From 2012 to 2021, the proportion of Indigenous Year 3 students at or above the national minimum standard for reading increased by 11%
In 2014–15, 85% of Indigenous parents stated that they were well advised or very well advised on their child’s progress at school
Lower proportions of Indigenous students in Remote and Very remote areas met the national minimum standards for all aspects of literacy and numeracy in all year levels assessed by NAPLAN
- In 2021, between 74% and 84% of Indigenous Year 3 students were at or above the national minimum standard across the assessable domains (reading; writing; spelling; grammar and punctuation; and numeracy).
- Between 2012 and 2021, there were significant increases in the proportions of Indigenous students meeting national minimum standards for spelling in Years 5 and 7, numeracy in Year 5 and reading in Year 3.
- The proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards across the assessable domains was generally lowest for those in Year 9 (52%–79% of students).
- Compared with Indigenous students in non-remote areas, lower proportions of those in Remote and Very remote areas met the national minimum standards for all aspects of literacy and numeracy in all year levels assessed by NAPLAN.
- Around 90% of Indigenous Year 3 students in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania were at or above the national minimum standards for writing, with the proportion ranging between 42% and 88% in the other jurisdictions.
- School attendance is key to school outcomes for Indigenous students. 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 in 2009 was explained by poorer school attendance by Indigenous students.
- The proportion of Indigenous students achieving the standard for writing declined as year group increased. In the Northern Territory, the proportion of Indigenous students in Year 9 meeting the writing benchmark was 23 percentage points lower than the proportion of those in Year 3 (42% compared with 19%).
- Evidence suggests that there is no difference in education outcomes, such as completing Year 12 and participating in university, if Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are at the same level of academic achievement at age 15.
- Children who attend early childhood education are more likely to perform well at school. For example, research shows that early childhood education attendance impacts positively on Year 3 literacy and numeracy results.
Why is it important?
There is a two-way association between health and education. People with low educational attainment tend to have poorer health, fewer opportunities, lower incomes and reduced employment prospects. In turn, poor health is associated with lower educational attainment (Conti et al. 2010). Vision and hearing loss (see measures 1.15 Ear health and 1.16 Eye health) are associated with linguistic, social and learning difficulties and behavioural problems in school. These problems can lead to reduced educational performance and indeed reduced reading ability, that may be indicative of underlying vision or vision processing problems (Hopkins et al. 2017). Another way that education and health can be linked is by exposure to conditions, beginning in early childhood that can affect both education and health. Throughout life, conditions at home, socioeconomic status and other factors can cause illness, stress and deprive individuals and families of resources for success in school, and later, the workplace (Cutler et al. 2014). Conversely, education can create opportunities for better health. Length and quality of education is associated with future employment opportunities and income, and the opportunities to get out of the poverty cycle. The social and economic outcomes in future can influence an individual’s access to health care and quality of life (McGill 2016).
In July 2020, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) 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 3—By 2025, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in Year Before Fulltime Schooling (YBFS) early childhood education to 95 per cent.
- 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 (see measure <2.06 Educational participation and attainment of adults>).
The National Agreement has identified being at or above the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) minimum standards in reading, writing and numeracy as a key driver of year 12 or equivalent attainment.
NAPLAN is an annual assessment for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 that includes tests in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy. These tests aim to determine whether young Australians are developing the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for other learning. NAPLAN assesses students over time, individually, as part of their school community and against national standards. The national minimum standard represents a performance standard in literacy and numeracy, below which students will have difficulty progressing satisfactorily at school. Results inform states and territories about how education approaches are working and help identify areas to be prioritised for improvement. Federal, and state and territory governments have developed different initiatives to support Indigenous students and communities within their jurisdiction. Further details can be found in the National Report on Schooling in Australia 2020.
Nationally, the proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards across the assessable domains was generally highest for those in Year 3 (ranging between 74–84% of students) and lowest for those in Year 9 (52–79% of students) in 2021. Across all assessable domains, the proportion of Indigenous students achieving the minimum standards decreased with increasing remoteness. Very remote areas was, on average, 25 percentage points lower than Remote areas: the largest difference between areas of adjacent remoteness. From 2012 to 2021, there were increases in the proportions of Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standards for spelling in Years 5 and 7, numeracy in Year 5 and reading in Year 3 (Table 2.04.13).
