The recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Australia have highlighted widespread community concern about the ongoing racism and disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. Although the demonstrations were primarily focused on police brutality and Indigenous deaths in custody, they have opened up a wider conversation about the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia.
Education is one key area in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage persists, as was revealed by the findings of the 2020 Closing the Gap Report. As that Report emphasises, education has a strong association with employability, income, health and control over one’s life. Better education outcomes can also have positive intergenerational flow-on effects. Hence, addressing the educational disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is crucial in seeking to reduce the broader inequalities of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australian society.
This article will outline the findings of the most recent Closing the Gap Report, focusing on the progress made in relation to education. It will then consider some of the actions that schools should take in order to support and empower their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
What is ‘Closing the Gap’?
The Closing the Gap initiative began in 2008, with the core goal of achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in health and life expectancy. At that time, all Australian governments formally committed to specific targets for reducing disadvantage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy, mortality, employment and education. The targets were:
- close the gap in life expectancy by 2031
- halve the gap in child mortality by 2018
- ensure that 95 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education by 2025
- halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy by 2018
- halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020
- halve the gap in employment by 2018
- close the gap in school attendance by 2018 (this target was added in May 2014).
Have We Closed the Gap?
The 12th annual Closing the Gap Report was tabled in Federal Parliament in February 2020. The Report indicates that only two of the seven targets, which were the targets relating to early childhood education and Year 12 attainment, are rated as currently “on track”. Hence, while progress has been made in some areas, the gap is still far from closed.
School attendance rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have not improved over the past five years. The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attended school for an average of just over 4 days a week in 2019. The attendance rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students remained lower than those of other Australian students (around 82 per cent compared to 92 per cent in 2019), indicating the continuing existence of an attendance gap between the two groups of students.
The attendance gap is evident from the first year of schooling but widens during secondary school. In 2019, the attendance rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary school students was 85 per cent, which was around 9 percentage points lower than the attendance rate of other Australian students. By Year 10, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attend school around 72 per cent of the time on average, which is around 17 percentage points lower than the attendance rates of their other Australian peers.
Literacy and Numeracy
At the national level, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at or above the national minimum standards in reading and numeracy has improved since 2008. The gap between the two groups of students has narrowed across all year levels by between 3 and 11 percentage points.
Despite these improvements, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are still trailing behind their peers. In 2018, about one in four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Years 5, 7 and 9 remained below national minimum standards in reading. Between 17 to 19 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were below the national minimum standards in numeracy.
For some perspective on this gap, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Indigenous students’ literacy and numeracy skills have improved at a faster rate than their peers over the past decade, but not fast enough to close the gap before next century.
Year 12 Attainment
In 2018-19, approximately 66 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples between 20 to 24 years had attained Year 12 or equivalent. Since Closing the Gap was initiated in 2008, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aged 20 to 24 years attaining year 12 or equivalent increased by around 21 percentage points. This has resulted in the gap narrowing by around 15 percentage points, as attainment rates for other Australians have improved at a slower pace.
What is the Role of Schools in Closing the Gap?
The findings of the Closing the Gap Report illustrate that the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their other Australian peers is far from closed in relation to education. There is no quick or simple way to resolve this inequality. Professor Mark Rose argues that addressing the educational disadvantage of Indigenous Australians will require “real consultation, consistent policies, concerted and persistent effort by governments, and a real commitment to funding”. Clearly then, schools will not be able to solve this issue on their own. However, there are actions that schools can and should take to support their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
According to experts, the stagnation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational outcomes is connected to the racism that those students experience at school. In a recent School Governance article, we highlighted the damaging presence of racism in Australian schools and suggested measures that could be taken to protect students from racial discrimination. It is vital that schools implement such measures and make Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students feel that school is a safe and supportive environment for them.
Another significant step that schools can take is to ensure that there is a strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence within the school. Professor Bodkins-Andrews suggests that this presence should be established not only through meaningful community partnerships, but also through the employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, administration staff and senior management. This aligns with calls from World Vision for every school to employ a local Indigenous teacher to help bolster students’ understanding of Indigenous culture and to reduce discrimination in schools. Ensuring a strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence within the school is likely to help in creating an environment in which those students feel included and engaged.
Providing training for teachers and staff in how they can best support Indigenous students is also important. According to the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, Indigenous students have reported feeling supported when the people at their schools:
- care about them and who they are as Indigenous people
- expect them to succeed in education
- help them to learn about their cultures, histories and languages.
Teachers and staff will need guidance and training in helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to feel supported in these ways.
Eliminating the educational disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is a crucial part of broader efforts aimed at promoting equality and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Since a commitment was made to Closing the Gap in 2008, the disparity in educational outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians has improved in some areas. However, the 2020 Closing the Gap report makes it clear that the gap remains significant and stubborn in relation to certain issues, especially literacy and numeracy skills and school attendance. Schools may not be able to singlehandedly solve the problem of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational disadvantage, but there are actions they can take to support their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in important and meaningful ways.