Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests: Teaching and learning Aboriginal Languages and culture in NSW

Dr Rowan Savage is a proud Kombumerri man living on Gadigal Land who works in the field of Aboriginal education. In this article, Rowan outlines the Aboriginal Language and Culture Nest initiative and suggests principles to guide schools seeking to establish Aboriginal Language and culture programs.

One of the most important aspects of learning and engagement for Aboriginal students is for a school to be not only a place of cultural safety, but a place where Aboriginal culture is taught, is visible, and is respected by staff and fellow students. Various studies have drawn a link between the teaching of Aboriginal Language and culture in schools and:

  • increased participation and retention
  • improved educational performance and outcomes for Aboriginal students
  • improved health, wellbeing, and economic status amongst Aboriginal people and communities
  • decreased racism.

Given this, the department’s Aboriginal Education Policy commits the department to working, in partnership with the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc. (NSW AECG) and Aboriginal communities, to implement Aboriginal Languages programs in schools.

An important way in which this happens in government schools in NSW is through the Aboriginal Language and Culture Nest initiative (as well as through Aboriginal Languages teaching more generally).

A Nest is a network of communities bound together by their connection through an Aboriginal Language. Each Nest creates learning pathways for Aboriginal students, teachers and community members. The size, shape and form of the Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests are community driven.

A range of methods is used to facilitate language and culture teaching, including face-to-face learning in classrooms, On Country excursions (where possible), and online and digital delivery and resource creation. Strategies adopted in Nest schools and other schools teaching language and culture provide positive models which are available for all schools, whether or not they are formally within the Nest program areas.

Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests – history and structure

The department leads the implementation of the Nests initiative in partnership with the NSW AECG (the peak advisory group on Aboriginal education in NSW), local and regional AECGs, and local Aboriginal Language groups. The teaching and learning of Aboriginal Languages in schools across the Nests is also supported by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) which provides syllabus content, as well as programming and assessment information, for the Aboriginal Languages courses.

The Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests emerged under OCHRE, the NSW Government’s plan for Aboriginal affairs. Under OCHRE, Aboriginal Language and culture is a major initiative, with Aboriginal peoples' fundamental right to reawaken, revitalise and maintain their language and culture recognised.

The NSW Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs surveyed 427 people from Aboriginal communities in the state and found very strong support for offering Aboriginal Languages in schools, using flexible and locally driven designs.

Under OCHRE, five Aboriginal Language groups were identified, and Nests launched, in the period 2013-2014. All were established following extensive local Aboriginal community consultation. In selecting these language groups, consideration was given to the number of language speakers, availability and accessibility of language speakers and resources, pre-existing language revitalisation activity in schools, and accessibility to wider resources such as infrastructure, TAFE NSW and local AECG networks.

These Nests are Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr, Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay/Yuawaalayaay, Paakantji and North West Wiradjuri. There are also two satellite Nests – Dunghutti (established in 2019) and Gomeroi (in the process of establishment over 2020).

Each Nest has a footprint area spanning the relevant Aboriginal Language nation. Public schools within the Nest area are eligible to receive Aboriginal Language and culture teaching funded through the initiative.

Each Nest also has a Keeping Place. A Keeping Place is a location for the Nest, providing a point of contact relating to the local Aboriginal Language, and housing language resources and materials for use by communities and partnered organisations. A Keeping Place may be physical, virtual or both.

Principles for teaching Aboriginal Language and culture

Nests are designed to provide a continuous learning pathway for Aboriginal students. The language skills and knowledge of Aboriginal Language and culture holders and/or speakers from local Aboriginal communities is critical to the continuing development of teaching and learning in the Nests.

An important principle is that Aboriginal communities make their own decisions about how their language and culture will be taught. Those decisions are supported by the department – rather than the department employing a top-down approach. For example, Nests may choose whether only Aboriginal students should learn language and culture or whether non-Aboriginal students may also participate.

For this reason, each Nest has a reference group. Reference groups discuss and set direction and priorities for their Nest footprint area. They are community groups which have the right to self-determination as to their functions and processes. Membership of the reference group is open to all relevant community members and relevant community organisations.

Each Nest also has a cultural protocol which was developed in collaboration with NSW AECG, local AECGs, and local Aboriginal communities. These protocols outline and determine how Aboriginal Language and culture should be taught in schools.

The department has agreed to respect Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights by following Indigenous cultural protocols, as outlined in the Protocols for Working with Indigenous Artists, published by the Australia Council for the Arts.