Nationally, in 2021, 84% of Indigenous students in Year 3 were at or above the national minimum standard for reading – this was the largest proportion across the different year groups. The proportion of students meeting this benchmark decreased as year group increased, with the largest decrease being between Year 7 (75%) and Year 9 (66%) – a difference of 8.8 percentage points. This pattern was consistent across the states and territories.
Among Indigenous students in Years 3 and 9, the proportion achieving the standard for reading was highest in Tasmania (90% and 74%, respectively), while in Years 5 and 7 this was highest in Victoria (87% and 86%, respectively) (Table D2.04.1).
The proportion of Indigenous students achieving the standard for reading generally decreased as remoteness area increased, with the largest differences occurring between Remote and Very Remote areas for all years. The exception to this being those students in Years 3 and 5 in Major cities and Inner regional areas, where the proportions were similar (89% and 86%, respectively) (Table D2.04.11, Figure 2.04.1).
Figure 2.04.1: Proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards for reading, by school level and remoteness, 2021
Between 2008 and 2021, determining the annual change using linear regression analysis excluding the 2020 period, the proportion of Indigenous students in Years 3 and 5 achieving the minimum reading standard increased by 18% (from 68% to 84%) and 23% (from 63% to 78%), respectively. In the decade from 2012 to 2021, the proportion of Indigenous Year 3 students meeting this benchmark increased by 11% (from 74% to 84%) and the proportion for non-Indigenous students increased by 2.1% (from 95% to 97%). As a result, the absolute gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Year 3 achieving the minimum reading standard narrowed students narrowed by one-third (33%) over the last decade (Table D2.04.13, Figure 2.04.2).
Figure 2.04.2: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards for reading, by Indigenous status and school year level, 2008 to 2021
Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standards for writing
Nationally, in 2021, the proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standard for writing was highest for those in Year 3 (84%) and lowest for those in Year 9 (52%). The proportion of Indigenous students in Year 9 (52%) meeting this benchmark was 14 percentage points lower than for those in Year 7 (65%), the largest difference between any two consecutive year groups.
Across states and territories, the proportion of Indigenous students in Year 3 at or above the national minimum standard for writing was lowest in the Northern Territory (42%), and ranged between 79% (Western Australia) and 92% (Victoria and Tasmania) across the other jurisdictions.
Around 90% of Indigenous Year 3 students in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania were at or above the national minimum standards for writing, with the proportion ranging between 42% and 88% in the other jurisdictions. For all states and territories, the proportion of Indigenous students achieving the minimum standard for writing declined as year group increased. For example, in the Northern Territory, the proportion of Indigenous students in Year 9 meeting the writing benchmark was 23 percentage points lower than the proportion of those in Year 3 (42% compared with 19%), while in both New South Wales and Queensland, the proportion of Indigenous students in Year 9 meeting the benchmark was 35 percentage points lower than the proportion for those in Year 3 (91% compared with 56%, and 87% compared with 51%, respectively) (Table D2.04.3).
The proportion of Indigenous students achieving the minimum writing standard was generally lower in more remote areas. For Indigenous students in Years 3, 5 and 7 achieving the minimum writing standard, there was around a 27 percentage point difference between those in Remote areas compared with those in Very remote areas. For Indigenous students in Year 9 achieving the minimum writing standard, there was an 18 percentage point difference between those in Remote areas compared with those in Very remote areas (Table D2.04.11, Figure 2.04.3).
Figure 2.04.3: Proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards for writing, by school level and remoteness, 2021
Over the decade from 2012 to 2021, there was no statistically significant change in the proportion of Indigenous students or non-Indigenous students achieving the minimum writing standard for any of the four year groups (Table D2.04.13, Figure 2.04.4).
Figure 2.04.4: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards for writing, by Indigenous status and school year level, 2011 to 2021
Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standards for numeracy
Nationally, in 2021, the proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standard for numeracy was highest for those in Year 3 (81%), followed by those in Year 9 (79%), in Year 5 (76%) and in Year 7 (71%).
