Minority Achievement - 'It's about making changes for ever'

28th February 2014 at 00:00
Ex-Australian PM backs call to close aboriginal attainment gap

There was little love lost between former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and the nation's current premier, Tony Abbott, when they squared up to each other as opposing party leaders.

Mr Abbott provoked fury when he gave a speech at a rally in front of signs branding Ms Gillard a "witch". Ms Gillard famously got her own back with an impassioned response that denounced Mr Abbott's "misogyny" and "repulsive double standards".

But there seems to be one issue on which they are in agreement: the importance of driving up educational standards among Australia's aboriginal population.

Days after Mr Abbott announced plans to address the discrepancy in school attendance levels between indigenous and non-indigenous students within five years, Ms Gillard told TES that, although Australia had made progress in "closing the gap", there was still "much to do" to achieve educational equality.

The facts appear to bear this out: many of Australia's "first citizens" live in extreme poverty, with a life expectancy 10 years lower than their fellow Australians.

And in the latest national assessment results, the average performance of aboriginal students in reading and numeracy across all age groups was two to three years behind their non-indigenous peers - figures that Mr Abbott described as "disappointing".

In an exclusive interview with TES, Ms Gillard - who was recently appointed chair of the board of the Global Partnership for Education - said that although it was "gratifying" that some progress had been made during her time in office, eradicating this inequality remained a remote prospect.

"I'd love to be able to say to you, `Yes, it's been addressed', but I'm not in that happy position," she admitted. "We still have an unacceptably high gap between the attainment of indigenous children and non-indigenous children on literacy and numeracy measures [and] on school completion measures.

"Of course, that feeds into a pattern of long-term disadvantage for indigenous Australians with [fewer] job opportunities, and this all feeds into a very big gap in terms of life expectancy. So there is much to do."

Ms Gillard also called for "continuing, patient work" to effect long-term change for aboriginal communities. "It's not about addressing indigenous disadvantage through project money that lasts two or three years, but about big changes for ever," she said.

Delivering his first annual "closing the gap" report as prime minister this month, Mr Abbott conceded that Australia was "not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful targets" set six years ago, and had made "almost no progress" on reducing the variation in life expectancy.

He set a new target of bridging the gap in school attendance between indigenous and non-indigenous students, announcing a deadline of 2019 for all schools to reach 90 per cent attendance, irrespective of intake.

Efforts to end the educational disparity would be "doomed to fail", Mr Abbott added, "until we achieve the most basic target of all: the expectation that every child will attend school every day".

Since taking office in September, Mr Abbott's government has funded truancy officers in more than 40 remote schools with the poorest attendance rates - some as low as 45 per cent.

But Warren Mundine, chairman of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, called for the school attendance target to be brought forward to the end of this year. "I'm challenging and I'm pushing," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "I want to see us [reach the target] by the end of this year, December 2014."

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