Indigenous students made up 5.7% of total students in Australia, ranging from 1.7% in Victoria to 38% in the Northern Territory
In 2021, 68% (45,822) of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 had attained a Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate III or above)
- Between 2011 and 2021, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aged 20–24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate III or above) increased from 52% to 68%. Improvements were observed in all jurisdictions, with the largest increases in Western Australia (17.7 percentage point increase), South Australia (16.6 percentage point increase) and New South Wales (15.8 percentage point increase).
- The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent in 2021 decreased with increasing remoteness of usual residence: 76% in Major cities, 68% in Inner regional areas, 66% in Outer regional areas, 53% in Remote areas, and 42% in Very remote areas. Improvements were also observed across all 5 remoteness areas between 2011 and 2021, ranging between a 12 percentage point increase (in Very remote areas) to a 15 percentage point increase (in Outer regional areas).
- In 2021, the Year 12 or equivalent attainment rate was 1.3 times as high for non-Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 as for Indigenous Australians (91% compared with 68%). As rates of year 12 attainment increased more for Indigenous Australians over the period from 2011 to 2021, the gap (rate difference) decreased, from 34 to 23 percentage points.
- Between 2012 and 2021, national apparent retention rates of full-time Indigenous students for Year 7/8 to Year 12 increased by 7.9 percentage points to 59%. In the same period, the Year 7/8 to Year 12 rate for Other Australian students increased by 3.2 percentage points to 84.5% resulting in a narrowing of the gap.
- In 2021, among Indigenous students, females had higher apparent retention rates than males across all school year groups and in all jurisdictions. Nationally, the apparent retention rate for female Indigenous students was 63% from Year 7/8 to Year 12, compared with 55% for male Indigenous students.
- The 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey showed the proportion of Indigenous secondary school students who identified various types of assistance they felt would support them completing Year 12. These included support from family, friends and school (85%); more individual tutoring (43%); career guidance (39%); provision of coaches or mentors (33%); and support networks (33%).
- While research has highlighted that school attendance and retention are important, it also highlights that improving school attendance in Indigenous communities requires concerted action between well-resourced schools and communities to create local strategies that are context sensitive, culturally appropriate, collaborative, and foster lifelong learning.
- Research also shows that in addition to a focus on school attendance and retention, school engagement is important. School engagement can be influenced by contextual factors such as students’ experiences, needs and characteristics, including self-identity and connectedness; the school and classroom context, including teacher quality, attitudes of peers and culturally inclusive practices in schools; and the wider environment, including parental and community involvement.
- Other research shows that racism can affect school achievement. Evaluation of the Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) program showed evidence of how such a program can improve racial and racism literacy, acceptance of difference, empathy and general confidence.
Why is it important?
Education is well recognised as a key social determinant of health. Higher levels of education are associated with improved health outcomes through greater health literacy and better prospects for socioeconomic status (including income and employment), though higher education levels are associated with improved health regardless of socioeconomic status (Baker et al. 2011; Hart et al. 2017; Marmot et al. 2008). Higher education levels also support increased access to safe and healthy housing (see measures 2.01 Housing and 2.02 Access to functional housing with utilities); healthy lifestyle choices such as regularly eating fruit and vegetables; and lower likelihood of smoking (see measures 2.19 Dietary behaviours and 2.15 Tobacco use) (Clark & Utz 2014). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who complete Year 12, or a higher qualification, are more likely to be employed, to work full-time, and have higher skilled jobs than early school leavers (Shirodkar et al. 2018; Venn & Biddle 2018).
Engagement or participation in education is crucial for achieving essential life skills, such as literacy and numeracy, and achieving adequate levels of education is one of the key factors likely to contribute to reducing Indigenous inequality (Purdie & Buckley 2010). The ‘apparent retention rate’ is an estimate of the extent to which students stay on at school until Year 10 and until Year 12. Another measure is the ‘attainment rate’, that is, the extent to which students are awarded a certificate at the end of Year 10 or Year 12. Historically, Indigenous students have had lower retention and attainment rates compared with non-Indigenous students. It is also important to note that retention and completion do not reflect the quality of education–NAPLAN results suggest a considerable proportion of Indigenous students are not reaching minimum standards (see measure 2.04 Literacy and numeracy).
In July 2020, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) was developed in partnership between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The agreement has identified the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving their full learning potential. To support this outcome the National Agreement includes the following targets to direct policy attention and monitor progress:
- Target 4—By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) to 55 per cent.