By jurisdiction, the proportion of Indigenous students achieving the minimum standard for numeracy was highest in Tasmania for those in Years 3 (91%), 5 and 9 (both 86%) and in Victoria for those in Year 7 (82%). In contrast to the reading and writing assessable domains, there was a higher proportion of Year 9 Indigenous students meeting this benchmark in Queensland (81%), Western Australia (77%) and the Northern Territory (43%), than Year 3 students (80.5%, 74% and 41%, respectively) (Table D2.04.9).
Across the five remoteness areas, the proportion of Indigenous students achieving the minimum numeracy standard was consistently lowest for those in Year 7, and ranged from 80% in Major cities to 25% in Very remote areas. Across all year groups the proportion of Indigenous students meeting this benchmark generally decreased with increasing remoteness, and was between 19 and 27 percentage points lower for students in Remote than Very remote areas (Table D2.04.11, Figure 2.04.4).
Figure 2.04.5: Proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards for numeracy, by school level and remoteness, 2021
From 2008 to 2021, the proportions of Indigenous students in Years 5 and 9 achieving the numeracy standard increased by 14% and 19%, respectively. Over the decade from 2012 to 2021, the proportion of Year 5 students meeting this benchmark increased by 13% for Indigenous students and 2.4% for non-Indigenous students. There were no significant changes in any year groups in the absolute gap in the proportions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students achieving the numeracy standard over this period (Table 2.04.13, Figure 2.04.6).
Figure 2.04.6: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards for numeracy, by Indigenous status and school year level, 2008 to 2021
Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standards for spelling, and grammar and punctuation
Nationally, in 2021, the proportion of Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standard for spelling increased from 74% in Year 3 to 79% in Year 7, but was lowest among those in Year 9 (73%). In contrast, the proportion of Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standard for grammar and punctuation decreased with year group, from 77% in Year 3 to 60% in Year 9.
Across most states and territories, the proportion of Indigenous students who achieved the minimum spelling standard was highest in Year 7, ranging from around 84% in Victoria and Queensland to 40% in the Northern Territory. However, the proportion of Indigenous students who achieved the minimum standard for grammar and punctuation was generally highest in Year 3 (ranging from around 84% in New South Wales and Tasmania, to 38% in the Northern Territory) (Tables D2.04.5, 2.04.7).
In the spelling and grammar and punctuation domains, for all year groups the proportions of students achieving the minimum standards decreased as remoteness increased. When comparing Remote and Very remote areas, the proportions of students at or above the national minimum standards for spelling was around 20–26 percentage points higher for those in Remote areas compared with those in Very remote areas, and for grammar and punctuation were around 18–28 percentage points higher for those in Remote areas (Table 2.04.11, Figure 2.04.7).
Figure 2.04.7: Proportion of Indigenous students at or above the national minimum standards for spelling, and grammar and punctuation, by school level and remoteness, 2021
From 2012 to 2021, the proportion of Indigenous students in Years 5 and 7 achieving the minimum standard for spelling increased by 9.9% and 5.7%, respectively. For non-Indigenous students, the proportion of students achieving the minimum standard for spelling increased for those in Year 5 only (by 1.6%), resulting in a 26% narrowing of the absolute gap for Year 5 students and a 19% narrowing for Year 7 students. Over the longer period from 2008 to 2021, the proportion of Indigenous students in Years 3 and 5 achieving the minimum standard for grammar and punctuation increased by 22% and 17%, respectively. However, changes over the decade between 2012 and 2021 were not statistically significant (Table D2.04.13, Figure 2.04.8, Figure 2.04.9).
Figure 2.04.8: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards for spelling, by Indigenous status and school year level, 2008 to 2021
Figure 2.04.9: Proportion of students at or above the national minimum standards for grammar and punctuation, by Indigenous status and school year level, 2008 to 2021
Findings from the Programme for International Student Assessment survey
The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey of 15-year-olds by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Across mathematical, scientific and reading literacy, Indigenous Australian students had a mean score that equated to around 2.3–2.75 years of schooling below non-Indigenous Australian students. Around two-thirds of Indigenous students did not reach the national proficiency standard in scientific and reading literacy and just under three-quarters did not reach the standard in mathematical literacy. There was no significant change in Indigenous students’ scores between 2015 and 2018 in any domain (Thomson et al. 2019). The gap in the mean score for scientific literacy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students narrowed from 2006 to 2018, however this can largely be attributed to a decline in the performance of non-Indigenous students (AIHW 2021).
