​Slow progress on Closing the Gap

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By Kate O’Halloran

A new report into remote and very remote education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students highlights huge gaps in key measures of educational attainment.

One of the most startling statistics shows that the percentage of students in Years 1 to 10 who attend school at least 90 per cent of the time is as low as 22.8 per cent. This compares with 70 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

In remote locations, as few as 29 per cent of 17-year-old Indigenous students are attending school at any given time, and this figure drops to as low as 16 per cent in very remote communities.

Knowledge of such gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students isn’t new. In 2008, under the Rudd Labor government, the Council of Australian Governments recognised that “coordinated and significant national action” was required to address the levels of disadvantage facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Six targets were established, with an additional one added in 2014. Four related to education.

At the time, the government ambitiously set these targets to:

  • Ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities
    by 2013.
  • Halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018.
  • Halve the gap for Indigenous students’ attainment rates in Year 12 (or equivalent) by 2020.

In 2014 it added a new goal: to close the gap between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous school attendance within five years (by 2018).

The new report tracks the progress – or lack thereof – that has been made on these key targets, and its findings are damning.

The report, Educational Provision for Remote Indigenous Communities: Government responses to delivering the Closing the Gap targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, was commissioned by the AEU and written by education consultant Peter Johnson. Johnson has a wealth of experience in education and the public sector, and was heavily involved in the 2011–15 More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative.

Dearth of data

On the subject of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, the federal government’s 2016 Productivity Commission reported that:

  • The level of progress in the areas of early childhood education and improvement in literacy and numeracy achievement is unclear.
  • There has been no significant change in school attendance.
  • There has been some progress in year 12 attainment.

Johnson told Australian Educator that independently evaluating the progress made on each measure had been a difficult task because data was hard to find.

“You could be cynical and suggest that government knows the achievements are not good,” he says.

“This is serious. Sixteen per cent [of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attending school at 17 years of age] is virtually a non-enrolment.”

The Coalition government has amended one of the original Closing the Gap goals, dropping the target of having 100 per cent preschool attendance for Indigenous children in remote communities to 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025.

For Johnson, this speaks loudly of the government’s level of commitment to eliminating Indigenous disadvantage:

“What they’re saying is that it’s acceptable that five per cent of these kids won’t go to preschool. That’s unacceptable. And to say it’s going to take an extra 12 years on top of that to do it? That’s incredible.

“They’ve just thrown out a white flag and said, 'this is all too hard'.”

Indeed, the Coalition appeared to do exactly that in 2014 when it announced $534 million in cuts to Indigenous programs, including to key initiatives such as Aboriginal Child and Family Centres.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said the Turnbull government had no positive agenda for lifting Indigenous education, and its cuts to Gonski funding would make it harder for schools educating Indigenous students.

“Gonski loadings deliver extra funding to remote schools and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, in recognition of the challenges they face,” Haythorpe said.

“That funding is already helping provide programs that can be targeted to local communities and culture. Stopping those extra resources will make it very hard for schools to build on the progress they have made.

“On top of that the Turnbull government plans to cut funding to public schools in the NT, which educate thousands of students in remote communities.”

Cultural insensitivity

The cuts highlight a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues remote and very remote communities face, says Johnson.

“At the centre of this issue is the need for educational provision which better engages with remote and very remote communities, and is sensitive to the cultural diversity of these communities,” he says in his report’s conclusion.

Change can’t happen, he says, while the government continues to push solutions that are made without “proper consultation with the communities that are the future subjects of their implementation, and an absence of adequate and ongoing funding”.

As a key example of a culturally insensitive approach, Johnson singles out the current practice of sending Aboriginal children from remote and very remote communities to metropolitan high schools.

“It totally disconnects them from their community. They stand out like a beacon because they are one of only a handful of Indigenous kids in a school and they are meant to conform to a lifestyle that’s very different to what they have at home.”

Overwhelming experience

Paul Bridge, a principal with more than 28 years of teaching experience in rural and remote Western Australia, knows first-hand the dangers of such an approach.

An Indigenous man, Bridge was raised in the Kimberley region of WA and sent to boarding school in Perth where, despite being a “resilient” teen, he found the experience gruelling and very difficult.

“It’s quite overwhelming,” he says. “I got through because I had strong support from my family, who were committed to seeing me succeed. But even I really struggled in terms of coping with the climate and the whole different cultural experience.

“If we’re going to send kids away, we need to put in place appropriate support.

“We have this situation where we create all those support structures in remote communities – being connected to country, connected to family, connecting schools to community – and then at the end of primary school we say, ‘Off you go…and we want you to succeed.’

“Isn’t that a great set-up for failure?”

In fact, there’s little evidence to show that sending Indigenous students away from remote communities has been successful in any state or territory, he says.

Bridge is especially critical of the neo-colonial undertones of sending Aboriginal children away to predominantly white, metropolitan schools while remote communities face continuing funding cuts, as well as the alarming prospect of being ‘closed’ altogether by state and federal governments.

Governments need to respect the importance of remote communities to Aboriginal people, he says.

“Remote communities are out there because Aboriginal people are connected to their country. Think of all the other social impacts if people weren’t living out on country and they weren’t connected to their community.”

Bridge believes the most successful models of remote education have been built on a close connection between schools and their communities, with a respect for local culture.

“There are some really good examples of remote communities and schools that do wonderful work because they have a clear understanding of what the community expects in terms of educating students.

They support their staff and build capacity around their staff and achieving the community plan, with significant community ownership of education.”

Such success relies on bipartisan, ongoing funding and support, Bridge says.

“If you look at some of our processes… we’re constantly looking for the silver bullet, the quick fix. When new governments come in, their agenda is different, they go and change it. They take the funding from you. But in terms of getting traction, you won’t have significant change over two or three years. Sustainable change takes five to 10 years.

“Remote communities are that bit more complex. It comes down to consistency of approach over time.”

Teaching follow-through

When it comes to Closing the Gap measures, it’s too simple to say they weren’t working, says Bridge.

What they needed was more cultural sensitivity, follow-through and funding.

He notes, for example, the success of the More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative, but says the teachers needed further training and investment.

“Traditionally, remote schools have been training grounds for teachers. You have inexperienced school principals leading inexperienced school staff. The principals need support from experienced principals. The teachers need support from experienced teachers who come into the classroom to observe and mentor.”

He says he supported the initiative, but quality assurance was needed to make sure the teachers could deliver programs to the highest standard “because Aboriginal students deserve the best”.

“Aboriginal students can achieve in the same way as non-Aboriginal students,” Bridge says.