- Target 5—By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (age 20–24) attaining Year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96 per cent.
For the latest data on the Closing the Gap targets, see the Closing the Gap Information Repository.
In 2021, there were 100,609 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Years 7 to 12, making up 5.7% of total students in Australia. The highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were in New South Wales (32,909) and Queensland (31,448), comprising 6.2% of total students in New South Wales and 8.1% in Queensland (Table D2.05.4, Table D2.05.5).
In the Northern Territory, 38% of Year 7 to 12 students (6,111) identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In the other jurisdictions, the proportion of Indigenous students ranged from 1.7% (7,574) in Victoria to 9.8% (3,567) in Tasmania (Table D2.05.4, Table D2.05.5).
Year 7 represents the first year of secondary school in all states and territories, except South Australia. In South Australia Year 8 is the beginning of secondary schooling in most schools (with Year 7 the first year in some). Senior secondary school consists of 2 years from Year 11 to Year 12.
Rates of school retention and attainment are important markers of education outcomes in a population. The apparent school retention rate from Years 7/8 to Year 12 is an estimate of the percentage of students who stayed enrolled full time in secondary school from the start of secondary school (Year 7 or 8, depending on jurisdiction) to Year 12. The first year of secondary school is referred as Year 7/8 when reporting the numbers and rates hereafter. This is estimated based on the total number of students who stay enrolled in each school year. The Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates represent the number of students who meet the requirements of a Year 12 or equivalent qualification, expressed as a proportion of the estimated potential Year 12 population.
In 2021, the national apparent retention rate from Year 7/8 to Year 12 for Indigenous students was 59%, compared with 84.5% for other students (Table D2.05.2). Other students include non-Indigenous students and those whose Indigenous status is unknown.
Female Indigenous students had higher apparent retention rates than male Indigenous students across all five school year groups in all jurisdictions. Nationally, the apparent retention rate for female Indigenous students from Year 7/8 to Year 12 was 63%, compared with 55% for male Indigenous students (Table D2.05.2).
New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory all had apparent retention rates of Indigenous students from Year 7/8 to Year 10 of 100%, with rates below 100% in Queensland (99%), Western Australia (90%) and the Northern Territory (75%) (Table D2.05.2, Figure 2.05.1).
From Year 7/8 to Year 12, apparent retention rates of Indigenous students were lowest (33%) in the Northern Territory and highest in the Australian Capital Territory (84%) (Table D2.05.2, Figure 2.05.1).
Figure 2.05.1: Apparent retention rate of Indigenous students, by jurisdiction and school years retained, 2021
Between 2012 and 2021, national apparent retention rates of full-time Indigenous students increased in each of the measured school year groups. The Year 7/8 to Year 12 rate for Indigenous students increased by 7.9 percentage points to 59%. In the same period, the Year 7/8 to Year 12 rate for Other Australian students increased by 3.2 percentage points to 84.5% resulting in a narrowing of the gap (Table D2.05.3, Figure 2.05.2).
Figure 2.05.2: Apparent Year 7/8–Year 10 and Year 7/8–Year 12 retention rates, by Indigenous status, 2012 to 2021
The National Agreement includes a target to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 attaining a Year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96% by 2031. The new target measures a Year 12 attainment or Certificate III or above as the equivalent qualification, a change from the 2008 Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Closing the Gap target, which measured a Year 12 attainment or Certificate II or above as the equivalent qualification.
The ABS Census of Population and Housing is the primary data source for measuring the target to increase Year 12 attainment or equivalent (Certificate III or above).
The 2021 Census data showed that 45,822 (68%) Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 had attained a Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate III or above). By jurisdiction, rates of Year 12 or equivalent attainment in 2021 were highest in the Australian Capital Territory (82%), and lowest in Western Australia (61%) and the Northern Territory (40%) (Table D2.05.1, Figure 2.05.3).
The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent in 2021 decreased with increasing remoteness of usual residence: 76% in Major cities, 68% in Inner regional areas, 66% in Outer regional areas, 53% in Remote areas, and 42% in Very remote areas (Table D2.05.1).
Figure 2.05.3: Proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate III or above), by jurisdiction, 2021
The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent increased from 52% in the 2011 Census, to 63% in 2016, and 68% in 2021. Improvements were observed in every jurisdiction, with the largest absolute increases in Year 12 attainment observed in Western Australia (17.7 percentage point increase), South Australia (16.6 percentage point increase) and New South Wales (15.8 percentage point increase) (Table D2.05.1).
