Recently released census Indigenous data for 2011 shows that more than 85 per cent of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders live in capital cities and regional towns and work in a range of occupations as truck drivers, tradies, professionals and managers.
These Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people earn wages and salaries or are self-employed, pay taxes, and own or are buying their own homes. Their children attend mainstream public and private schools where they perform like other Australian children.
More than 80 per cent of Indigenous students in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory achieve minimum national standards. There is a significant minority, however, who are failing basic literacy and numeracy tests. And this minority has not improved over the four years since NAPLAN tests began in 2008.
Indigenous students comprise 4.8 per cent of all school students, almost double the Indigenous population (2.5 per cent percentage of the population), according to the 2011 Census estimates.
Higher fertility rates and a lower life expectancy explain only a small part of this disparity. The rapid Indigenous population growth rate evident in the 2011 Census is because virtually all children of intermarriage are identified as Indigenous, which has led to a high proportion of Indigenous students.
Students with an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous parent take pride in both heritages, Indigenous and the other – be it Anglo-Celtic, Chinese, Jewish, or whatever the origin of their parents and grandparents.
Despite the success of most Indigenous Australians, a significant minority continue to miss out on the benefits of Australian life. Indigenous Australians are overrepresented in welfare dependent families, and the high proportion of Indigenous students who fail literacy and numeracy cannot progress to jobs and careers.
In 2008, the Commonwealth reduced Indigenous education targets from ‘fix the problem in four years’ to ‘fix half the problem in 10 years’.
NAPLAN results show that Queensland has made the greatest progress in reducing failure rates, followed by Western Australia, but even these states are far from achieving parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
The other states and territories are not even on track to achieve the COAG (Council of Australian Governments) target of ‘halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students’ by 2018.
COAG policies have become a principal obstacle to improving literacy and numeracy because COAG sees ‘Indigeneity’ as the principal cause of Indigenous student failure.
More than $360 million is being spent on Indigenous-specific ‘culturally appropriate’ literacy and numeracy programs each year. These programs are not only wasteful but actually counterproductive because they take attention and resources away from classroom instruction.
A recent example is the additional funding of $800,000 to place artists (theatre specialists, puppeteers, visual artists, and circus performers) in schools that do not have the funds to employ full-time qualified teachers for all their students.
It is no coincidence that Queensland, which only spent $850 per student on such programs, has been much more successful than South Australia, which has made no inroads into Indigenous failure despite spending $6,000 per student on Indigenous-specific expenditures.
The highest failure rates are in Indigenous schools – those with more than 75 per cent Indigenous attendance. They enrol some 20,000 students, mainly in bush communities on Indigenous lands that have no private sectors or real jobs, and are hence totally welfare dependent. These schools typically have failure rates of more than 90 per cent.
More than 40 Homelands Learning Centres in the Northern Territory do not have a qualified teacher all days of the week. Only a handful of Indigenous schools such as the Cape York Partnership ‘academies’ and three schools run by the Queensland Department of Education have introduced rigorous literacy and numeracy instruction, a full primary curriculum, and after-school ‘club’ activities.
In the few schools with high ethos, where students make progress from day to day and from week to week, attendance booms.
Another 40,000 Indigenous students attend ‘residualised’ mainstream schools that draw students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Indigenous students sit side by side with non-Indigenous students. Instead of offsetting social disadvantage, these schools are swamped by it, with poor discipline leading to high staff turnover and poor teaching.
Employers complain that graduates from these schools do not have adequate literacy and numeracy. These schools are not a problem of Indigenous education but a national problem.
Governments at all levels are miserably letting down Australian school students; instead, they need to refocus on achieving quality education outcomes so that all students can have better opportunities later in life.
The report Indigenous Education 2012 is available at The Centre For Independent Studies.