A UNSW project championing cultural inclusion and genuine long-term engagement is making a positive difference for First Nations communities in NSW.
Following a pilot in 2021, the Culturally Nourishing Schooling (CNS) project has now been rolled out in eight NSW schools. Its objective? To shift the dynamic of engagement between schools and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in a sustained way – pioneering strategies including cultural mentoring and the development of community level micro-treaties.
The project, led by UNSW Scientia Indigenous Fellow Associate Prof Kevin Lowe, is being implemented in classrooms and communities across NSW, with an emphasis on effective community engagement and supporting teachers to feel more confident to incorporate Indigenous knowledges and cultures in the classroom.
Around 200 teachers in eight schools in urban and rural and remote settings are currently participating in the project. A team of 10 researchers – with a combined teaching experience of more than 100 years – support schools in the project, which also focusses on strengthening leadership skills and the development of deeper relationships with local communities.
What is Culturally Nourishing Schooling?
The CNS method came out of a review of academic research literature into what was working in Indigenous education. A/Prof. Lowe and his co-researchers found that while there were no specific literacy or numeracy projects that could be identified as having long-term or sustained impact, they were able to identify that schools experiencing success in engaging Aboriginal students in their community had many purposeful attributes in common. “They were often well resourced, experienced good leadership, employed practitioners willing to try different approaches, had positive relationships with the students’ families and communities, and an ability to tap in the broader aspirations of that community,” says A/Prof. Lowe.
“The culturally nourishing schooling project acknowledges and builds into our program that engagement is about culture and about student and community identities,” says A/Prof. Lowe. “It’s very important for schools to understand that Aboriginal students come with an acute understanding of their identity. And it’s important to both acknowledge and develop that. And it’s nourishing because we know that when schools really attend to understanding student aspirations of being involved in culture and community, they nourish their identity and they do better.”
Improving relationships with local communities
Shallan Foster, head teacher of Aboriginal Learning and Engagement at Matraville Sports High, explains the work of cultural mentors, who work within the school to deepen understanding of culture, and also connect the school with Aboriginal communities. “We initiate conversations with schools and local Aboriginal communities as we explore new futures and build on understanding of past histories. By listening, sharing and understanding, we can establish culturally safe ways to support change, moving through and beyond difficult conversations and improving the relationship between schools, teachers and our Aboriginal families and communities."
Developing micro-treaties is another element of the CNS project. “In some places there is a dynamic of intergenerational discord and resistance to school,” says A/Prof Lowe. “It’s often not linked to one individual, but deeply embedded in the ways in which a school is seen by groups of families and communities. Creating a micro-treaty – or a deep and purposeful community and school collaboration – involves trying to understand what a new relationship would look like and inviting the community into a real dialogue about how schools can be accountable to the communities they serve.”
Tweed River High School’s experience
Terence Simpson, deputy principal of Tweed River High School (TRHS), has been leading the CNS project at his school since 2021. More than 20 per cent of students at the school are Indigenous, so becoming part of the project was a natural fit for the school community – and built on a history of champions of Indigenous education within the school.
Simpson says being part of CNS has seen changes across the school for both students and staff. Before the project, Aboriginal content in the curriculum contained limited specific local content connecting students to their heritage and culture.
Over the past three years, the school has had 22 staff members, representing all key learning areas across the school, go through CNS professional learning.
“This has allowed teachers to develop units of work with strong indigenous focus and local content that makes day-to-day lessons more meaningful for all students,” says Simpson. “Having Cultural Mentors come in has led to a deep understanding of significant parts of local Aboriginal culture and history, and given the teachers, many of whom are not Indigenous, confidence to include cultural content.
“The teachers feel supported and understand the value of the cultural content as they deliver it.”
As for the students, Simpson says CNS has led to a groundswell of initiatives and projects not just within the classroom but outside the classroom, including school murals, outdoor art displays and celebrations.
“As a result, students are more willing to embrace their cultural heritage, and to speak about it,” says Simpson. “Last year was the first year we had a school captain stand in front of assembly and say, ‘I’m a proud Wiradjuri woman’.
“Students are willing to put out that they are part of our First Nations people. And other students accept that with ease. We’ve changed our school house names to local native animals. And our house T-shirts, and Year 12 jerseys, include Aboriginal designs created by students. Our Indigenous students now meet with our local primary school students every term to run a range of programs that build to connections to local Aboriginal culture and take some of the fear of going to high school away.”
Being part of the project has led to increased engagement with the local Aboriginal community. “We now have people who are invited to regular meetings at the school and have input into the indigenous focus across the school including how we celebrate NAIDOC week and Reconciliation Week,” says Simpson. “The long-term commitment and enthusiasm of the CNS team has had a big impact on our school.”
The CNS project, led by UNSW Sydney and including the University of Sydney, Griffith University and the Queensland University of Technology, is supported by the Paul Ramsey Foundation, the National Indigenous Australians Agency and the NSW Government Department of Education, in addition to monetary and in-kind contributions from university, school and community partners.