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  What Works - The Work Program

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Murrumbidgee College of Agriculture, Yanco, New South Wales

Taking VET to the students

Background | The approach | VET in schools | Brewarrina Central School | Outcomes


Murrumbidgee College of Agriculture began offering nationally accredited training in Rural Skills on Aboriginal-owned properties in far western New South Wales in 1989. From those beginnings, the College's Aboriginal Rural Training Program (ARTP) expanded and subsequent courses have been run in Aboriginal communities in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. In more recent years, nationally accredited courses have also been run in correctional and remand facilities in far western NSW.

Prior to 1989, the College had no Indigenous students. Today, over one third of its graduates are Indigenous. When IESIP SRP funding became available in 1998, the College was able to mount several projects, including one which provided VET training in a range of schools in rural NSW.

Wayne McPherson was the first coordinator of the ARTP and is now Vice-Principal of the College. He recalls the early days.


Wayne McPherson

"First, we consulted with as many stakeholders as we could: The Lands Council, managers of the properties, teachers, participants and, at the end of the day, we discovered that most of the participants hadn't had good educational experiences in the past. So we really focussed in on that, basically doing a big needs analysis and getting the feel of what the people wanted. When we first went to meet the participants, our clients, we shook hands but I could tell they were thinking: 'What have you guys got for us this time?' And that was fair enough and I thought it was going to be a great challenge, which it was. And it's been a great journey." Read on…

The approach

Although the College is located at Yanco, near Leeton in NSW, the approach to training has been to go out to Aboriginal communities, consult with them about local needs and then provide training on-site. Although there may be opportunities for students to visit and use the facilities at Yanco later, the initial work is almost always close to the Aboriginal communities.


Skill development: Vaccination

Experience at the College has led to various principles guiding delivery. Some of these are as follows:

  • It is essential to have extensive consultation with Aboriginal organisations, communities and individuals as part of the training needs analysis.
  • Training should reflect real needs and wants in Aboriginal communities.
  • Methods of training must take into account the preferences of participants and will almost always involve a high degree of hands-on activities, group learning and flexibility.
  • Training should, in general, lead to nationally accredited qualifications.
  • Training should integrate literacy and numeracy into other training activities.
  • College staff should be prepared to travel to and stay at Aboriginal communities and develop appropriate working relationships with participants.

VET in schools


Timo and student in the sheep yards at Trangie

Timo Gobius is the current coordinator of the Aboriginal Rural Training Program. He talks about VET in schools.

Teachers know that Aboriginal kids need reasons to stay at school. There has to be something they can grab onto, something they think matters to them, something that's real life, where they can say 'that's great, I know why I'm doing that'.

Mostly, we work with Years 9 and 10 students, but some older ones as well. They decide what modules they're going to do. You give a certain amount of information and you give the parameters of what you're able to do and then they decide.

It seems to me that it's important that it's the school that's offering them these courses. Whether somebody else delivers or not, they see it as the school offering it to them and so do the parents. Then there's a spin-off because the parents can support the school and the school is supporting the parents. So that's a positive for the school.

Ways of learning… we find you need hands-on work, group work. You use diagrams and charts where you can and you keep the book work to a minimum, at least at the beginning. Everything has to be relevant and the kids have to know it's relevant.

It's really important to have defined outcomes and to break each skill down, break it into manageable chunks and deliver one small chunk at a time. Now that won't always suit the learners because they'll want to jump right in, they'll want to get into the full blown thing straight away and maybe they won't like the skill- building process. But, at the end of the day, when you evaluate it and ask 'what about when we did the skill building in the morning?' they'll say 'oh yeah, that was a good idea'.

We measure success in terms of completion rates but, in another way, it's about whether they want to do more modules, whether they want to come back after lunch! And sometimes, just a little bit of practical training can be a big help to a kid. One boy I remember, it was at [a rural town] he was getting into trouble but he was able to focus on the training and it just helped keep him on track. They said it kept him out of juvenile justice. It's not the whole story but it helps.

Anecdotal evidence coming back from teachers seems to say that there is often a change of attitude. It can be a fairly major change… knowing that there's a program at the end of term gives them something to look forward to, a reason to behave better during the term.

One thing I've found through working with Aboriginal people is that they really relate to respect. If you respect them for who they are then they'll respect you. And you have to be yourself. Don't try to be somebody else because they'll sniff it out very quickly!

'Keeping kids interested and at school': Brewarrina Central School


Problem solving: Estimating the age of a sheep using the teeth

In 2001, Brewarrina Shire Council (in conjunction with Brewarrina Central School) applied for and received a grant from the NSW Department of Education and Training's 'Links to Learning' Community Grants Program. This was to target young Aboriginal people at risk of leaving school early and becoming unemployed.

One aspect of this work involved taking a group of 10 Aboriginal students to spend a week at the NSW Department of Agriculture's Trangie facility, where 'Sheepskills' training was provided by Timo Gobius of Murrumbidgee College of Agriculture. The course was designed specifically according to the needs and interests of the particular students but was based around two existing modules. It was related to 'real' work because, at the time, the Trangie facility had a large mob of sheep due to lamb within a month and which required vaccination and drenching. The Brewarrina students completed the job on time.

Each student was given a booklet specific to the course. Topics included:

  • Prepare yards;
  • Moving sheep in yards;
  • Drafting, sorting and counting sheep;
  • Administering treatments; and
  • Drenching.

Principal Maree Angus spoke at the beginning of the course.


Maree Angus at Trangie

It was quite a coincidence, the way it happened. We had been talking about how we could get some work experience for [a particular student]. She was keen to get into the [sheep] sheds but her parents were keen for her to stay on at school and so were we. Then this opportunity came up. Just like that.

Generally, though, the dropout rate at Years 9 and 10 is a major concern and I want to try to do something about it.

I do a little bit of work at [a correctional centre] with literacy and so on and I found out that the young men had all left school in Year 9. So I asked them why and the comment was always that it was boring and irrelevant. But in [the correctional centre] they were all keen to improve their literacy skills! From that experience I really felt that I don't want this same thing happening to our kids at the school now. So the main thing was keeping the kids interested and at school. Sometimes it seems like it's hard for them just to hang on and I thought a vocational program could help.

My intention is to monitor the program and see what happens. I can compare the attendance rates and retention rates through the year with last year's figures. Before we came [to Trangie] I spent a lot of time going around seeing the parents individually and explaining as much as I knew about the course. They were supportive and so were the Aboriginal support staff.

But I feel strongly that this shouldn't be an alternative course. Like any other kids, Aboriginal kids need to be empowered across a range of activities, academic and non-academic. So I think this kind of program should be mainstream.

My interest really is in improving outcomes for our Aboriginal students.


Over a long period of time, Murrumbidgee College of Agriculture has achieved average completion rates of 85% in its Aboriginal Rural Training Program.



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