Indigenous education: The challenge of change

Prominent educator Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney explains the challenges of change in Indigenous education.

Driving Action

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities welcome the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) to assist in closing the gap between life outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. For similar reasons, many also welcome the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA) Indigenous Education Action Plan (IEAP) Draft, 2010–14. However, the 2009 Productivity Commission report titled Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage indicates that the educational ‘gaps are widening, not closing’. To drive action, the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers have agreed—through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG, 2008)—to ambitious targets that complement the EYLF and the draft Action Plan. They include:

  • closing the life expectancy gap within a generation
  • halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five years within a decade
  • ensuring that all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities have access to early childhood education by 2013.

The agenda of the newly elected government and its budgetary commitment remains to be seen. While we educators welcome these new measures, there are several challenges that need to be on the policy radar and addressed at length.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Indigenous Australians are diverse and not homogenous. We do not all speak the same Indigenous language nor do we live in the same region. This may seem obvious to some, but government bureaucracy—and to a lesser extent curriculum writers—keep getting this wrong. Recognising and responding to the complexity of the remote situation and the urban divide in educational attainment is fundamental.

The ‘one size fits all’ implied in the EYLF and draft Action Plan as gap-plugging measures must be avoided. Budgets and strategies should reflect such commitment. For example, basic access to high-quality early childhood education and child care in the remote Aboriginal community of Wadeye, situated 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin, differs greatly to that of the Kaurna Plains Early Childhood Centre, Elizabeth, Adelaide, where access is already available but there are shortages in resources and workforce.

Community Engagement

Parents told me that government education officials who flew into Wadeye by plane spoke ‘at’ them for 30 minutes, only to return to the city. Official reports later defined the visit as ‘community engagement’. It is invariably the case that community engagement by school or government is complex and imperfectly understood, which undermines the credibility of the process.

Any gap-closing strategy must get the basics right and working first. Indigenous community engagement is crucial to building school confidence and gaining insights into parents’ needs and aspirations. It takes a community to raise a child, and we as teachers are only as effective as our school strategy for community engagement.

Since the closure of the Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness (ASSPA) program, gap-closing rhetoric in schools is void of modern, sustained and meaningful engagement techniques. In terms of engagement, I am on the public record calling for an Australian Council for Indigenous Education (ACIE). Such a council does not exist. This is an inter-jurisdictional education council of Indigenous schooling experts who could advise and engage government and education bodies.

Health Literacy

The Federal Government’s trial of the EYLF in 29 childcare centres led to a complete re-write of the curriculum in 2009. The framework identifies a range of best practices including: play-based learning; adopting holistic approaches; social and emotional development; and early literacy and numeracy. However, the EYLF and the draft Action Plan are narrowly focused and lack a coherent holistic approach to the question of education which embraces other social determinates including health, poverty, unequal distribution of power, housingand unemployment.

Numerous studies indicate that health and literacy are linked. Indigenous health is in crisis. While the larger COAG agenda comprehends the bigger picture, I would argue that the draft Action Plan and EYLF still need to centre health and health literacy in all education policy.

The World Health Organization defines health literacy to mean ‘… more than being able to read pamphlets and make appointments. By improving people’s access to health information, and their capacity to use it effectively, health literacy is critical to empowerment’. While health literacy most often refers to the individual’s reading and writing ability required to access and use health information and services, emphasis is also placed on the skills of listening and speaking in order to communicate health needs to medical staff and act on the instructions given. I argue that health literacy pedagogy and methodology in teacher education that is specific to the needs of Indigenous communities is under-theorised in Australia. This is one of the key reasons for repeated gap-closing policy failure.

Teaching and Indigenous Workforce Development

It is important that governments promote Indigenous workforce development and that all Indigenous students are taught by high-quality teachers in schools. Current research findings by Fordham and Schwab (2007) conclude that universal access to quality early childhood education works and that the presence of an Indigenous preschool worker significantly increases preschool participation rates.

However, the 2007 Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) Staff in Australia’s schools survey reported that, in 2007, only one per cent of teaching staff in government schools were Indigenous. Anecdotal research suggests this percentage is falling. The ACER survey also found that 31 per cent of early career primary teachers felt that their pre-service education was of no help in preparing them to teach students from Indigenous backgrounds. Evidence shows that teacher quality is the single greatest in-school influence on student engagement and achievement. To grow an Indigenous teacher workforce, incentives are needed, including:

  • teaching scholarships exempt from the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS)
  • more high-quality teacher incentives to go to remote areas
  • allowing students to live in their community while studying
  • addressing institutional, governmental and financial barriers
  • an urgent national summit
  • research into Indigenous teacher decline
  • more Indigenous male teachers
  • teaching qualification pathways for Aboriginal Community Education Officers.

Closing the gap embodies a new approach to Indigenous education. In a post-election climate there is an urgent need for strategy and action for Indigenous schooling. There is no single solution or ‘magic bullet’ to challenges in Indigenous education, but long-sustained intergenerational commitment to outcomes.

Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney PhD, MACE
Flinders University


COAG (Council of Australian Governments) (2008). National partnership agreement on closing the gap in Indigenous health outcomes. Canberra: COAG.

Fordham, A. & Schwab, R. G. (2007). Education, training and Indigenous futures: CAEPR policy research. 1990–2007. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University.

More on the Indigenous Education Action Plan Draft 2010–2014, can be found here.

More information on the Staff in Australia’s Schools 2007, can be accessed here.

Indigenous education: The challenge of change by Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney was featured in Every Child Vol. 16 No. 4—New directions. Click here to purchase your copy today!