Closing the Gap

Is this what Dan Tehan means by ‘back to basics’? The Mparntwe Declaration

The Mparntwe Declaration was released at the end of last year.  I do not use the official full title of the document on purpose.  I do this as a final hurrah to 2019, the Year of Indigenous Languages and I do this because, as was pointed out, this was the first time a national education declaration has included Indigenous language in its title. I do this to emphasise that we are on Aboriginal lands first and foremost. 

You would be forgiven for not knowing much about the Mparntwe Declaration as it was revealed with little fanfare in mid-December last year, just as 2019 end of year festivities began, the White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted and an awareness of the horrors of Australia’s bushfires was growing.

But I don’t want the declaration to slip away from public scrutiny before we have had a good look at it and note what is happening. The Mparntwe Declaration is our new national declaration on education in Australia. It sets the national vision and goals for education for all Australians, agreed on by all of the education ministers in Australia. It replaces the Melbourne Declaration which supposedly did the same thing back in 2008.

You have probably already forgotten the turmoil involved, also at the end of 2019, when the latest PISA results were published, just a week before the Mparntwe Declaration was announced. At the time Australian Education Minister, Dan Tehan, told us that “alarm bells should be ringing” over poor student test results and states and territories needed to “get back to basics”.

It is ironic to me just a week later we were provided with a national education policy which simply rephrases and reinstates the old Melbourne Declaration. How can anything change if we are just given a rehash of the same things? Let me explain.  

The goals

As with the Melbourne Declaration, the Mparntwe Declaration has two goals.  Here are the two sets of goals. To me, they are the same goals simply rephrased.

Melbourne Declaration 2008

Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence

Goal 2: All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens

Mparntwe Declaration 2019

Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity

Goal 2: All young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community

The ‘elaborations’ which follow each goal are also mostly a rehash. But there are some differences and I found them interesting.

Comparisons of the elaborations of Goal 1

The first elaboration of the first goal in the Melbourne Declaration was to “provide all students with access to high quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, socioeconomic background or geographic location”. It has been extended in the Mparntwe Declaration with an additional bullet point stating another parameter is to “recognize the individual needs of all young Australians, identify barriers that can be addressed, and empower learners to overcome barriers”.

So the social justice agenda found within the Melbourne Declaration is elaborated in the Mparntwe Declaration with additional bullet points on the needs of all young Australians who face disadvantage when engaging and/or accessing education.

If ordering is an indication of priority, we can note that the dot point “ensure that learning is built on and includes local, regional and national cultural knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and work in partnership with local communities” has been moved from the second bullet point in the Melbourne Declaration to seventh bullet point in the Mparntwe Declaration. 

Also the emphasis placed in the Melbourne Declaration to “promote high expectations for the learning outcomes of Indigenous students” has been removed from the Mparntwe Declaration and is encompassed within the new bullet point whereby “young Australians of all backgrounds are supported to achieve their full educational potential”

While the silence of the specific references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students may be in effect to address deficit discourses of the previous Melbourne Declaration, the stronghold of colonial norms of deficit remains. 

That is, the Education Council’s website (the website of all education ministers) may well state that “through the Declaration, Australian Governments also renewed their commitment to celebrating and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge and histories and ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are supported to imagine, discover and unlock their potential”, (note the commitment to celebrating and learning from) however newspaper articles across Australia continue to espouse colonial rhetoric by highlighting the OECD pointed out that, in maths and reading, Indigenous students are lagging behind their non-Indigenous counterparts by two-and-a-half years and two-and-a-third-years, respectively.”

Comparisons of the elaborations of Goal 2

Goal 2 has remained essentially the same, although the order in which the previous parameters were stated have changed, as well as an elaboration, and there is a refinement of the key points.  

Within the area of Confident and creative individuals, all of the nine dot points from the Melbourne Declaration have been maintained with the notable addition of ‘imagination’ to the Mparntwe Declaration – “have the imagination, knowledge, skills, understanding and values to establish and maintain healthy, satisfying lives”(my emphasis added). 

Is the inclusion of ‘imagination” here a nod to the Imagination Declaration released in 2019?  The Imagination Declaration is a group declaration by young Indigenous people who had gathered in East Arnhem Land in 2019 for a Youth Forum. It was a message to the Prime Minister and education ministers asking them to “imagine what’s possible” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. Famously, the declaration said, “We are not the problem, we are the solution”.

I ‘d like to know the purpose of using this term here in the Mparntwe Declaration. The Oxford dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses” or “the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful” – pray then why would people need to form new ideas or be creative when it comes to simply living?

