Investing billions in Aboriginal students

Australia's `indigenous loading' aims to tackle underachievement

Stephen Exley

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Almost 250 years after British explorer Captain James Cook first came face to face with indigenous Australians, a stark social divide remains between the country's Aboriginal communities and their neighbours of European descent.

Many of Australia's "first citizens" are living in extreme poverty and have a life expectancy that is 10 years lower than their fellow Australians. In education, national assessment results from 2012 revealed that, across all age groups, the average performance of indigenous students in reading and numeracy was two to three years behind their peers.

Now, the Australian government has set aside A$5.5 billion (pound;3.5 billion) to try to close the attainment gap. And, just as significantly, it has announced plans to give all students the opportunity to learn Aboriginal languages for the first time.

A new draft curriculum states that all schools should teach indigenous languages to Aboriginal students and to their non-indigenous classmates. The number of indigenous languages in regular use across Australia has dropped from 250 in the pre-colonial era to about 150 today. The majority of the remaining languages are classed as highly endangered, and it is believed that just 10 per cent are still being taught.

"Keeping language alive in our communities is really important but until now there has been no national approach," schools minister Peter Garrett said.

Learning these languages, the draft framework argues, "can play an important part in the development of a strong sense of identity, pride and self-esteem for all Australian students".

Last week, Mr Garrett also announced plans to set aside part of the A$5.5 billion to provide a package of financial support for the 200,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who live on the group of islands between the Australian mainland and New Guinea. He said that education could be their "passport out of poverty".

The package of "indigenous loading" funding equates to about A$30,000 (pound;21,000) per student over a six-year period, but the sum will depend on factors such as their school's location and level of deprivation.

For the first time, every indigenous student in Australia will be given a personalised learning plan, with funding also being made available for breakfast clubs, homework centres and even employing extra teaching assistants.

The plans have been welcomed by Andrew Penfold, chief executive of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. "The level of indigenous inequality is one of our most pressing challenges as a nation," he told TES. "For decades, we have been sending the most marginalised kids into schools that have been failing them.

"It's critical we have much greater investment in these schools, but funding alone isn't enough. We have to focus on improving school attendance (and) teacher quality, and creating a more focused and targeted curriculum."

But the A$5.5 billion funding offer does come with a catch: states must first sign up to the Australian government's package of education reforms. Under the Gonski reforms, schools would receive an additional A$14.5 billion (pound;9 billion). Two-thirds of the funding would come from the federal government, but state and territory authorities would have to stump up the rest.

Unsurprisingly, the plans have proved to be controversial. To date, just New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have signed up.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has set a 30 June deadline for a deal to be struck with other states and territories, but Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia have voiced serious concerns about the reforms.

In response, Mr Garrett has called on all regional governments to get on board. "It's now up to other state and territory leaders to show they care about delivering a better future for young indigenous Australians and sign up to our plan," he said.

Decades of `failure'

This attempt to improve the educational attainment of indigenous communities comes after a 2010 bid that was widely criticised for having little impact.

In a recent book, Peter Shergold, who until 2008 held the most senior position in Australia's civil service, hit out at the recent "period of failure".

"Most of the public servants I worked alongside did their best," Dr Shergold wrote. "Yet, after two decades, the scale of relative disadvantage suffered by indigenous Australians remained as intractable as ever. I can think of no failure in public policy that has had such profound consequences."

Photo credit: Getty

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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