Improvements were also observed across all 5 remoteness areas between 2011 and 2021, ranging from a 12.2 percentage point increase among those living in Very remote areas to a 15.0 percentage point increase in Outer regional areas (Table D2.05.1).
Among non-Indigenous Australians, the proportion who had completed Year 12 or equivalent increased from 85% to 91% between 2011 and 2021. As rates of year 12 attainment increased more for Indigenous Australians than non-Indigenous Australians over the period from 2011 to 2021, the gap decreased over the decade (from 34 to 23 percentage points). The relative difference (rate ratio) also decreased. In 2011 the non-Indigenous Year 12 attainment rate was 1.6 times as high as the rate for Indigenous Australians and this decreased to 1.3 times as high in 2021 (Table D2.05.1, Figure 2.05.4).
Figure 2.05.4: Completion of Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate III or above) for Australians aged 20–24, by Indigenous status, 2011, 2016 and 2021
In the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, information was collected from parents or guardians on types of assistance they thought would help secondary school students aged under 15 continue going to school until they had completed Year 12. These included support from family, friends and school (reported for 85% of students); more individual tutoring (43%); career guidance (39%); provision of coaches or mentors (33%); and support networks (33%) (Table D2.05.6).
What do research and evaluations tell us?
Research analysing potential factors influencing Indigenous school readiness, education participation and achievement has revealed that challenges which start early in life can have long-term impacts. Indigenous children in their first year of school are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable in all domains identified by the Australian Early Development Index (now a Census). Indigenous children are also less likely to attend preschool or private schools than non-Indigenous children, and this partly explains the differences in education outcomes by the age of 15 years which then flow on to education outcomes later in life (Biddle & Cameron 2012). After controlling for a range of factors, Arcos Holzinger and Biddle (2015) found at ages five to seven (two years after preschool enrolment) participation in preschool had a significant positive impact on vocabulary for Indigenous students. Over the longer-term (three to five years after preschool enrolment) positive impacts on developmental outcomes, reading and maths achievement were seen for Indigenous Australian students.
School attendance is a key factor driving school outcomes for Indigenous students. A study showed around 18% of the gap in performance in maths and around 21% of the gap in reading between Indigenous and non-Indigenous 15-year-olds was explained by poorer school attendance by Indigenous students (Biddle 2014).
The main drivers for leaving school early vary, with research indicating that work aspirations, low interest in schoolwork, and welfare and personal needs being the most common reasons. The inter-relationships between schools, families and students also have a profound influence on a student’s interest to stay in school. Many students who leave school early have poorer academic confidence and performance than those who complete school, and students from more socioeconomically disadvantaged families tend to struggle academically in school. A strong academic foundation emphasises early reading and language development, and continuing involvement of parents in their children’s schoolwork fosters academic achievements. Parents from more socioeconomically disadvantaged families often have limited education and capacity to participate in tasks that their children bring home from school, compared with other families. Schools often assume that supervision of schoolwork happens at home, but this can occur more often in some households than others. As academic performance weakens relative to that of their peers, students from more socioeconomically disadvantaged families tend to adjust what they hope to get in life, becoming more likely to be interested in gaining work-related skills rather than exceling in school subjects that would help them to obtain a tertiary education (Lamb et al. 2004). Early studies suggest these negative experiences of school have significant effects on the perceptions of and commitment to education among Indigenous students. For example, Indigenous students reported being discriminated against by other students at school because of their language and cultural practice. Indigenous parents also reported feeling intensely uncomfortable with teachers and uncertain about how to interact (if at all) with schools (Schwab 1999). The negative experience at school for Indigenous students and their parents, and the lack of support from the school to resolve those issues, may exacerbate the negative perception of education, which may have contributed to the differences in school retention rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
While educational achievement for all students decreases with increasing remoteness, the decrease is more significant for Indigenous students, and there are a range of out-of-school and school-based factors that explain why this is the case. Indigenous Australians are much more likely to live in regions and areas where issues to do with accessibility make the provision of education and training much more costly. Salary costs pertaining to staffing an entire educational facility are substantially higher in remote regions especially, but also in smaller regional towns. Furthermore, the fixed costs in providing educational infrastructure are spread over fewer individual students (Biddle 2018). In terms of attendance rates, it is more difficult and costly to attend education facilities in remote areas, and these facilities often lack basic services and adequately trained teachers. Students are often required to move away from home to attend secondary school, which makes transition periods high risk for Indigenous student engagement (Biddle 2018; Ockenden 2014).