The doom and gloom and neoliberalist ideologies of self-empowerment do not end there, as in addition to the previous Melbourne Declaration bullet points, the Mparntwe Declaration includes the need to be “resilient and develop the skills and strategy […] need[ed] to tackle current and future challenges” as well as to be “able to recognize, adapt to, and manage change” all while “understand[ing our] responsibilities as global citizens and know how to affect positive change [and still] have a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning that enable[s students] to thrive in their learning environment[s]”.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a shift from engaging with our “Asian neighbours” in the Melbourne Declaration, to engaging with our to “Indo-Pacific neighbours” in the Mparntwe Declaration The change in term of reference from Asia to Indo-Pacific aligns with the joint statement from ASEAN earlier this year. The Mparntwe Declaration seems to be neatening up the edges of policy and ensuring that it is aligned to the changing attitudes of colonial Australia. 

This becomes explicit when we consider that hidden within the rhetoric is also the push for the recognition of colonial Australia and a nod to conservatives by encouraging students to “have an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture”.  Not only is the fear of the fall of Western civilization addressed with this simple parameter but also, ensures an easy ride in for the religious discrimination bill currently in its second draft.  

The Mparntwe Declaration’s Commitment to Action section has also remained virtually the same as the Melbourne Declaration but with some distinct exceptions.  Most notably in my field, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education has been singled out from other marginalized groups as a central focus area needing its own commitment.  I have written about the tensions of Indigenous education policy previously in this blog in Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong, and in The Conversation in There’s little reason for optimism about Closing the Gap, despite changes to education targets.

And though I acknowledge the need for a specific target, my fear is it places Indigeneity in a silo rather than recognising the complexity of humans. 

The elaboration of the Commitment to Action in the Mparntwe Declaration on supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners to reach their potential has drawn from a variety of already existing policies hodge-podged together.  For example, the Vision from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy is present verbatim.  Statements directly from the Melbourne Declaration in the previous Commitment to Action that looked to improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous youth and disadvantaged young Australians have been borrowed.  Other components of this section are the reformation and re-imagining of statements made within the 2019 Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report

More notably, what is the ‘education community’ so consistently referenced in the Mparntwe Declaration? There is no definition of who makes up the ‘community’?  Is this the new term of reference for the stakeholders?  An attempt to remove the perceived commodification and marketisation of education to the notion of a community suggesting a relationship? 

Very little to nothing is new or visionary in the Mparntwe Declaration.  Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘back to basics’?  Rehash what has been said already with some minor changes to address political agendas and then wonder why our educational outcomes are not changing.  

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne.  Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  Her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy” was recently awarded the Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education.

Into this silence the children said – we are not the problem we are the solution

“…And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices ever shared, no one dared disturb the sound of silence…”

(Excerpt from Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel, 1965)

There is a silence echoing within government chambers,  as the need to address the disparities in Indigenous education is not spoken about. Indigenous education policy seems to be at a standstill. 

It has been almost a year with no review or evaluation of national strategies for educating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy, the agreement between Australia’s education ministers, was made in 2015 and was supposed to “guide the education of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people from birth through to further education and employment pathways”. But it now seems redundant. It has been a year with no superseding policy and no action plan.

To me the silence is unforgivable. There are around 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under the age of fifteen in this country today, and by 2031 around half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be under 25 years old. I am advocating for them.

Talking without speaking, hearing without listening

The government promised a “refresh” of the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, more commonly referred to as Closing the Gap.  However, a set of draft targets was released in December of 2018, ten months ago, suggesting what could be enacted.  That’s all we got.

And when we look at these draft education specific targets, they are simply a reimagining of the goals as set out in previous iterations of policy.  That is, the focus again falls on Numeracy and Literacy, Year 12 qualifications, attendance and so forth: same focus, similar goals, similar written words.

Then there was the review of the Melbourne Declaration on educational goals for young Australians.  The goals were set in 2008 within the first iteration and they also have not been met. Previous signatories and former education ministers have publicly lamented this lack of progress. 

The truth is the priority areas (or whatever they are called now) have not changed since 1975, The Report to the Schools Commission by the Aboriginal Consultative Group in June 1975 highlighted, way back then, the lack of progress in Indigenous education.  The fact that the priority areas remain stagnant and merely rephrased is something I wrote about in 2016.

The chasm

You could think all this failure and stagnation around educating First Nations people would inspire action and innovation to truly begin addressing the inequities.  Dominant voices within government espouse to wanting to “try something new, to change the way we work as governments – to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians”.

 And yet, never has there been so large a gaping chasm between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian Government than present times. Our voices and the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been silenced, denied and rejected.