Factors affecting literacy outcomes
Early education experiences and school readiness are important as they influence future academic performance. The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) measures how children are faring as they enter school. From 2009 to 2021, there have been significant declines in the number of Indigenous children who are developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains (from 47.4% to 42.3%) and two or more domains (from 29.6% to 26.5%). The proportion of Indigenous children being assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains has increased from 26.3% in 2009 to 34.3% in 2021. However, since 2018 there has been a decrease of 0.9 percentage points (from 35.2%). As a result, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students has widened to an absolute difference of 22 percentage points in 2021. The largest difference between Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children is in the language and cognitive skills domain, with Indigenous children over 3 times more likely to be developmentally vulnerable in this domain than non-Indigenous children in 2021 (22.5 and 6.3% respectively) (Department of Education Skills and Employment 2022).
Indigenous students’ literacy skills remain consistently poorer compared with their non-Indigenous peers (Timms et al. 2014). Poor literacy achievement is more common among students who do not speak Standard Australian English at home, while poorer numeracy is more evident among students with parents in less skilled occupations (Purdie et al. 2011) (see measure 2.07 Employment). While the 2011 Census reports that 83% of Indigenous Australians speak English at home, many Indigenous Australians use a distinctly Indigenous form of English that differs from the Standard Australian English used in educational settings (Hall 2013) (Eades 2013). In 2021, the majority (84.1%) of Indigenous Australians only spoke English at home while 1 in 10 (9.5%) spoke an Indigenous language at home (ABS 2022).
In 2014–15, 30% of Indigenous parents of children aged 4–14 years reported that their child’s school attendance was affected by bullying—the proportion was similar, at 34%, in 2008 (ABS 2010). This percentage was lowest for children in Years 1–3 (23%) and highest for children in Years 7–10 (40%) (Table D2.05.11).
As part of the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), participants were asked about the types of assistance that would help their child in secondary school complete Year 12 (multiple types of assistance could be reported). ‘Support from family, friends and school’ was the type of assistance most commonly nominated by those in both non-remote (Major cities, Inner and Outer regional areas combined) (85%) and remote areas (Remote and Very remote areas combined) (92%). For those living in non-remote areas, individual tutoring (44%) and career guidance (44%) were the next most commonly reported types of assistance. For those living in remote areas, encouragement from Elders and council (39%), and a relative to support the child if they go away to boarding school (37%) were the other types of assistance most commonly reported (Table D2.05.7).
Research suggests that improvement in a child’s educational attainment and ongoing engagement is linked with engaging parents in their children’s education. Features of successful programs found to support Indigenous parents’ involvement in their children’s education included (amongst others) having a school environment that is culturally welcoming and inviting for Indigenous parents, empowering parents to support their children’s learning, and actively including parents in the children’s programs (Higgins & Morley 2014). Results from the 2014–15 NATSISS state that, overall, 85% of Indigenous parents stated that they were well advised or very well advised on their child’s progress at school. This proportion did not vary substantially depending on whether the child was in pre-primary school years, at primary school, or in secondary school (Years 7–10) (Table D2.04.16).
What do research and evaluations tell us?
Guthridge et al. (2015) investigated the association between early life risk factors and NAPLAN results in a large cohort study of children in the Northern Territory (Guthridge et al. 2015). They found that low birthweight is associated with poorer numeracy results for Indigenous children, although subsequent research suggests this association may be confounded by maternal age and smoking status (Smith et al. 2019). With regard to broader school achievement, one study found a strong relationship between school achievement and a student’s self-belief in their ability, with lower self-belief in Indigenous students compared with non-Indigenous students, but no direct association otherwise between Indigenous status and achievement (Tarbetsky et al. 2016). Another study, using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth (LSAY), found that if Indigenous and non-Indigenous students reach the same level of academic achievement by the time they are 15, there is no significant difference in subsequent educational outcomes such as completing Year 12 and participating in university or vocational training (Mahuteau et al. 2015).
Early childhood education is important for children’s cognitive and social development and can help prepare them for the transition to school, and the progression through school and beyond. Children who attend early childhood education are more likely to perform well at school and research has shown that early childhood education attendance impacts positively on Year 3 literacy and numeracy results. Findings from PISA show that even after controlling for socioeconomic background, students aged 15 years who had attended early childhood education for at least one year, scored an average of 25 points higher in the PISA science assessment compared with those who had not (OECD 2017; Warren & Haisken-DeNew 2013).
