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Keys to closing the education gap

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When discussing Aboriginal affairs and how to close the gap, there are many disagreements, but there seems to be strong agreement that education is crucial. Aboriginal leader, and former Minister of the Crown in the Northern Territory, Bess Nungarrayi Price, has stated: 'Education belongs to all of us ... We can use education to take responsibility for our problems and find our own solutions.'

Happy Young Australian Aboriginal girl learning to sing and dance. Stock photo / GettyWhile many Aboriginal people have benefited from a good education, or are currently receiving one, there is still much work to be done, particularly in remote communities — for it is here that the challenges are greatest. 

I have visited several remote communities, spoken with some very experienced community leaders and educators, and have read some of the excellent research on this topic. Based on this experience, I offer some ideas here on what I think needs to happen to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal students in remote communities. First, I will offer three ways of reframing the problem. Then I will suggest some practical solutions

In terms of reframing, first, we need a radical change in how we view Aboriginal school attendance. How about we view them as Australian children? They are Australian children and so are entitled to a good education just like any other Australian child. Sadly, the problem of poor attendance has become 'Aboriginalised' and once that happens, the problem becomes a game of identity politics — and the ones to suffer most are the already disadvantage Aboriginal people.

Second, we need to change the language from improving 'attendance' to improving 'engagement' — to reflect that schools need to be places of learning for Indigenous children, not just minding centres, and that learning comes with engagement. School participation where the children are actively engaged, not only provides immediate benefits to children, but is also a means to a greater end — preparation for life as a fully functioning member of and contributor to society.

Finally, rather than seeing those schools struggling to achieve good attendance as bad or failing, we can use the term Sarra (2014) offers, namely, these schools are 'disconnected' from the communities they serve. Improving school attendance therefore entails building connections between schools and their communities. 

Reframing along those lines is, I believe, foundational to improving educational outcomes in remote communities. The changes of wording offered are not just cosmetic changes — they help gain a more accurate view of the problem, which helps generate more effective solutions. After reframing the problem, there are some practical steps that can be taken, and these are briefly summarised next.


'Positive and sustainable outcomes are more likely when schooling is viewed through lenses that incorporate elements of psychology, economics, social work, anthropology, culture, community development, and other disciplines.'


Schools sit within communities. What happens outside greatly influences what happens inside. Are communities safe? Are the adults working? Is the school accessible? What are the educational experiences of the parents? These are some of the questions that need to be answered if we are to see an improvement attendance and engagement. Most importantly, we need to consider what happens after school. Students need to know that a good education prepares them for life. 

Schools need to be seen as an integral part of the community. Sarra (2014, p. 46) has expertly described what needs to happen: 'Boundaries between the school and the community should be lowered. The school is not a fortress. It should be in and of the community.'

Recruiting and retaining good educators in remote areas is often a major challenge. They must work in these schools for the right reason — they are committed to seeing these children get a quality education. While teaching in these schools can be very rewarding, it can also be very challenging. It takes more than financial incentives to attract and retain good educators.

They need to know they are supported, are mentored, can partake in ongoing professional development, and are well resourced. They must also be prepared to learn about and appreciate the local culture. School leadership must be given autonomy and be trusted to make decisions at the coalface. There is a need for localised solutions.

Finally, there are many schools doing great work, but a nation-wide coordinated plan is needed. And while the education sector must play a lead role in, multiple perspectives must be considered. Positive and sustainable outcomes are more likely when schooling is viewed through lenses that incorporate elements of psychology, economics, social work, anthropology, culture, community development, and other disciplines. Such an integrated, interdisciplinary approach simply recognises the multifaceted nature of education.




Dr Anthony Dillon is a researcher with the Australian Catholic University Institute for Positive Psychology and Education.

Main image:  Indigenous students. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Anthony Dillon, close the gap, Aboriginal Australians, Torres Strait Islanders



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Existing comments

Dr Dillon's advocating of connection between schools and community is sound in principle, but how, practically, would "a nation-wide coordinated plan" address real differences in local community functionality throughout Australia?

John RD | 10 September 2023