because they see their friends going somewhere and doing something.

Marshall Smith, community Elder, project participant parent and, since January 1999, involved in the project as co-leader, contributed a statement about outcomes from his perspective to the 1999 project report, and identified a range of benefits for students.

At the same time, project personnel provide a caution about replication of such a project elsewhere.

Some lessons learned


  • Gumala Mirnuwarni’s management structures provided an ability to quickly adapt to and address changing circumstances and situations as they arose. With the combined knowledge, talents and resources of project staff, family members, teachers, and sponsors, responses to problems were accurate and timely, and often were able to draw upon existing programs and resources. The decisions were further bolstered by the feedback received from regular monitoring of the project.
  • Many different people and organisations working together have brought different wisdom and abilities to strengthen the approach and outcomes. Senior people in each of the organisations have been committed to the project’s success from the beginning, and have supported the ‘micro-strategies’ of the project.
  • The project management role of the Polly Farmer Foundation has provided for a neutral body to oversee the project. This has been important because it has not caused Gumala Mirnuwarni to be seen to be ‘owned’ by any one organisation.
  • The ‘no publicity’ approach has kept the profile of the project low and reduced the risk of students being seen as ‘tall poppies’.

Selection and participation

  • A key to the project success has been the students and their families. The students need to want to, and see the purpose of, succeeding at school.
  • Keeping the project small and working with students who have real potential to succeed in the non-Indigenous education system has created a flow-on effect. Not precluding other students from involvement has resulted in many more students than are formally included in the project participating in the enrichment centres and activities.
  • The enrichment (homework) centre needs to be away from the school. The students need to develop a sense of ownership of the place. The project officers are also not based at the school but rather at the enrichment centres.

Staff commitment and developing awareness

  • The willingness of teachers and education representatives to be very actively involved in the project, much of the time out of hours was a direct result of their interest in and desire to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal students. Teachers’ commitment to the success of their students, and their attitudes towards the project from the beginning were significant reasons for the project’s success. Many teachers also worked to remind other teachers that, for Indigenous students to do well at school, the expectations held needed to be high.
  • The cultural training of teachers was important in developing understanding and relationships.

Brad Snell, Project Officer, 1998–99:

In the cultural training, two key points must be emphasised: firstly, there is a rich and complicated culture in the Indigenous community; and secondly, it is essential to treat all kids in a setting like Karratha Senior High School as individuals, as the knowledge and practice of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture varies widely.


  • The compact provided a focus for the participants and their families and identified key responsibilities and commitments they needed to keep in order to stay in the Gumala Mirnuwarni Project.
  • The selection of the right staff for the job was very important. The staff involved needed to have a ‘fire in the belly’ that this program could make a difference.
  • School-based mentors have served to keep an eye on the students at school, continually monitoring student progress and providing support when needed. They are part of a linked and holistic approach to providing support to the student in and out of school.

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