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Keys to closing the education gap



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.



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

Main image: Stock photo / Getty

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



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Existing comments

Engagement is certainly the key. An part of the key to engagement is language, recogninsing that many remote communities have English as second, third or fourth language.

Peter Dixon | 18 August 2019  

Preserving speaking, written languages is Key. Engagement. Given the opportunity. Every Australian should learn an Australian Indigenous language from primary school. State and private. As the Scandinavians learn English from primary school.

AO | 20 August 2019  

Agreed, a good education is crucial, and there are many different challenges facing remote communities. Recently I was surprised to read that a good education was given the highest priority, not in the ethereal clouds of academia, but in the highly successful commercial centers in Medieval Europe: “In Florence in 1338, nearly half of the school-age population was attending school, this in an age when there were no schools in most of Europe, and even many kings were illiterate.” In addition, merchants hired on merit, not family loyalty: “The paucity of family scions in the family firm suggests a refreshing lack of nepotism; commerce was too important to place in the hands of the incompetent, however near and dear.” Merchants also valued personal morality. A written partnership agreement specified that the junior partner “could not entertain women in his quarters, or gamble, or accept any gift worth more than one pound.” So it seems that education, merit and morality played a key role in the success of early Western commercial activity.

Ross Howard | 20 August 2019  

Thanks Anthony. If you're ever in or around Tamworth, I'd love to shout you a coffee and unpack some of the complexities and challenges with you. Never give up.

Steve Etherington | 21 August 2019  

Thank you Anthony for your commentary which I read with much interest. Just a few thoughts from one who lived on a large aboriginal community in the 50's ( as the son of NSW Dept. teachers) and who had a career in Education in NSW. I maintain an interest in schools in the north west/west of NSW - Wilcannia, Brewarrina and Walgett. The subtle shift to engagement puts more responsibility on schools, their leaders and staff to plan better and allocate resources more intelligently. State systems respond variously, building support structures in regions where considered appropriate. Much is expected of teachers who generally leave more pleasant locations on the coast and encounter all kinds of issues apart from those on the job. (Accommodation, education of their own children et al ) I think "teacher burn-out" remains a significant issue in some communities and, I believe it needs more focus into the future. Staff turn-over is far too high in some schools Perhaps Anthony could do some ground breaking work in this area? I commend Anthony as one who has his feet "on the ground" . (I always enjoy reading his commentary.)

Ken Bridge | 21 August 2019  

Touched on and alluded to in Anthony's essay and comments is the somewhat intractable issue of (non-Indigenous) transience. I noticed this in the East Kimberley in Catholic schools I was 'engaged' with over some years. But then I too left! Maybe I would have stayed if the controlling and remote administration of schools, their religious element included, had encouraged a parish priest, for example, to become a professional linguist as well as a pastoral presence. And then encouraged the same in teachers, i.e., to be holistically committed to remote communities over longer periods of time. Something to take up, Anthony?

Noel McMaster | 21 August 2019  

Congratulations, Anthony, for an excellent plea for active engagement by the whole community in the education of its children, It must be seen as a partnership, in which one approach does not suit all communities. In remote areas, where English may not be the mother tongue, teaching in the early years should be in the mother tongue. This of course, makes extra demands on the teachers, but research has shown that this will bear fruit in better transition to English as the years in school progress. Inducements to teachers to stay longer also brings results, as rural and remote schools inevitably suffer from a high turnover of staff, and more crucially, those in leadership positions. Your article is pointing us in the right direction, so I hope that you can engage in some further research to develop your stragegies to achive the goals you have set. Keep the focus on the positives you have proposed!

Doug Hewitt | 21 August 2019  

I've visited the Wilcannia Catholic school. The teachers living in caravans, many frustrated when the elders suddenly tell the local families that they're going to honour some aboriginal Aunt or Uncle up the river, and a good percentage of the kids are suddenly absent for days. Yes, let's be honest, you can't align many of the aboriginal kids with 'normal' education, and this regular disruption to classroom progress really does stuff up the school routine, and the enthusiasm of the teachers. I don't know the answer, but let's not blame the Education system for these traditional indigenous disruptions. Mick

Mick | 21 August 2019  

My daughter is an Instructional Leader tasked with raising the standard of teaching and learning in a Sydney western suburbs school. The problem of teachers not taking up a long term role in a school where the problem of lack of engagement is targeted in productive ways still happens with a 25 - 30% teacher turn over yearly. Disfunctional families also play an important part in lack of engagement. Teachers able to teach in an aboriginal language is an excellent suggestion but which one of the many languages could be used in a situation where the linguistic background of the pupils is by no means unitary?

Grahame Forrest | 26 August 2019  

AYEYE-ILEME INGKETEME-AKERTE by Teresa Penangke Alice has some interesting issues to raise. written by an Arrernte educator about the issues faced in schools by Arrernte children.

dan murphy | 25 September 2019  

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