Still waiting

To add insult, according to the commitments made within the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy in 2015, was the promise that: “This strategy will be reviewed in 2018, which is a significant year in measuring progress against COAG’s Closing the gap targets. An evaluation will consider the effectiveness of the strategy as a framework.”

Well 2018 has long gone and we are still waiting to see the review.

The evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014  was completed in November 2014 by ACIL Allen Consulting ,with the Strategy being endorsed and released late 2015. 

How much longer do we have to wait?

All we get is silence. 

We can wish

It is hard not to be cynical and postulate sarcastic laments. But we can wish.

Perhaps the delay is because, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserts in his Prime Minister’s foreword in the Closing the Gap Report 2019, “the main area of change needs to be in how governments approach implementation of policies and delivery of services.  Stronger accountability can be achieved through co-designed action plans that link targets to policy action, funding decisions, and regular evaluations”. 

Perhaps the government has been compiling an actual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Group made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators whose ‘business’ is education and know how targets can be achieved. 

Perhaps the government has finally listened and recognized that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth bubble, those under the age of 15, makes up over a third of the total Indigenous population.  This inevitably means that a large number of the population will be of school age.  Surely this must have some influence on the urgency of addressing the inequities and ‘closing the gap’.

The reality is that if a new iteration of the policy is not released soon, any momentum will be lost as was suggested in the Evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014.  Without the policy, and making schools and systems accountable as well as governments, our kids and their educational attainment, their dreams of a future become silenced. 

Imagine

More recently, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike released the Imagination Declaration asking ministers “to imagine what’s possible…[and that,] it’s time to think differently”.

If you haven’t read it, you should. Be inspired.

As the children said, “We are not the problem, we are the solution … We urge you to give us the freedom to write a new story.’

But here we sit and wait for any response from government.  We wait for government to provide the next policy. And one last wish that if do we get one there will be no fudging to backdate it to include 2019, as the year is almost over.

The children, teachers and schools wait for an end to this silence.

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne.  Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

Effective teaching methods that work for Indigenous students: latest research

What does effective teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students look like? Thousands of research studies have been dedicated to finding answers to this question. But much of what we think we know, or hear, about Indigenous education remains mired in myths and legends.

Governments have been surprisingly frank about the failure of their Closing The Gap policies to deliver better health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The search for better ways continues.

My colleagues and I are particularly interested in looking for what works in Aboriginal education, and most importantly, how do we know what works?

As part of the larger ‘Aboriginal Voices’ project we decided to analyse research studies on Aboriginal education from 2006-2017. We carried out several systematic literature reviews following rigorous and replicable protocols  across a range of key issues.

The review I want to tell you about is one that looked for evidence of pedagogies that engage, support and improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

This review sorted through approximately 2000 research studies and, after applying the systematic review inclusion/exclusion protocols, analysed the remaining 53 research studies.

So, what did we find?

Most studies are localised small-scale qualitative case studies focused on engagement

Most research studies were localised small-scale qualitative case studies producing evidence of successful programs that engaged and/or supported Indigenous students in the classroom and in many cases, these were the aims of the program. The assumption appears to be that if Indigenous students are engaged in their learning then their educational outcomes will improve but without empirical evidence to support this, this can only be considered as conjecture.

Wholesale literacy and numeracy programs where Indigenous students are a subset

Eighteen research studies identified pedagogical approaches for specific skills such as literacy and numeracy revealing mixed results in terms of success. In many of these studies, Indigenous students were a subset of a larger group usually connected by socio-economic status (SES), achievement levels and location. Any successes reported in these programs occurred for all students and therefore did not shed light on any specific pedagogical approaches that improved Indigenous student outcomes.

Not surprisingly research studies that focus on practical skill improvements like literacy and numeracy tend to receive large-scale funding as results are more readily quantifiable and reportable in terms of government policy priorities. Moreover, programmatic approaches to literacy and numeracy appear to have become the default approach for Aboriginal student learning in preparation for vocational pathways.

Specific pedagogies identified as effective

Yes we did find 21 studies of pedagogies identified as effective in improving Aboriginal student engagement, support and /or educational outcomes.

Most described effective, innovative pedagogies such as

  •  ‘Pedagogies of wonder’. This involves adults listening to the wonder of the children about their own history, culture and context and trusting children to research this rich resource.
  • Generative pedagogies  Here, culturally safe spaces were created for Indigenous girls to engage with their everyday experiences of oppression, through writing.
  • Place-based pedagogies (also here) that take students out of the classroom and onto ‘country’ and involve Rangers, teachers and community members in a collaborative approach to teaching and learning were successful in engaging students .
  • pedagogies prioritising local Aboriginal voices that involve listening to voices in the community and understanding the values and cultural elements that inform students in their engagement with a formal education context.