Teaching in Nests

Each Nest has an Aboriginal Language Teacher who is responsible for coordinating language activity, developing resources and teaching plans, and assisting educators to deliver language services.

The department contracts the NSW AECG to deliver services in the Nests. That is, to employ educators to work in schools delivering language and culture lessons. NSW AECG project officers support language teaching and learning, resource development and sharing opportunities, and support the reference groups.

Educators are Aboriginal people who have received endorsement from the local community to teach language. Educators may hold a Certificate I, II, III or IV from TAFE NSW, and/or may be recognised as Elders and/or language speakers within their community. The importance of this is that educators are people who, whether or not they have formal qualifications, are recognised by their communities as being language holders in a position to pass this knowledge on.

Classroom teachers in each school where language and culture are taught are responsible for classroom management and are active participants in the lessons delivered by educators.

A vital teaching principle demonstrated by this structure is the need for different organisations and individuals to work together to put into place teaching and learning structures which are directed and approved by the relevant Aboriginal community – these will not always conform to typical Western teaching models.

Teaching in Nests is primarily face-to-face, and Nest staff may also organise On Country excursions (following all relevant policies and procedures). This honours the importance of languages which were originally oral, not written, and where learning would not have taken place in a Western-style classroom setting.

The department and the NSW AECG have also been developing online resources, teaching materials and delivery methods, including live delivery through Zoom. During COVID-19 disruption, these have been developed further and have proved invaluable. It is also important to note that not all students, especially in remote locations, will have reliable internet access at home. For this reason, the department has worked with the NSW AECG to develop physical resources (such as paper booklets) and deliver them to students in these circumstances.

The department is currently preparing a professional learning pilot to further develop whole-of-school approaches. This pilot recognises that, to be fully effective, language and culture perspectives need to be embedded into teaching and learning programs across all key learning areas – not solely taught in discrete classes. Through this initiative, non-Aboriginal teaching staff and school executive will be supported to embed Aboriginal Language and culture throughout the school and will develop networks across their Nest area to share best practice and resources. Once the pilot has been evaluated, similar programs may be rolled out across other Nest areas.

Aboriginal Languages outside the Nests

Separate from the Nests, schools have the flexibility – and are encouraged – to work with their local Aboriginal community in establishing and implementing an Aboriginal Language program using their School Budget Allocation. (The teaching and learning of Aboriginal Languages and cultural studies is also mandatory at Connected Communities schools.)

The abovementioned principles – both ethical and relating to teaching and learning – that guide Nests are also applicable to the teaching of Aboriginal Language and culture outside Nest footprint areas.

More information on the Nests, and about establishing an Aboriginal Language and culture program outside Nest areas, is contained in the Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests Guidelines.


The Nests initiative aims to exemplify a number of important principles for teaching and learning Aboriginal Language and culture across NSW. These principles may be useful to consider for any school working to put the Aboriginal Education Policy into practice and embedding respect for and understanding of Aboriginal culture across their school.

These principles include:

  • Schools should develop and deepen meaningful relationships with their local and/or regional AECGs, as well as local Aboriginal communities and organisations.
  • Teaching of Aboriginal Language and culture should be led and approved by the local Aboriginal community/ies.
  • Appropriate methods of teaching and learning Aboriginal Language and culture will not always look the same as the typical methods which non-Aboriginal school staff may be familiar with in schools.
  • Discussion with the community about the way in which language and culture is taught is an ongoing dialogue, not a ‘tick-a-box’ exercise.
  • Non-Aboriginal staff should understand the importance of Aboriginal Language and culture and look to embed practice in all areas. Finding effective ways to ensure this is done should take place via formal professional learning and in day-to-day practice.
  • The different needs of all Aboriginal students and communities should be considered. In recognition of this, a diverse range of delivery methods should be employed, ensuring no students are left out or disadvantaged.

References and further reading

Aboriginal Affairs NSW. (n.d.). About OCHRE.

Australia Council for the Arts. (n.d.). Protocols for Working with Indigenous Artists.

NSW Department of Education. (2008). Aboriginal Education Policy.

NSW Department of Education. (2019). Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests Guidelines.

NSW Department of Education. (2020). Connected Communities.

NSW Department of Education. (2020). Language, culture and communities: Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests.

How to cite this article – Savage, R. (2020). Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests: Teaching and learning Aboriginal Languages and culture in NSW. Scan, 39(10).

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