Dr BJ Newton, Research Fellow at UNSW Sydney’s Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), and Dr Kevin Lowe, Scientia Indigenous Fellow at the School of Education, have received grants through the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Discovery Indigenous scheme. The scheme provides funding to support research led by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researcher.

Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced $7.1 million for nine projects commencing in 2021.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers will lead projects that investigate issues impacting their people that lead to outcomes in the national interest,” Minister Tehan said in his media release. “These research projects will aim to produce outcomes that provide economic, commercial, environmental, social and cultural benefits.”

Dr Newton has received $427,685 for a four-year project, ‘Bring Them Home, Keep Them Home’. The project aims to advance knowledge regarding child restoration by investigating the lived experiences and outcomes of Aboriginal parents whose children have been restored from care.

Dr Lowe has received $330,000 for a three-year integrated qualitative and quantitative study that investigates the issues that appear to directly impact teachers’ capacity to meaningfully engage with and teach the Indigenous cross-curriculum content in the curriculum.

UNSW Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Ana Deletic, congratulated the grant recipients.

“This important funding will provide an opportunity to build UNSW’s research capacity as well as enable our researchers to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians,” she said.

‘Bring Them Home, Keep Them Home’

“‘Bring Them Home, Keep Them Home’ is the first research of its kind in the world,” Dr Newton said. “Not only will it count how many Aboriginal children are removed and restored from out of home care, so we can get a sense of exactly how big this problem is, it will investigate the outcomes and experiences of successful restoration.”

In Australia, Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely to be removed than other children, and in New South Wales (NSW), Aboriginal children make up nearly 40 per cent of all children living in out of home care.

“If you're an Aboriginal child, you're much less likely than a non-Aboriginal child to be restored,” Dr Newton said. “We know that kids who grow up in care are much more likely to have depression, a much higher risk of suicide, of not completing school and of ending up in the criminal justice system. For Aboriginal children, it also disrupts their connection to kin, culture and land, which is essential to their sense of identity, health and wellbeing.”

The project will span scholarly, policy, practitioner and community platforms, including mainstream and Indigenous media, and key stakeholder workshops focused on knowledge exchange and policy influence. A range of resources to assist families, communities and workers to navigate out of home care and restoration processes will be developed through forums with Indigenous communities. The UNSW research team includes Dr Kyllie Cripps at UNSW Law and Dr Kathleen Falster at UNSW Medicine.

“We will produce a practical road map to chart the successful pathways to child restoration for Aboriginal parents to use when their children have been removed,” said Dr Newton. “This research will be key in generating knowledge for how to bring our children home and keep them home.

“I'm a proud Aboriginal woman and my passion is to amplify the voices of Aboriginal peoples and communities so that their world views and experiences are heard, respected and are catalysts for change.”

Dr Newton’s family comes from Erambie Aboriginal Reserve at West Cowra on Wiradjuri Country in NSW. At SPRC, she specialises in qualitative inquiry, Indigenous research methods, and child protection research and policy. Her focus is developing the knowledge and evidence base of Aboriginal people from their perspective, particularly in the area of child protection, using participatory and community-based methods. Dr Newton is also a lecturer and cultural student advisor for Indigenous Social Work students at UNSW and leads the UNSW Arts & Social Sciences Indigenous Strategy.

A qualitative and quantitative study of Indigenous content in curriculum

The Indigenous curriculum content in the Australian Curriculum is tasked to improve outcomes for Indigenous students. Dr Lowe’s project aims to investigate how teachers approach this cross-curriculum mandate, to consider teachers’ attitudes regarding the teaching of Indigenous content, and to identify the complex factors that act as barriers to success in teaching it.

Currently, Indigenous content is distributed across the eight key learning areas (KLAs) in the school curriculum. The promise is that all students will be provided with the knowledge, capacities and skills to engage in understanding the Indigenous experience and Indigenous people in this country, said Dr Lowe.

“The evidence tells us this isn’t working,” he said. “After school, students can't engage in any deep conversation about what's been taught at school around significant issues for Indigenous students and community – such as under-engagement, under-employment and poor health outcomes. They just don't have a sense of it.

“This project is a unique opportunity to do some fundamental research into why it doesn't work. Hopefully, then we will be able to highlight a way forward so we can meet the promise.”

Dr Lowe says the problem, which has been articulated for the last 40 years, is that teachers, by and large, find it challenging, if not impossible, to authentically teach the mandated Indigenous content in the curriculum.

“When we put Indigenous content in the science curriculum, for example, teachers stumble over it and don't know what to do with it. Believing in social justice, they think they should be able to teach it, but it doesn't resonate as a piece of scientific knowledge. It’s content from another cultural thought process. The result is they skip over it, they teach it tokenistically or they try to make it into ‘science’,” said Dr Lowe.

The project’s innovative design combines policy analysis, survey research and qualitative research to consider the factors impacting on the success of this policy mandate. The study will begin with a desk audit of all of the Indigenous content in the curriculum, followed by interviews with jurisdictional and curriculum leaders on the intention of the cross-curriculum content. Several thousand history and science teachers will be surveyed on how they conceptualise knowledge and knowledge transmission, and how they understand the task of engaging with the Indigenous content in their KLAs. As well as interviewing the teachers, the researchers will look at the teachers’ practice – how they navigate two knowledges at the same time. Dr Lowe will work with Professor Annette Woods (QUT), Dr Emma Burns (Macquarie University) and Dr Greg Vass (Griffith University) on the project.

“In this project we're trying to ‘unthink’ the structure of how curriculum is written in this country,” said Dr Lowe. “We hope to understand how Indigenous content and knowledge can be taught in a way that enables students to learn about Indigenous people, what their lives were like and what's happened to them in the last 200 years.”

Dr Lowe is a Gubbi Gubbi man from southeast Queensland. He has experience in education as a teacher, administrator and lecturer. He also has expertise in working with Aboriginal community organisations on establishing Aboriginal language policy and school curriculum implementation. Dr Lowe has worked with colleagues to review research across key areas of schooling and established the Aboriginal Voices, a broad-base, holistic project which is developing a new pedagogic framework for teachers. 

Belinda Henwood