A realist evaluation examined in what circumstances the Aboriginal Families as First Educators (AFaFE) program contributes to stronger early childhood development outcomes. AFaFE commenced implementation in 2015. Through Aboriginal playgroups it supports parents/carers of children to act as their children’s ‘first educators’ and improve their school readiness and parent or carer engagement in their learning. AFaFE was intended to increase Aboriginal children’s enrolment, attendance and achievement in selected schools, but findings of the evaluation indicated that outcomes are highly variable. The type, degree and speed of improvement were influenced by multiple factors including the nature of the site, dynamics of the community and the relationship between the school and the local Aboriginal community (Williams et al. 2018).
There is evidence of low literacy levels among Indigenous Australian adults, particularly in remote areas (Lin et al. 2021). A study found that among participants, self-reported literacy levels frequently over-estimated literacy ability when compared to an objective test, particularly among those who had completed Year 10-11. This highlights a potential disconnection between government reliance on self-reported education attainment for Closing the Gap reporting and serving as a proxy measure of adult literacy skills. This may also have implications for service providers such as Centrelink or Job Network providers, potentially under-estimating the level of literacy support needed for Indigenous clients.
Low adult literacy also places limitations on adults attempting to foster literacy skills among children both in terms of modelling effective literacy to children and also in families’ ability to establish effective relationships with their children’s school (Ratcliffe & Boughton 2019). However, Indigenous led literacy programs working with community members to build adult literacy are showing positive impacts, such as the Yes I Can! Campaign run by the Literacy for Life Foundation working with community controlled organisations. Results have shown improvements in adult literacy (Boughton et al. 2022) as well as reduced contact with criminal justice among those who did the program. That study found that literacy is a determinant of contact with criminal justice, particularly regarding driving related offences stemming from not having a driver’s licence or driving an unregistered vehicle (Beetson et al. 2022).
Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language is also a fundamental part of Indigenous culture and identity. Speaking language has benefits for individual wellbeing and health, and has demonstrated to be beneficial in learning contexts (Department of Infrastructure Transport et al. 2020). Building and improving partnerships between schools and Indigenous communities to incorporate Indigenous languages in education has been highlighted as a positive way to improve educational outcomes for Indigenous students. Benefits include improvement in school attendance, engagement and learning outcomes, as well as increased self-esteem of young Indigenous students as Indigenous languages are incorporated into school curriculum (House of representatives Standing committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs 2012).
School attendance is key to school outcomes for Indigenous students. 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 is explained by poorer school attendance by Indigenous students (Biddle 2014). Income management (also known as quarantining welfare) of families of students has been found to reduce attendance of students in the short term, and has failed to increase school attendance in the longer term (Cobb-Clark et al. 2018).
The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) operated in the Northern Territory between March 2013 and December 2017. 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 school attendance in 84 remote schools across Australia. RSAS delivers a range of strategies to improve attendance with the intention of improving engagement, retention, Year 12 completion rates and employment outcomes 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 recent study from the Australian National University investigated the educational outcomes of 100 young people aged between 12 and 21 years from a remote community in the Northern Territory. The study highlighted that remote-living young people in the Northern Territory are required to attend boarding school in order to access secondary education and that the supply of boarding places is not always equal to demand. The research cohort had been dispersed among 38 schools in every state or territory of mainland Australia. Early disengagement and low levels of academic achievement were apparent with 59% dropping out of boarding school in their first year. Findings indicate that educational determinants in remote contexts including housing, health, justice and employment need to be understood and quantified in relevant policy discussions. The report also advises that policies should aim to increase education engagement and attainment in-place, where students can stay connected with their family, community, land and culture. Further research is needed to test the generalisability of the findings across other communities (O'Bryan & Fogarty 2020).
An analysis of the investment in support for Indigenous Australian students attending boarding schools and facilities was undertaken in 2019. A number of recommendations were made to improve boarding outcomes for students and their families including health management, transition support and needs based funding for support services (Thornton 2019).