These teaching methods engaged and supported Aboriginal students rather than ‘improved educational outcomes’ and while it could be argued that culturally responsive approaches such as these create conditions for improving educational outcomes, there was no empirical evidence to make this causal connection.

The seminal extensive research project Systemic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement in NSW public schools (SIPA) provides an exception. While Aboriginal students were a subset of a larger group, researchers focussed on results for specific groups, coding and measuring student assessment tasks utilising the NSW Quality Teaching Framework [QTF].

In terms of outcomes, researchers provided solid evidence that high quality assessment tasks not only improved all students results but contributed to closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. While not identifying specific pedagogies to improve educational outcomes, they noted pedagogical approaches that contributed to poor outcomes particularly for Aboriginal and low SES students such as ‘defensive teaching’, low expectations and a focus on behaviour management rather than effective teaching and learning of curriculum content.

Contributing factors to effective teaching

Many of the studies [43] discussed pedagogies in relation to other contributing factors to effective teaching such as student engagement, teacher professional learning and curriculum.

Engagement strategies identified the importance of:

  • individually paced learning,
  • culturally safe learning environments,
  • providing transport, food and community-based staff working in the school,
  • opportunities for Aboriginal student voices,
  • local community involvement in the school,
  • teacher understanding about their students ‘out-of-school’ lives, and
  • school as a place of belonging and relevance.

Teacher professional learning included the need for:

  • increased teacher confidence and efficacy through actively learning about local Aboriginal culture, history and the impact of colonization,
  • a shift from behaviour management to subject knowledge,
  • time and resources to adequately reflect on and improve their practice, and
  • ongoing engagement with Aboriginal parents and communities.

Students and parents highlighted the importance of:

  • culture,
  • positive relationships,
  • needing to learn about the literacy demands of schools and how to code-switch between home and school,
  • support for student behavior,
  • schools and teachers rejecting deficit views of Aboriginal people, and
  • affirming Aboriginal student’s cultural identity.

Knowing the community is critical

While only 14 research studies focussed on context, most studies referred to this as an important consideration especially in remote and very remote schools. This suggests that the issues for students and the challenges for teachers are largely context dependent and so critical and nuanced understandings of each particular community are crucial. It also points to the invisibility of urban-based students and communities. If a study was conducted in an urban area, the location was not mentioned or considered a factor in the study. Given that urban Indigenous populations are increasing exponentially, this highlights a concerning gap in the research design and priorities.

Deficit thinking

Concern about school and teacher deficit thinking about Aboriginal peoples and cultures that also appear to permeate policy and practice, was evident in a number of studies, some of which contextualized this within ongoing issues of race and racism. Some studies also critically analysed the construction, problematisation and reproduction of knowledge noting that Aboriginal aspirations were not often included in definitions of what success might look like for these students and their communities, or how it might be measured.

The challenges are many and the answers complex

Consequently, while these research studies contribute to the conversation about ‘what works’ for Indigenous students, there certainly needs to be an evidence-based systematic approach to developing pedagogical approaches to improve Aboriginal student outcomes. In saying this, the combination of diverse Aboriginal contexts each of which are embedded in local place and knowledges, and the complexity of ‘measuring’ pedagogies given the multitude of complex, layered and nuanced variables that impact on the teaching/learning process, makes this an extremely challenging task. 

Need for a national vision

What we found throughout this review and the other systematic reviews conducted in this project, is what is missing or under-researched more than what was discovered or proven. It is clear to us that a national vision is needed. This vision needs to decolonize the parochial targets, outcomes and obsession with ‘measurement’ that currently restrains Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers and policy makers working together on the holistic project of improving Aboriginal student outcomes.

The Aboriginal Voices project will continue this work by developing culturally responsive approaches to schooling informed by local Aboriginal students and their families, who continually foreground the significance of Country, culture, language and identity to their success, emphasising the importance of success as ‘Aboriginal’.

Dr Cathie Burgess is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney currently teaching and coordinating Aboriginal Studies curriculum courses, Aboriginal Community Engagement and the Master of Education: Leadership in Aboriginal Education. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal education, and implementing innovative literacy strategies. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives positioning Aboriginal cultural educators as experts through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Community-Led Research, The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program and the Redfern Aboriginal Family Cultural Program.

Image by courtneyk

Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong

Much has been said about David Gonski’s second review of school funding in Australia. It is a document made up 46,327 words aimed at advising the Australian Government on how school funding can be used to improve student achievement and school performance.

Within those 46,327 words in the 150-page document, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, the term ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘ is only used 10 times. This is less than 0.1% of the total focus within the entire document.

