Indigenous Education

I spoke in parliament yesterday about Indigenous education.
Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Bill, 4 July 2011

The 13th of February 2008 was a historic day for Australia. On that day, for the first time, an Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, officially apologised to the stolen generations. This was a historic moment for Australia—a moment when we acknowledged the tragedies of the past and looked with a fresh eye to the future, a future in which there is no gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, educational achievement or economic opportunity.

When the Labor government took office in 2007, we inherited an appalling legacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inequalities. In the areas of housing, poverty and health, large gaps persisted under the Howard government. We know that Indigenous Australians have a substantially shorter life expectancy. When a young Indigenous baby is born, he or she can expect to live a decade or two fewer than a non-Indigenous baby. It should be simply unacceptable to all of us in this place. It is something that must change—something that will be changed.

Another main issue is improving the educational levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Improving education is fundamental to improving welfare and improving living standards. This government has set out to close the gaps in Indigenous disadvantage. We have set out to close the life expectancy gaps, to close the child mortality gaps, to close the gaps in employment opportunities and to close the gaps in access to early childhood education and educational attainment.

Horace Mann, the early 19th century US congressman and education reformer, whose personal political persuasions were actually more closely akin to those of members opposite, once stated:

'Education … beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.'

This Labor government shares those sentiments, regardless of the political alignment of their initial spokesperson. The importance of education extends well beyond partisan politics.

Education's place in helping to overcome inequality and disadvantage was reinforced for me when I visited Cape York last year and earlier this year, travelling with the House Standing Committee on Economics. Our task was to consider Indigenous economic development, so I used the chance to ask some of the witnesses about the local schools. It was an issue that had come up when we were chatting outside during the coffee break but which did not seem to be getting air time inside the room. Phyllis Yunkaporta, a witness appearing before the committee, told me:

'The education system, as I knew it before, has been of low standard. The curriculum in the past, as it is in all cape Aboriginal communities, has been of very low standard. By the time our children go out to mainstream schools they are hardly there—a child in grade 8 still has the understanding of a child in grade 1. Speaking for Aurukun, I was one of the persons who were invited to the States last October; I went to New York and Los Angeles visiting African-American schools. What we have brought back to Aurukun is a new kind of teaching method and we are having that implemented in the school. Of course it took time. At the beginning it pretty much had been, in my words, chaos before that. Since having this new program come in, if you come to the classrooms in Aurukun the kids are fully focused. This new method of teaching has got them going. The teacher is full-on with the tasks given and you cannot believe it when you enter those classrooms—it is as if some of those kids are play-acting. They are not; they are just full-on, focused. I guess in time we have to have expectations for our children to be educated in a way where they have to balance both worlds—the Western world and the traditional way. Of course we want them to hang onto the traditional way because that is where they are going to be identifying themselves for the future. And with them having to venture out into mainstream, we want them to compete. It is a competitive world out there. We want our black little kids to start taking on the world. That is the aim of all this.'

No words could be closer to the truth. In work that I did as a professor of economics at ANU with Xiaodong Gong, which was published in Education Economics, we looked at the educational attainment gap in Australian schools. We found that when Indigenous children first enter school they are about a year of educational achievement behind their non-Indigenous peers. We also found that by the time Indigenous children have got to the end of primary school the gap has widened—it is then about two years of educational attainment. Our view is that, perversely, that is something to be optimistic about, because there is something going on in the school system—a system which I think government policies are far more amenable to fixing than would have been the case had we discovered that, for example, the gap was already there when the children first entered school. So that work gives me optimism; it gives me a sense that we can do something about closing the gaps between the performance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

But those gaps, make no mistake, are substantial. In 2006, 58 per cent of Indigenous children were rated by their teachers as having low academic performance. In contrast, only 19 per cent of non-Indigenous students were rated as having low academic performance. Of those who started year 11, only 22 per cent of Indigenous students went on to complete the year 12 certificate, compared to 62 per cent of non-Indigenous students. These figures provide some sense of the magnitude of the task faced by this Labor government in addressing the gross inequality in educational attainment in Australia.

Since 2008, the Gillard government has invested over $51 million in Indigenous literacy and numeracy projects. Over 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in over 670 schools across the nation have benefited directly from this assistance. Over the 2009-12 period this government has invested $56.4 million nationally to expand literacy and numeracy programs for Indigenous students. We have provided professional support to assist teachers to develop personalised learning plans for their students. We now have 200 additional teachers in the Northern Territory. The $2½ billion Smarter Schools National Partnerships, which holds Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education as a key focus, has been introduced to target disadvantage and to contribute to improving literacy and numeracy outcomes. We have also approved more than $25 million for 17 projects, over 2011-12, to continue these efforts.