In 2016, a pilot project, Improving Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students, was initiated by the Association of Independent Schools of New South Wales (AISNSW) to support schools to improve outcomes for Indigenous students. The project’s goals were underpinned by the priorities of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy (the Strategy), released in September 2015. Four schools with significant numbers of Indigenous students were invited to participate in the project, and were required to identify specific strategies to enhance literacy, numeracy and other academic achievements of Indigenous students. Key strategies employed across all schools included building strong relationships with the student, family and community, as well as providing culturally sensitive and individualised academic, personal, spiritual, social and physical support. The results of an evaluation published in March 2019 found that the schools succeeded in improving Indigenous students’ literacy and numeracy outcomes within the project timeframe, as well as other academic-related outcomes including increased student engagement with learning, increased student confidence in their own learning capabilities, improved student self-management of learning (goal setting, independence, time management and prioritisation skills) and increased student aspiration for both school and future education success (AISNSW 2019).
There is a direct relationship between education and health, and this remains even after controlling for job characteristics, income, and family background. Therefore education policies have the potential to substantially improve health, and health policies can also help to improve education outcomes for Indigenous Australians (Cutler & Lleras-Muney 2007).
Successfully progressing through and transitioning from school is important for children to improve social mobility and intergenerational outcomes. Education has a strong association with employability and income, health, and control over one’s life (AIHW 2014; Bank 2018). Better education outcomes can also have positive intergenerational flow-on effects. More educated mothers, for example, have been associated with healthier children (Ewald & Boughton 2002; Schochet et al. 2020). For Indigenous adults with low levels of literacy there are limitations to modelling the benefits of literacy to children in the home and engaging with children’s schooling and this can have intergenerational impact (Ratcliffe & Boughton 2019).
Approaches to fostering Indigenous educational achievement need to consider the diverse experiences and lifestyles of Indigenous Australian students. Appropriate teaching strategies require an understanding of the features of Indigenous Australian cultures and need to be aware that Indigenous children may have culturally specific skills that can be recognised and incorporated in teaching practices (Purdie et al. 2011). There is increasing recognition that being strong in language and culture are protective factors for Indigenous children’s health and wellbeing, and can support mainstream educational attainment. This includes increasing the learning and teaching of Indigenous languages in schools. The National Agreement reflects this recognition and includes Outcome area 16: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and languages are strong, supported and flourishing, with Target 16 aiming for a sustained increase in the number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken.
A significant proportion of Indigenous Australian students in remote schools are ‘English as an Additional Language or Dialect’ learners (in remote areas English was the main language spoken at home for less than half of Indigenous Australians) (ABS 2016). A key aspect of supporting literacy and numeracy development is the recognition of their existing language skills in local languages and supporting their language development as English learners (PM&C et al. 2018).
A paper exploring Indigenous school attendance suggests that poor attendance needs to be addressed with a holistic approach that recognises the broader social challenges, and that schools and communities should be resourced and empowered to implement coordinated local level strategies that are context sensitive, culturally appropriate, and that foster lifelong learning (Dreise et al. 2016).
Developing strong links between early childhood services, schools, parents and communities to improve attendance; providing culturally competent and quality teaching; and ensuring schools help Indigenous students to feel included and supported, provides a foundation for improving literacy and numeracy outcomes of Indigenous children. The disparities in NAPLAN achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are widespread across remoteness areas and schools. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to be effective and this should be considered in the development of any policies and programs (Productivity Commission 2016).
Steps should also be taken to improve health as a determinant of education, namely vision and hearing issues that hinder communication in the classroom. Vision problems and hearing loss, especially in children, can lead to linguistic, social and learning difficulties and behavioural problems in school, which in turn can impact on educational achievements. Early detection and management of health issues should therefore be considered in any strategies aimed at improving school achievement and attendance (Darwin Otitis Guidelines Group 2010).
There are concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic may impact on many aspects of education including enrolment, attendance and achievement for all Australian children, but particularly for Indigenous children. During the pandemic, the majority of Australian students transitioned to a home-based learning environment for periods of time due to school closures. The impact of learning from home on educational outcomes may be greater for disadvantaged children because they often have increased challenges with access to technology, support and isolation. Indigenous children generally have less experience with, and access to, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) than non-Indigenous children, making learning from home more difficult (Lamb 2020). The impact of COVID-19 on education for Indigenous Australians will be assessed as more data become available over the coming years.
The policy context is at Policies and strategies.
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