Deficit discourse

It gets worse. When reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is used in the document, it is predominantly based on ‘deficit discourse’, that is discussion that represents people or groups in terms of deficiency, absence, lack or failure. And it sets up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be considered different to the dominant norm.  For example:

“This holds regardless of a student’s circumstances, whether they are students with disability, students in rural or remote locations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,those from non-English speaking backgrounds, low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, or any combination of these” (p. x, emphasis added);

“The review Panel heard from a range of stakeholders that there are common fundamentals needed to support all students – those in capital cities and territories, those in rural or remote locations, students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, academically advanced or less-advanced students, or any combination of these” (p. 4, emphasis added); and

“The strategy seeks to lift students’ foundational skills in STEM learning areas, improve Australia’s STEM performance in international comparative assessments, reverse the declining number of skilled graduates in STEM-related subjects, and address the under-representation in STEM of girls, of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and of students from non-metropolitan areas (p. 37, emphasis added).

By consistently listing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander uniqueness as a deficit, it maintains the dominant norm and perpetuates stereotypes.  The use of “or any combination of these” is also an interesting clause.  It seems a blasé term of reference acting to minimise the varying forms of inequity that peoples face and in turn, dismisses the lack of focus on addressing inequity.

Representation

Another mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the report includes an explicit mention of the need to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher representation.  As I see it, this limits the expectations of Indigenous peoples. They are seen as teachers not also as principals or educational leaders.

In the same way the document lacks promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within educational decision-making, even though this is advocated within numerous current policies.  Instead, the reasoning given for increasing representation is that “it promotes student creativity, motivation, deeper learning and problem-solving skills” (p. 73).

The reasoning seems very lack lustre when considering that an entire chapter within the document is focused on “Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators” (Chapter 3 pp. 56-81). This chapter draws on the work of Professors Jo Lampert and Bruce Burnett and their project, National Exceptional Teaching in Disadvantaged Schools programwhich seeks to address disadvantage by seeking exceptional pre-service teachers to fill ‘hard to place’ schools’ staffing issues. Little mention is made of the clientele of these schools or the reason for the schools being deemed ‘hard to place’ except for a mention of low socio-economic status schools.

Missed opportunities for positive acknowledgement

Yet, aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational research is used to emphasise the importance of classroom teachers and their role in education as well as the involvement of parents and community within the classroom setting.  For example, the Families as First teachers programis mentioned to illustrate the important role of parents supporting cognitive development. This program grew from a project within Kuranda to build parents capacity to assist their children in early childhood.

The omission of recognition of this being an Indigenous-led project now adapted within schools nationally, further silences the achievements and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Further to this, the notion of mentoring is also discussed.  While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not explicitly mentioned, the Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students report (OECD, 2017) was used as the substantiating evidence for mentoring.

The needs based funding loading specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is omitted from the actual report but needs based funding is championed as “levelling the playing field” (p.6).

The Review Panel was established “to examine evidence and make recommendations on how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes”, so these omissions are interesting.

One mention only of Cross-Curriculum Priorities

There are three cross curriculum priorities of the Australian National Curriculum. These are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. The cross curriculum priorities are part of the national curriculum, which is made up of three dimensions: specific disciplinary knowledge (such as English, science, maths), general capabilities (such as creative thinking, social and emotional skills) and the three cross curriculum priorities (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability).

Mention of the cross curriculum priorities is limited to one occasion within the report. And on that one occasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures is omitted.  That is, when describing the Australian Curriculum, the report states,

“The Australian Curriculum can be depicted as a cube of three dimensions: disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding in learning areas such as English, mathematics and science; general capabilities such as personal and social capability; and cross-curriculum priorities such as Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” (p. 38).

Why the omission?

I believe the omission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures may have been intentional. Previous reviews and reports commissioned by the Liberal Government by the likes of Kevin Donnelly have argued (paywalled) that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures within the curriculum is “hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that makes this nation unique”.

So is the omission purposeful; to align with the Liberal agenda of shifting focus? At least the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as the lone cross-curriculum priority is interesting. Considering the Liberal’s stance on climate change it is probably not surprising that Sustainability, the other cross-curriculum priority is also omitted.

In its defence, the report does acknowledge the numerous reviews undertaken addressing rural and remote education and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and that it “has sought to complement them, rather than go over the same ground. [Stating that,] our specific focus has been on improving school education outcomes for all students across Australia” (p. 14).

However if the review panel’s focus was on improving student outcomes and school performance, how can the needs of specific groups that are identified within governmental data sets as struggling to meet national minimum standards be so readily dismissed and silenced?

 

 

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.