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Tier 2 - Determinants of health

2.05 Education outcomes for young people

Key facts

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 Australian 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).

The recently established National Agreement on Closing the Gap has identified the importance of addressing educational achievement with a specific outcome, target and indicators to direct policy attention and monitor progress. Reporting arrangements for the new agreement are being established. The data presented in this report predates the establishment of these targets.


What does the data tell us?

The latest data on school retention rates (2018) and attainment (2016 and 2018–19) continues to present a mixed picture. Apparent retention rates as a whole for Indigenous students continued to improve between 1998 and 2018. However, there was significant variation observed in rates by jurisdiction and gender.

In 2018, there were 84,194 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Years 7 to 12, making up 5.2% of total enrolments in Australia. While the majority of these students were in New South Wales (26,787) and Queensland (25,688), Indigenous students made up only 5.4% of total enrolments in New South Wales and 7.4% in Queensland (Table D2.05.4, Table D2.05.5).

In the Northern Territory, 38% of Year 7 to 12 students (5,915) identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In the other jurisdictions, the proportion of Indigenous students ranged from 1.5% in Victoria to 8.4% in Tasmania (Table D2.05.4, Table D2.05.5).

School retention rates

In 2018, the national apparent retention rate from Year 7/8 to Year 10 of Indigenous students was 97%, and the rate was 61% from Year 7/8 to Year 12. By comparison, the apparent retention of Other students from Year 7/8 to Year 10 was 100% and the rate from Year 7/8 to Year 12 was 86% (Table D2.05.2). (Other students includes non‑Indigenous Australians and those whose Indigenous status is unknown).

Between 1999 and 2018, 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 26 percentage points to 61%. In the same period, the Year 7/8 to Year 12 rate for Other students increased by 13 percentage points to 86% resulting in a narrowing of the gap (Table D2.05.3, Figure 2.05.1, Figure 2.05.2).

Figure 2.05.1: Apparent Year 7/8–Year 10 and Year 7/8–Year 12 retention rates, by Indigenous status, 1999–2018

This line graph shows that for Indigenous students, the retention rate from 7/8 to year 10 increased from 82% in 1999 to 97% in 2018, and the retention rate from 7/8 to year 12 increased from 35% to 61%. For other students, the retention rate from 7/8 to year 10 increased from 98% to 102% and the retention rate from 7/8 to year 12 increased from 73% to 86%.

Note: Apparent retention rates above 100% have been represented as 100% here.

Source: Table D2.05.3. AIHW analysis of Schools, Australia.

Female Indigenous students had higher apparent retention rates than male Indigenous students across all school year groups in most jurisdictions. The exceptions were Year 7/8 to Year 10 apparent retention in South Australia and Western Australia, and Year 10 to Year 12 apparent retention in the Northern Territory. Nationally, the apparent retention rate for female Indigenous students was 65% from Year 7/8 to Year 12, compared with 57% of male Indigenous students (Table D2.05.2).

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory all had an apparent retention rates of Indigenous students from Year 7/8 to Year 10 of 100%, followed by Queensland (97%), Western Australia (88%) and the Northern Territory (70%) (Table D2.05.2, Figure 2.05.2).

From Year 7/8 to Year 12, apparent retention rates of Indigenous students were lowest in the Northern Territory (31%) and highest in the Australian Capital Territory (96%) (Table D2.05.2, Figure 2.05.2).

Figure 2.05.2: Apparent retention rate of Indigenous students, by jurisdiction and school years retained, 2018

This bar chart shows that, nationally, 97% of Indigenous students were retained from year 7/8 to year 10, and 61% were retained from year 7/8 to year 12. In NSW, Vic, SA, Tas and ACT, 100% of Indigenous students retained from year 7/8 to year 10 and the the lowest proportion was 70% in the NT. The highest retention rate of Indigenous students from year 7/8 to year 12 was in the ACT (96%), followed by SA (86%) and Qld (74%) and the lowest was in the NT (31%).


1. Rates in Tasmania and ACT should be interpreted with caution, due to their small number of Indigenous students.
2. Apparent retention rates above 100% have been represented as 100% here.

Source: Table D2.05.2. AIHW analysis of Schools, Australia, 2018.

Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates

Results from the 2018–19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (Health Survey) showed that 66% of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 had attained Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above). The proportion of non-Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had attained Year 12 or equivalent was 90% (Table D2.05.1)

Due to the small sample size for monitoring Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 in each jurisdiction over time from the Health Survey, the ABS Census is the primary data source for measuring the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Closing the Gap target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment or equivalent. The Health Survey is a supplementary data source and is not directly comparable with ABS Census data.

Census data showed that 65% of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 had attained a Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) in 2016. By jurisdiction, these rates were highest in the Australian Capital Territory (78%), and lowest in the Northern Territory (39%) and Western Australia (60%) (Table D2.05.16, Figure 2.05.3).