We have seen the early results of such initiatives. The share of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders obtaining year 10 and year 12 certificates has gradually grown, as has the number of Indigenous students undertaking university education and achieving bachelor degrees. It is important that we continue to track these measures and hold our higher education institutions to account to ensure that the educational outcome that we want—boosting bachelor graduation—is actually achieved. It is my view that we should ask universities to publish as much data as they can not only on the number of Indigenous students who are accepted into the institutions but also on the persistence of those students through the system; the ability of our universities to hold on to Indigenous university students at the same rate as they hold on to non-Indigenous university students. Improving the standard of education among Indigenous communities is at the heart of this government's endeavours to affect broad social and cultural change and break the cycle of disadvantage that plagues these communities.

There are three initiatives that I am particularly proud of in my electorate of Fraser—Learning Journeys, the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program. Learning Journeys, which is administered by the Northside Community Service, is a $359,000 program which started in May 2010 and is expected to finish at the end of June 2012. It focuses on the development and implementation of creative and innovative approaches to improving educational outcomes for young Indigenous people as well as on improving parental engagement in schools and with education providers and on the engagement of parents with children's education at home. The project focuses on motivating and encouraging adults within families to play an active role in their children's learning journey. This is the kind of active role that we know is so important to educational success. It aims to strengthen the capacity of communities to become active in the school community and to feel respected and empowered to comment on and contribute to the development of schools. It has been a little over 12 months since the program's commencement but already we can point towards a number of outcomes: 82 per cent of parents involved have reported a greater engagement with the local schools; 76 per cent of parents have reported increased presence in the local school community; and 58 per cent of parents say they attended extracurricular events at their school.

The Indigenous Youth Leadership Program likewise is helping to close the gap in Indigenous education disadvantage through support for disadvantaged Indigenous students, mostly from remote and regional areas. There are now six tertiary education students studying in my electorate of Fraser with the support of an Indigenous Youth Leadership Program scholarship. I would like to pay tribute to those students and wish them all the best in their continued studies.

Thirdly, the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program supports young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students aged 16 to 24. This program is administered in the ACT by Auswide Projects, which was originally assisting around 16 participants and due to an increase in demand has now increased its number of places to 24 participants within the ACT.

It is absolutely imperative to the welfare and the quality of life of Indigenous communities that we maintain these efforts. The Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Bill will ensure the government's good work to date will continue. The current Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act provides funding over the 2009-12 period and this bill will extend the current quadrennium to incorporate the 2013 calendar, bringing it into line with the recently extended Schools Assistance Act. This will coincide with the timing of the review of funding for schooling, allowing the government to consider the findings of that report and determine the future structure of funding run under that program.

By re-aligning the legislation to reflect the Schools Assistance Act, we can make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education programs are afforded the attention they deserve. It allows us to engage in close consultation with Indigenous communities and create a cooperative and inclusive learning environment. Such a learning environment has been brought home to me in my own electorate of Fraser, which includes the Jervis Bay Territory. In May I visited Jervis Bay Primary, a school for the children of Defence Force personnel serving at HMAS Creswell and the children of the Wreck Bay Indigenous community. The school has the lowest ICSEA score of any school in my electorate but, when you do a like-schools comparison—as is possible under the government's terrific MySchool website—you actually see that on a like-schools basis Jervis Bay Primary is one of the top performing schools in the ACT system on pretty much every measure you look at.

Jervis Bay Primary is also one of the most beautiful schools in the electorate of Fraser. The oval looks out across the kangaroos to the Pacific Ocean. You get a real sense that this natural environment is part of what builds a strong sense of community in the local school. There are only 84 students, 63 per cent of whom are Indigenous, but everyone seems to know everyone else. As I walked through the K-2 room with two women from the P&C, I heard behind me one of the boys say, 'What are you doing here, Mum?'

I would like to pay tribute to the principal, Bob Pastor, who coordinated a Learning 4 Life meeting, a really valuable initiative which brings together representatives from the local school community as well as Vincentia High School, the main school into which Jervis Bay Primary feeds, the University of Wollongong, Noah's Ark, Booderee National Park, and local preschools and childcare centres. The group promotes the value of education to Indigenous parents and students, with involvement right through the education spectrum from early childhood right up to TAFE and university. It is that lifelong learning philosophy that pervades the bill that is before us today.

The existing range of programs funded under the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act are aimed at improving educational outcomes for Indigenous people, taking a well-rounded approach to improving education outcomes and life opportunities for Indigenous students. The programs are designed to build strong relationships between Indigenous communities—children, parents and teachers—and the government to ensure that specific needs are met with targeted and effective attention. Such programs include the Sporting Chance Program, the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program, the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program, and the Parental and Community Engagement Program. These programs that are delivered under the act are complementary to mainstream schooling activities. The extension of funding for such programs until the end of 2013 will ensure providers, as well as the Indigenous communities, have certainty of continued program operation. I would like to use this opportunity to commend the bill to the House and extend my praise to all those who have worked in its drafting.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.