When good intentions meet hard facts on the ground, good intentions usually lose. This is essentially the truth of the long and sad story of Aboriginal politics and policy in Australia, and the saddest part is that things seldom seem to get much better. It’s enough to make one quit the field in despair.
And then along comes someone like Chris Sarra. This book, part autobiography (although he is only 45) and part policy prescription, makes the point that positive change is possible, but it has to come from the roots rather than the corridors of power.
Sarra is known mainly as an educator, particularly as the principal of an Aboriginal school called Cherbourg, north of Toowoomba. He came to the role after several years on both the practical side of teaching — he started out as a PE teacher but wound up teaching Shakespeare — and the policy side, although Cherbourg, a school widely seen as a lost cause, was his first time in a leadership position.
Along the way, Sarra had accrued a number of qualifications, and obviously takes considerable pride in his academic achievements. This is hardly surprising, as Sarra inherited a powerful work ethic from his Aboriginal mother and Italian father. He came from a large family and spent a lot of his youth playing sport, not rich in material possessions but strong in support. He sold newspapers when still just a kid. The lessons of his early life — work hard, do the study, look first to your own resources, help those who need help and are willing to help themselves — have continued to inform his philosophy on teaching, and underpinned his work at Cherbourg.
The key problem at the school was, he decided, low expectations. Teachers, parents and students themselves expected failure; unsurprisingly, this was what happened, generation after generation. Sarra found that there were kids in the final year of primary school who could not read. Sure, there were plenty of excuses, but Sarra knew a fact on the ground when he saw one. His campaign began with instilling a sense of respect into the students, starting with a clear greeting, the title of the book, at the beginning of each day. Underperforming teachers were shunted aside, good performers were rewarded, hard statistics were compiled to measure what was working and what wasn’t.
This issue of measurement turned out to be pivotal. For decades, student performance data had been manipulated to fit Cherbourg’s ‘situation’ rather than give a clear comparison with other schools in the state. Sarra saw this as part of the pattern of low expectations, and set about changing it, first to give a proper idea of how the school was really doing and later to show how much it was improving.
Sarra, needless to say, made plenty of enemies along the way. Those activists who focused on the victim mentality rather than practical solutions saw him as a danger to their industry, and equally he had little time for them. Some people saw his stern methods as close to abuse; he responded by pointing to the marked improvement in student scores. Others believed that his emphasis on literacy and numeracy left no room for learning about traditional Aboriginal culture; Sarra argued that you can be both properly educated and a proud Aboriginal. Smart and strong are not mutually exclusive, he says.
This is self-evidently true, but one wishes that Sarra had given the area more analysis. He points to himself as proof that a person can successfully inhabit both the white and black worlds, but whether his own story can represent a broad paradigm is another matter. Can one truly be both? How can the bone-deep differences be reconciled? It is not, after all, just a matter of skin colour; the issues run to the soul. And, indeed, it should be recognised that Sarra’s personal story is very different to the experience of most Aboriginal people.
This is not to begrudge his achievements or belittle his values. In fact, his personal values seem to have a remarkably conservative tone. It is odd, then, that he stridently opposed the Intervention of the Howard government in the Northern Territory; one might have expected that he would have supported it, on the grounds that it was meant to address community dysfunction and step around the ideology of empty symbolism and pointless hand-wringing.
Likewise, Sarra’s positive comments about both Julia Gillard and Gough Whitlam seem deeply strange, coming from a man who makes a point of appreciating things that work. Perhaps he draws his partisan views from his early experience of the Bjelke-Petersen government, to which he refers several times. But that was a very long time ago, and maybe Sarra should re-consider whether Labor is still his natural political home.
For his part, Sarra has now established the Stronger Smarter Institute to spread and extend his ideas, and to teach leadership skills in indigenous communities. It has received corporate and government backing, and while it is too early to say if the Institute is successful it seems to be a big step in the right direction.
Good Morning, Mr Sarra is a remarkable book, a story told with remarkable freshness and lack of pretension. It makes one think that maybe the future in this area is not entirely dark. Sometimes, it seems, one person can make a difference.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.