Indigenous leaders say it’s time to listen to them on Closing the Gap.


30 May 2017

Next year will mark 10 years since Kevin Rudd’s apology to Australia’s First Peoples – 10 years of attempting to Close the Gap in health, education and employment. With little sign of success, Indigenous community leaders now say it’s time to listen to them.

It has been a common refrain – made again in this year’s ninth Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s report – that attempts at progress are being “done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not with them”.

Last year, 24 years after Paul Keating’s famous speech, there was a new Redfern Statement. This time it was made not by a PM but by a fresh coalition of Indigenous bodies, led by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and supported by more than 50 organisations including Oxfam and Amnesty International.

As Rod Little, co-chair of the congress and an Amangu and Wajuk man from Western Australia, told this year’s AEU federal conference, its underlying message was: “We have
the solutions.”

Little, who has worked with Chris Sarra’s Stronger Smarter Institute and at the federal Department of Education, is overseeing the congress’s education policy. Underpinned by accountability and transparency, it calls for collaboration in design, development and delivery of programs and a focus on educational attainment and progress.

The Redfern Statement says 25 years of official support for “self-determination” have proved to be only lip service while the challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples continue to be marginalised, and the “transformative opportunities for government action are yet to be grasped”.

Little told the AEU conference that everyone involved in education needed to be brave enough to take a hard look at systems, policies and practices and have a genuine discussion with each other about what needed to change, and “excite people about where we go next”.

“We, as First Peoples, have the solutions. We have the experience, we have the solutions. And we can achieve what we set out to achieve.”

Preschool access

In early childhood, the National Congress goes beyond the Closing the Gap target of enrolling 95 per cent of Indigenous children in preschool in the year before primary school.

Indigenous children are twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to have a developmental vulnerability by the time they start primary school, but are half as likely to have had access to early childhood education.

The statement calls for 20 hours of subsidised access to early childhood education and care for all children. Key to this would be Indigenous community-controlled bodies that have already been proven to overcome barriers to access and respond to the needs of families.

Early childhood services also provide a gateway to health and social services that can strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect. This would reduce the risk of child removal. Forty-four per cent of children in out-of-home care were removed from their families before they reached primary school age.

The Closing the Gap report highlights that it is children in very remote areas who face the severest challenges, and whose attendance and attainment skew national statistics.

A perspective on life in a remote school came from Donna Bridge, principal at Fitzroy Valley District High School in the central Kimberley, who addressed the federal conference by Skype because wet-season floods had cut off her community.

For her, the need for all schools to work with their community is intensified in remote schools by the rapid turnover of staff and the fact that, more than most, they are “very much a reflection of the communities – so when communities struggle, schools struggle”, and it's the schools that cop the blame.

For example, floods had kept alcohol out of her community for a few days. As soon as the road to Broome reopened, the alcohol returned, and school attendance immediately dropped. At such times, students were more focused on survival than learning, she said.


These are things NAPLAN can’t measure, says Bridge. Nor can it credit the school’s vital contribution to community wellbeing.

Not that NAPLAN doesn’t have its place, says Bridge. “It’s just that we tend to place more value on data that can be statistically measured, such as comparing progress and attendance. The two are very linked but are indicators of success in students who come to school ready to learn.

“Our measurement tools are centred very much around the westernised version of schooling.

We don’t measure the story of change and empowerment that enables the achievement of NAPLAN and attendance.”

Fitzroy Crossing is full of abandoned initiatives that are testament to outsiders who come in with funding, drive a project then leave, she says. It takes time to build honest relationships, and principals and teachers in remote schools are usually on fixed-term contracts and are ready to leave after three or four years.

Having been at the school for seven years, Bridge is a rarity among remote principals.

“People are [finally] starting to realise I’m here and I’m staying. Therefore the level of trust has increased significantly so we can start real, sustainable conversations around how we work together to better support the community and the kids.”

If continuity can’t come from the school leaders, there is a need to start looking to the community for it, she says. The community needs “the capacity and the voice to say we want it done this way because this way works for us”.