An analysis of the funding sources for supporting Indigenous students attending boarding schools and facilities was undertaken in 2019. The analysis found that revenue for boarding schools is insufficient to meet the needs of boarding costs for Indigenous students. A number of recommendations were made to improve boarding outcomes for Indigenous students and their families, including health management, transition support and needs-based funding for support services (Thornton 2019).
Another study found that even when controlling for background characteristics such as low socioeconomic status and remoteness, the differences in education participation remained between Indigenous Australians and other Australians. The same study also found that Indigenous youths are less likely to undertake post-school study than non-Indigenous youths (even when a range of characteristics are controlled for), but that once Indigenous students obtain a university entrance score they are just as likely to attend university as non-Indigenous students (Biddle & Cameron 2012). However, fewer Indigenous students are inclined to study towards a university entrance score.
While research has highlighted that school attendance and retention are important, they alone are not enough to improve education outcomes. Other factors such as how engaged students are at school, and whether they are being equipped with adequate skills are also crucial for their future wellbeing. Research shows that school engagement can be influenced by contextual factors such as students’ experiences, needs and characteristics, including self-identity and connectedness; the school and classroom context, including teacher quality, attitudes of peers and culturally inclusive practices in schools; and the wider environment, including parental and community involvement (Hancock et al. 2013; SCRGSP 2014, 2016).
The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) operated in the Northern Territory between March 2013 and December 2017. The SEAM was established as a complementary intervention to improve school attendance of students whose caregivers are receivers of income support via the Centrelink. Caregivers of students with poor school attendances were asked to attend a conference to develop an Attendance Plan. If the family did not attend the Compulsory Conference or did not comply with their agreed Attendance Plan, they could have their income support payments suspended. In 2016, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet commissioned a randomised controlled trial of the SEAM program. The trial showed no significant differences following any of the interventions between treatment and control students (Goldstein & Hiscox 2018). The SEAM has now ceased.
The Remote School Attendance Strategy (RSAS) is a community-focused strategy designed to lift First Nations students’ school attendance in 84 remote schools across Australia. RSAS delivers a range of strategies to improve attendance with the intention of improving engagement, retention and Year 12 completion rates in the long term. An evaluation of RSAS aimed to gain a better understanding of parents’ and carers’ behavioural motivation in relation to education, and to what extent attitudes and beliefs affect school attendance in remote Indigenous communities. It identified four different family types (committed, protective, unsure and disconnected) and showed how individual families engage with and respond to the RSAS. Each of the family types identified in the study demonstrated key strengths that, when supported, help get their children to school. Common enablers across the four family types were that families are more likely to engage with RSAS staff who are the right cultural fit and that families respond to incentives and rewards when implemented well (PM&C et al. 2018).
A report by the United Nations on indigenous education notes ethnic and cultural discrimination at schools are major obstacles to equal access to education, causing poor performance and higher dropout rates for indigenous persons (United Nations 2017). In Australia, while more Indigenous students are completing Year 12 than in the past, there is still a significant gap between the educational outcomes and achievements of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Some of the factors that can affect Indigenous students’ attendance and engagement include negative experiences with school, poor teacher-student relationships, racism, poor self-perception of academic ability and lack of educational success (Ockenden 2014). A school system that encourages care and cultural safety among students and staff, a positive sense of Indigenous student identity and teachers with the skills and knowledge to effectively engage and develop relationships with Indigenous students are strategies that can contribute to a positive learning environment and more successful outcomes for Indigenous student’s education.
There is evidence to show that racism is harmful for children’s health and wellbeing (Priest et al. 2013) and also impacts upon their ability to succeed at school (Moodie et al. 2019). Based on results from a survey conducted as a part of the Speak Out Against Racism project in New South Wales and Victoria, Indigenous students and those from non-European ethnic backgrounds were twice as likely to report experiences of racial discrimination than those from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. Around 42% of Indigenous students experienced racial discrimination from their peers, and almost 20% experienced this from their teachers (Priest et al. 2017). Other research shows that racism can account for differences in school achievement, with one study finding that racial discrimination significantly and negatively predicted both spelling and maths outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students (Bodkin-Andrews et al. 2010).
