Holistic Approaches to Indigenous Educational Disadvantage

January 18, 2010

I wrote a blog post back in February 2008 (here) on Indigenous educational disadvantage. The post was motivated by an apology by the Prime Minister and the Australian Parliament on the 13th February 2008 that was focussed on the injustices that Indigenous Australians had suffered since white settlement began in 1788. The apology was met with widespread support, but many people (including me), called for action to address disadvantage now that this first step had been taken. In my post I pointed out by way of an example, that Indigenous Australians were greatly disadvantaged in educational opportunities. I cited the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy published in 2000 by the Commonwealth Department of Education Science, which concluded that:
a) Seven out of every ten Indigenous students in Year 3 are below the national literacy standard, compared to just three out of ten 'other' Australians.
b) Indigenous students miss out on up to one day of schooling every week, compared to around just three days every term for other Australian students, meaning that Indigenous students, on average, miss out on more than a year of primary school and more than a year of secondary school compared to other children.
c) That 18% of Australia’s ‘at risk’ youth are Indigenous.

I concluded my post by saying that "my hope is that we won't be reading 2008 reports in 2010 that have not been activated, nor should we able to read them in 2013 and say little has changed."

I write again 2 years later in 2010 and report that more recent data are discouraging. A report by the Australian Council for Educational Research as part of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published in 2009 is depressing. The report draws on data from PISA for the period 2000-2006. It brings together analyses of the achievement of Australian Indigenous students in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy in each of the three cycles of the PISA conducted in 2000, 2003 and 2006. I serve on the National Advisory Committee of PISA as one of three academic representatives. The key findings are as follows:
1. Indigenous students have performed at a substantially lower average level in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy than their non-Indigenous peers.
2. In each domain, the average for Indigenous students was more than 80 score points (or more than one proficiency level) lower than non-Indigenous students and more than 50 score points lower than the OECD average.
3. Indigenous students are over represented at the lower proficiency levels and underrepresented at the upper levels in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.
4. In terms of year level proficiency standards, there is a gap of around two years between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
5. Internationally, Indigenous students are performing well below the OECD average and nationally perspective, and they are well below the performance of non-Indigenous students.
6. More than one third of Indigenous students did not achieve a proficiency level in reading, mathematics and science literacy considered to be the minimum level necessary to meet the challenges faced in life beyond school.
The PISA report concludes that "...initiatives to improve the education of Indigenous students through educational policy have to date had little effect."

The above has been followed in recent days by the release of a United Nations report - State of the World's Indigenous Peoples - that has shown that Indigenous people in Australia and Nepal had the lowest life expectancy of all indigenous people around the world. Life expectancy was the lowest amongst the 90 nations, with Australia's Indigenous people dying up to 20 years earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts.

All groups within Australian society must take collective responsibility for addressing the significant disadvantage of Indigenous Australians. A number of Christian organizations and many individuals have been working in Indigenous communities for decades but much more needs to be done. A good example of grass roots action is Yirara College run by the Lutheran Church in Alice Springs within the Northern Territory. Similarly, a good example of efforts in urban areas is the initiative of St Andrews School in Sydney that has established a special campus in Redfern that is tackling Indigenous educational needs head on. Gawura is a small community based school of about 25 children in mixed staged classes from Kindergarten to Year 6 is focussed on the teaching of literacy, numeracy and elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and tradition.

These are good initiatives but it will require many more initiatives of this kind if we are to make a difference. It is also obvious that Indigenous health problems, high levels of adult unemployment, various addictions, and poor housing are all related. We need an holistic approach and we've been saying this for a long time. But far too often our efforts in addressing educational disadvantage have been tokenistic and have lacked persistence and follow-up. It will require all levels of government and communities of interest that grasp the injustices facing Indigenous Australians and take positive action to make a difference.

Related Reading

'Aborigines have worst life expectancy' (here)

United Nations Report on 'State of the World's Indigenous People' (here)

New York Times report on high levels of educational disadvantage in USA southern states (here)

Australian Human Rights Commission Report (here)

Educating Indigenous Young People from Remote Communities (here)

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