Figure 2.05.3: Year 12 or equivalent attainment, Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 years, by jurisdiction, 2016

This bar chart shows that the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20-24 who attained year 12 or equivalent or Certificate II or above was 65%. By jurisdiction, the rate was highest in the ACT (78%) and lowest in the NT (39%). Other jurisdictions ranged between 60% and 71%.

Source: Table D2.05.16. AIHW and ABS analysis of Census of Population and Housing 2016.

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%) (Table D2.05.6).

What do research and evaluations tell us?

Research in the United States found that mortality from all causes is higher for people with fewer years of education. Mortality has also declined at a faster pace for those with more education compared with those with less than a 9th-grade education, with a seven-year increase in life expectancy for college-educated students (Wong et al. 2002). International literature also documents improvements in child mortality associated with increased levels of maternal education and attributed this to a variety of factors, including improved understanding of and greater willingness to access health services (Gakidou et al. 2010).

There is little evidence for why retention rates at the senior secondary level are worse for Indigenous students or how to improve them. A Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research study found retention rates of Indigenous students to be adversely affected by being arrested, living with someone who has been arrested, living in crowded and poorly maintained housing, or being exposed to domestic violence (Schwab 1999). Retention rates tended to be lower for students who live in rural or remote areas, regardless of Indigenous status. Retention rates were higher for Indigenous students who were living with people with educational qualifications.

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. In terms of attendance rates, it is more difficult and costly to attend education facilities in remote areas, and they are also often lacking in 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).

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 et al. 2012). However, fewer Indigenous students are inclined to study towards a university entrance score (Biddle et al. 2012).

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).

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).

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. 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).


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. 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). 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 Indigenous 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 could include developing more culturally responsive approaches to education, such as recognising the importance of language, culture and Country (Burgess 2019).

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was developed in partnership between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The Agreement has recognised the importance of addressing educational achievement by establishing the following outcome and target to direct policy attention and monitor progress:

  • Outcome 5 — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieve their full learning potential.
    • Target — 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.

The policy context is at Policies and strategies.


  • Baker DP, Leon J, Greenaway EGS, Collins J & Movit M 2011. The Education Effect on Population Health: A Reassessment. Population and Development Review 37:307-+.
  • Biddle N 2018. A human capital approach to the educational marginalisation of Indigenous Australians. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), The Australian National University.
  • Biddle N, Cameron T & National Centre for Vocational Education R 2012. Potential Factors Influencing Indigenous Education Participation and Achievement. Research Report. National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).
  • Burgess C 2019. Effective teaching methods that work for Indigenous students: latest research. Australian Association for Research in Education. 
  • Clark ML & Utz SW 2014. Social determinants of type 2 diabetes and health in the United States. World journal of diabetes 5:296-304.
  • Gakidou E, Cowling K, Lozano R & Murray CJ 2010. Increased educational attainment and its effect on child mortality in 175 countries between 1970 and 2009: a systematic analysis. The Lancet 376:959-74.
  • Goldstein R & Hiscox M 2018. School Enrolment and Attendance Measure Randomized Controlled Trial: Full Report
  • Hancock KJ, Shepherd CCJ, Lawrence D & Zubrick SR 2013. Student attendance and educational outcomes: Every day counts. Canberra: Telethon Institute.
  • Hart MB, Moore MJ & Laverty M 2017. Improving Indigenous health through education. The Medical Journal of Australia 207:11-2.
  • Marmot M, Friel S, Bell R, Houweling TAJ, Taylor S & Commission Social Determinants H 2008. Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. The Lancet 372:1661-9.
  • Ockenden L 2014. Positive learning environments for Indigenous children and young people. Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health an Welfare & Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet), Wingali & Ipsos 2018. Understanding family perspectives of school attendance in remote communities: Evaluation of the Remote School Attendance Strategy
  • Productivity Commission. 2016. National Education Evidence Base. Report No. 80. Canberra.
  • Purdie N & Buckley S 2010. School attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian students. Closing the Gap Clearing House: Australian Insititute of Health and Welfare and Australian Institute of Family Studies. 
  • Schwab RJ 1999. Why only one in three? The complex reasons for low Indigenous school retention. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), The Australian National University.
  • Shirodkar S, Hunter B & Foley D 2018. Ongoing growth in the number of Indigenous Australians in business. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.
  • SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2014. Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014 Report. Canberra: Productivity Commission.
  • SCRGSP 2016. Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2016 Report. Canberra: Productivity Commission.
  • Thornton G 2019. Boarding: investing in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. An analysis of the investment in support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attending boarding schools and facilities.
  • Venn D & Biddle N 2018. Employment Outcomes, 2016 Census Papers. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.
  • Wong MD, Shapiro MF, Boscardin WJ & Ettner SL 2002. Contribution of major diseases to disparities in mortality. The New England Journal of Medicine 347:1585-92.

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