Indigenous education: closing – and opening – the gaps

Feb 21, 2018

The reports and narratives around the strategy to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are quite well-known, if only because they don’t change much from year to year. With the possible exception of education, not many targets are being reached. The gains in education in numeracy, reading and school retention will be welcomed by schools more used to wearing all the blame for deficiencies in student achievement. We seem to be closing the gaps that we measure, but a new report from the Centre for Policy Development shows that we risk widening the gaps that we choose to ignore – especially those created by where indigenous students go to school. 

This report, completed by this writer in conjunction with Christina Ho and Garry Richards, is one of a series entitled In a class of their own. The first in the series, A creeping indigenous separation, shows how most indigenous students, especially the strugglers, end up in the schools with the least capacity to address their pre-existing disadvantage. The often cited statistical averages about indigenous student achievement obscure the significance of this.

Those familiar with such schools will have seen many heroic efforts to lift the most disadvantaged kids in their care. We hear about some of these schools and efforts: the work done by Chris Sarra and the Stronger Smarter Institute is especially well-known. Many schools are stand-outs and new learning designs are challenging what schools should do, and what success should really look like. We also hear – because the schools often tell us – about the numbers and success of indigenous students in more advantaged schools.

In contrast, the biggest task remains with the schools at the bottom end of Australia’s regressive socio-educational (SEA) ladder. As illustrated in this and other CPD reports, our hierarchy of schools impacts on the disadvantaged in general, but very visibly on most indigenous students. It is most rather than all, because there are layers of advantage/disadvantage within and between indigenous communities, just as in the wider community. Those who can, will scramble up the school ladder; those who can’t face a greater challenge – increasingly in a class of strugglers, a class of their own.

Generalisations about indigenous Australia have always been deficient. Stan Grant reminds us how we know about indigenous people in jail but don’t seem to know about the 30,000 indigenous university graduates and about 15,000 currently enrolled. He points to hundreds of thousands of indigenous people for whom the gap has already closed. Ross Gittins shows that while the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has been narrowing, the gap within the indigenous group has been widening, including between those in urban and regional Australia.

This forms much of the background and some explanation for our recent findings, reported in A creeping indigenous separation. Most indigenous students attend schools well down that socio-educational school ladder, mainly lower SEA government and Catholic schools and some remote independent schools. The government schools face the biggest challenge because, as our research illustrates, even in poorer communities the two private sectors tend to enrol the more advantaged among Indigenous students. In doing so they can still tick an equity box – of sorts.

There is nothing surprising about this. Indigenous families enrol their children in schools which are locally available and accessible. In most cases this means government schools, the ones which must be available to all families, regardless of location and circumstance. Schools which are not required to provide such access, particularly non-government schools, don’t usually have high indigenous enrolments; the charging of school fees at any level usually determines who gains access.

Enrolment data also suggest that practices regarding enrolment of indigenous students vary considerably. Anglican schools in regional NSW, for example, have a small indigenous enrolment while Christian schools, often in the same town, have a higher indigenous enrolment.

It is also hardly surprising that more indigenous families in a position to do so, will – for a range of reasons and just like many other Australians – seek to access government schools in higher socio-educational (SES) communities and/or pay the required private school fees. But just like any other family which seeks what they see as an advantage, they contribute to the well-known compounding of disadvantage in the schools they leave behind. This blames no one; it is just how the system works.

How does this compounding disadvantage play out on the ground? Schools with students who are advantaged accumulate the social, cultural and even financial capital of their supportive and resourceful parents. Schools which enrol an increasing proportion of disadvantaged students gradually lose the resource of higher-performers and role models. Teacher experiences and expectations, as well as curriculum offerings and access, can change and resources might be scarce. Teachers increasingly have to consolidate skills and knowledge already traversed. The odds against making the much-needed breakthroughs mount up. Certainly schools can still make breakthroughs, but it becomes much harder and considerably more expensive.

The residualisation of the schools closer to the bottom of the SEA ladder is magnified in regional areas where a majority of indigenous students attend school. The reality for these schools is that there is no one below them on the school ladder. They don’t win the more advantaged students from the higher rungs and must accept anyone on the way down.

This is also more noticeable in the regional centres and towns because the successful and the strugglers often live close to each other – but with their children going to very different schools. Centres such as Coffs Harbour, Orange, Tamworth-Gunnedah and Wagga Wagga offer a considerable choice of schools, something which, for the poor, is an illusion. Even in the smaller towns there are usually fewer indigenous students in the Catholic schools. What might resemble a black-white enrolment divide may not even reflect active discrimination; it is the level of school fees which sorts everyone out. In such communities there is no such thing as a low-fee school.

Why does it all matter? In our earlier CPD reports the late Bernie Shepherd and I showed the relationship between the socio-educational school divide and measurable student achievement. But the enrolment divide involving indigenous students is about much more. It impedes what could be progress towards closing the gap. It highlights an unhappy racial aspect atop longstanding, if loose, layers of social class. It inhibits the development of interpersonal understanding and social harmony. It limits the development of social and cultural capital. Schools become less able to address the most intractable problems faced by many indigenous families. In short, we just won’t improve equity for all if we persist in compounding disadvantage.

While an experience of schooling is shared by all, indigenous and non-indigenous children increasingly don’t share the same school. Closing this gap needs to be part of the obligation of every school: we will only do it if we increase the number and proportion of our schools which are obliged to be open to children from every family in every circumstance in every part of Australia.

It seems that concerns about slow progress towards targets has triggered an overhaul of the Closing the Gap strategy. They will reshape the targets, maybe broaden their reach, widen the consultation and be happy enough with a job well done. Little will change unless they come to grips with a framework of schools intent on widening the gaps.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Director of Big Picture Education Australia.

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