Findings from the Social Equity in Vocational Education and Training (VET) Report found positive levels of participation in VET among young Indigenous Australians, including in traineeships and apprenticeships. These findings indicate that when more options are available for Indigenous learners, it can lead to positive education outcomes for those who may find more enjoyment or meaning in pursuing vocational studies, training or employment (Rothman et al. 2013).
Various strategies are required to address the multiple and interrelated factors affecting education outcomes for Indigenous Australians. These factors include education access and participation, family and community engagement, home learning environments, mentors and culturally inclusive support strategies and eliminating racism. There are some gaps in the evidence on education, and a need for rigorous evaluations of policies, programs and teaching practices to identify what works best, for whom, and in what circumstances (Productivity Commission 2016). Further research is also needed on the underlying factors that affect attendance and retention, and on Indigenous students’ school engagement as an essential factor in improving student success (Hancock et al. 2013).
Different approaches have been used to improve the educational attainment and retention of Indigenous Australian young people. While there is a lack of evaluations to show what works, successful education programs tend to have creative collaborations where communities interact with public agencies, and parents and community organisations are more engaged (Purdie & Buckley 2010).
Approaches to improving education outcomes for Indigenous Australian young people could include programs that focus on improving retention and attainment directly (such as offering incentives) or indirectly (for example by developing culturally relevant curriculums). New policies aimed at improving education outcomes for Indigenous students should include monitoring and evaluation (Purdie & Buckley 2010). Policies focusing on improving outcomes in remote areas, where educational outcomes are significantly lower, should be of particular importance. Policies need to include more culturally responsive approaches to education, such as recognising the importance of language, culture and Country (Burgess 2019).
In recognition of the need to support students, families, and school communities to strengthen education outcomes for Indigenous youth, Australian governments have invested in important education initiatives. Two examples include the Good to Great Schools Australia Pilot Program and Kimberley Schools Project which address the unique educational challenges that can hinder the academic progress for Indigenous students. The Good to Great Schools Australia Pilot Program focuses on enhancing teacher quality and curriculum delivery in remote schools primarily attended by Indigenous students. Its approach incorporates the delivery of rigorous, culturally responsive literacy programs and provides ongoing professional development for teachers. The Kimberley Schools Project in Western Australia aims to improve Indigenous students' literacy and numeracy outcomes by enhancing school readiness, attendance, and engagement. The program adopts an approach that focuses on strengthening classroom instruction and developing partnerships with families and communities to foster a supportive learning environment.
Research exploring Indigenous school attendance suggests that improving school attendance in Indigenous communities requires concerted action between well-resourced schools and well-resourced communities to devise local strategies that are context sensitive, culturally appropriate, collaborative, and foster lifelong learning. Poor school attendance needs to be addressed with a holistic approach that recognises the broader social challenges in communities and embraces a suite of responses to capture the many interdependencies involved (Dreise et al. 2016).
Despite large investments in Indigenous education, discrepancies in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students remain. Experiences of racism and discrimination have been shown to impact on children’s achievement and experience at school. It is therefore crucial to have strategies aimed at reducing racism in schools to complement those that focus on improving attendance and achievement. Evaluation of the Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) program showed evidence of how such a program can improve racial and racism literacy, acceptance of difference, empathy and general confidence. Further recommendations included exploring ways the SOAR program can complement existing curriculum and school programs, for example those relating to mental health and wellbeing (Priest et al. 2020).
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia required schools and universities to establish learning from home, necessitating the rollout of online learning (Lamb 2020). In transitioning to online learning, Indigenous students were faced with additional challenges due to the pre-existing digital divide (the gap between those with access to technologies and those without, due to social factors). The digital divide has raised concerns that COVID-19 could impact on progress towards Closing the Gap targets and other education outcomes for Indigenous Australians (Bennett et al. 2020).
The pandemic created barriers of access to educational opportunities for students, their families and communities. There was a slight decrease in Indigenous boarding student numbers from 2020 to 2021, increasing somewhat in 2022 (Australian Boarding Schools Association 2022). An Indigenous Boarding Providers grant opportunity was announced as part of the 2021–22 Budget, to assist boarding providers to support students from remote and very remote areas to reconnect to school following the impacts of COVID-19. The objective of the initiative was to enable boarding providers to better address the challenges faced by Indigenous boarding students. The Indigenous Boarding Providers grant is being extended in 2022–23 and 2023–24, to continue this support for Indigenous boarding students while a design review is undertaken in 2023–24 to identify systemic reform options to better support Indigenous students from rural and remote areas.
The policy context is at Policies and strategies.
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