For someone who left school at just 14 years of age, UTS alumnus Frank Pearce’s commitment and contribution to Aboriginal education in Australia is extraordinary.
Growing up in Redfern, Surry Hills and Kings Cross as part of a strong community and helping raise his five brothers and sisters while his mother worked, it wasn’t until attending high school in Newcastle that he felt the sting of racism. The only Aboriginal in his school and with no support in sight, Frank soon tired of the daily battle and left halfway through his second year.
From here he had a series of jobs to help support the family, from newspaper delivery through to collecting manure for fertiliser. Marrying at 19 and working as a bus conductor and then a driver for Sydney Buses, Frank signed up for night school to gain the School Certificate he’d missed out on. “I was actually delivering papers in the mornings, doing a 12 hour shift driving a bus, then going to school five nights a week – on top of looking after two children because my wife worked at Parramatta Leagues Club every night”, he said. “We did that around the clock.”
Through all this he achieved his School Certificate and moved into a role as revenue clerk with Sydney Buses, until a forced redundancy in 1991 left him out of work for the next two years – and showed him the harsh reality of being an older Aboriginal person trying to get a job.
"I was getting 40 and 45 year old guys into apprenticeships who had never trained for anything."
While difficult, this experience made Frank an ideal candidate when the then Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) advertised an Aboriginal-identified position as a trainee employment officer. “Probably my greatest joy out of the time working with the CES was that I actually managed to get long-term jobs for much older Aboriginal people”, he said. “I was getting 40 and 45 year old guys into apprenticeships who had never trained for anything”. He then went on to run vocational courses for long-term unemployed people for the Department of Education Employment Training and Youth Affairs, achieving unprecedented results in placing them into jobs.
In 1996 Frank signed up for a Bachelor of Adult Education, talked into it by a shy friend who was enrolling and wanted moral support. He thrived in this safe and nurturing environment, becoming something of a peer leader and providing support to fellow students that had fallen behind.
This led to what he sees as probably the most rewarding role he’s held in his life: State Coordinator, Aboriginal Education with the Catholic Education Commission NSW (CECNSW), a position he held until his retirement in late 2012. His determination to advance educational opportunities for Indigenous Australians has seen the number of Aboriginal students in NSW double during his time in the role, with students also staying in school longer and achieving greater academic success.
Frank became the first Indigenous person and the first non-teacher to be awarded the prestigious Brother John Taylor Award for Excellence in Catholic Education in 2011. He has also been recognised as one of the most significant figures of the Dare to Lead project, and was named as a member of the Indigenous Guard of Honour for the Pope’s visit in 2008.
His determination – and also his legacy to Aboriginal communities across Australia – can perhaps best be seen in Frank’s favourite quote: “being Aboriginal is a reason to succeed, rather than an excuse not to”. And retirement hasn’t diminished his impact: at age 66 he graduated with a Masters in Research degree (University of Wollongong) focused on exploring potential links between the employment of an Aboriginal Education Worker and improved Indigenous education outcomes.
“Not bad for a little Aboriginal fella who went to school in the bad old days and left at 14”, he said.