Saturday, March 1, 2008

Better education outcomes for Indigenous students

On Wednesday 13th February the Australian Parliament finally offered an apology to Indigenous Australians (HT to Jason Goroncy for posting the full text of the apology and speech by the Prime Minister). Prime Minister Rudd's delivery of the apology to the Australian Parliament can be viewed here.

This simple action is seen by many as an important first step in reconciliation and the addressing of inequities faced by Indigenous Australians. My personal hope is that the apology by the parliament will be shared by many Australians, and will lead to positive action that will make a difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Much has written about the reasons for this apology, especially the Stolen Generation. Non-Australians readers of this blog can find out more about this by reading the Bringing them Home report which was the result of a national inquiry into the practice initiated by the Australian government to remove many young Aboriginal children from their families between 1910 and 1970. Now that the long awaited apology has been delivered, it is time for action. It is encouraging that the Federal government has already flagged housing, education and health as critical areas for action. As an educator let me share some thoughts about educational inequity in this country.

Australia has one of the best school systems in the world. In a major OECD assessment project Australia has been ranked equal-sixth in reading. The assessment project is called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It is an internationally standardised assessment that is administered to 15-year-olds in schools. The survey has been conducted in 2000, 2003, 2006 and will be conducted again in 2009. A total of 57 countries participated in 2006 and 62 will take part in the survey in 2009. I have been a member of the national advisory committee since its inception. The tests are typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country.

Dr Sue Thomson is the national project manager for PISA in Australia and recently offered the following comments on the performance of Indigenous Australian students in the Age Newspaper:

"Australia's lowest-performing students are most likely to come from indigenous communities, geographically remote areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds. About 40% of indigenous students, 23% of students from the lowest category of socioeconomic status, and 27% of students from remote schools are not meeting a proficiency level in science that the OECD deems necessary to participate fully in a 21st-century workforce and society."

In relation to literacy and numeracy, the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy published in 2000 by the Commonwealth Department of Education Science and Training concluded that:

"Seven out of every ten Indigenous students in Year 3 are below the national literacy standard, compared to just three out of ten for other Australians. On average, 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. This means Indigenous students are, on average, missing out on more than a year of primary school and more than a year of secondary school. It is not surprising then that some 18% of Australia’s ‘at risk’ youth are Indigenous. Improving the educational opportunities and achievements of Indigenous Australians is an urgent national priority."

While more recent reports suggest there has been some slight improvement, the proportion of Indigenous students achieving accepted benchmarks, continues to be below the proportions for non-Indigenous students, with the greatest gap in the Northern Territory and remote regions of Australia. Little has changed in the last 8 years. Something to note from the above quote is the mention of school attendance. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that literacy assessments like PISA and State based basic skills tests largely test school literacy. We shouldn't be surprised when students who miss lots of school don't do as well as students who have good attendance records. And of course you cannot separate under-achievement at school from issues of health, housing, family breakdown and crisis. Hence, it is encouraging that the Federal government intends to work on housing, health and education in parallel. If justice for Indigenous students is to be achieved then concerted efforts by all levels of government as well as interested community agencies will be needed.

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