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Public school system is one of the greatest agents of change
The first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from Harvard Law School has labelled the Australian public school system as one of the greatest agents of change for the nation.
Larissa Behrendt, a Kamilaroi woman, was guest speaker at the Public Education Foundation’s awards night at Sydney Town Hall on 21 May and praised the system while pointing out it needed proper funding.
“What became apparent to me as I was at one of the most elite universities in the world was that my education through the public school system in Australia had given me everything I needed to be able to hold my own among the world’s best,” she told the audience.
“Our public school system is one of the greatest agents of change that we have in our society and it produces young adults who have in themselves the ability to be agents of enormous positive change themselves.
“So for this reason it remains absolutely essential that we invest heavily in our public education system.”
Ms Behrendt, Professor of Indigenous Research and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at UTS, said the value of education for Indigenous people was fundamental.
“There’s nothing that transforms the life circumstances more for a person than education and it’s something that once you have no one can ever take it away from you,” she said.
“This is particularly so for groups within our community who are marginalised in very many ways and particularly in my own area of Indigenous issues, we agonise all the time about the intractable socio-economic issues that face my community.
“But each time we see an Indigenous person finish school and get further education through university or TAFE we see a person who is fundamentally changing their circumstances and those of their family and their community.”
Ms Behrendt credits her parents for her political awareness and her alma mater Kirrawee High School, where she and her brother were the only Aboriginal students, for nurturing her love of debating.
“It was a time before Indigenous issues were integrated into the curriculum and none of my classmates had even heard of the Stolen Generations,” she said. “The teachers I had for the most part tried to accommodate this, including introducing the first Indigenous elective into the school in history when I was in my senior years.
“[At Harvard] there was no doubt I was coming from a minority but I didn’t lack anything that I needed to be competitive. I can’t ever say I walked the halls with confidence but I think that the motivation for independent learning, the discipline and my love of reading and debating all held me in good stead more than I realised at the time.
“I deeply credit Kirrawee High School for complementing the values my parents instilled in me. It just celebrated its 50 year anniversary and it was wonderful to see the increasing numbers of Indigenous students in the school and the visible place Indigenous culture has there.”
In addition to the presentation of awards, the evening featured performances by public school students.