WA is on its way to reducing indigenous literacy and numeracy failure rates, which will increase opportunities for indigenous men and women to work in mining and other industries.
WA is the only State other than Queensland on track to meet the Council of Australian Governments target to “halve the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous literacy and numeracy by 2018”.
Nearly 70 per cent of the State’s indigenous students are passing NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests.
But detailed analysis of NAPLAN results from 2008 to 2011 shows that for a stubborn minority, failure rates are still high and only falling slowly.
High indigenous pass rates show that Aboriginality is not the cause of student failure. Indigenous students have the same intellectual capabilities as non-indigenous students.
Nor is remoteness a cause of failure. Non-indigenous WA schools in very remote locations achieve high NAPLAN results. The prime cause of high failure rates is inadequate schools.
Indigenous schools, those with at least 85 per cent indigenous students, have the lowest NAPLAN results of Australia’s 9000 schools. These schools have not been teaching mainstream curriculum, have had poor school discipline, high staff turnover and inadequate classroom teaching.
Disappointingly, indigenous enrolment in WA schools drops precipitously (by 48 per cent) between Year 3 and Year 9, the biggest decline in any State.
Added to this, absenteeism is high and students who are absent from school are not likely to pass NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests. If absent students are added to those sitting tests and failing, half — every second indigenous student — failed Year 9 in literacy and numeracy in 2011, one of the worst outcomes in the country.
On the upside, WA is leading Australia in introducing English as a second language for indigenous students who do not speak English at home, yet ESL in indigenous schools is still not as developed as it is for new immigrants.
Some non-government indigenous schools (Australian Christian Parent Controlled Schools and Aboriginal Independent Community Schools) have higher instruction standards than many indigenous government schools, but their students do not meet NAPLAN standards because they do not focus sufficiently on literacy and numeracy.
Most failing indigenous students are not enrolled in indigenous schools but in underperforming mainstream schools, where they sit side-by-side with non-indigenous students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Many more non-indigenous than indigenous students are enrolled in these “residualised” schools.
A number are located in mining labour market regions yet employers complain that school leavers cannot meet TAFE entry requirements or occupational health and safety regulations. “Residualised” schools are not an indigenous problem but a national education problem.
Australia is falling behind in international education league tables, while we struggle with a big difference in education outcomes between high and low socioeconomic cohorts.
Welfare dependence undoubtedly contributes to high NAPLAN failure rates. Families that do not work lack the daily rhythms of parents leaving for work and children attending school.
There are no role models in welfare communities. Expectations of education are low. Lack of labour regulations such as Newstart in indigenous communities contributes to high mobility and low school attendance.
WA’s autonomy options for principals have evidently contributed to relatively robust NAPLAN results.
But autonomy has to go further and WA should follow the lead of Queensland’s Department of Education, which has joined Noel Pearson’s Cape York Partnerships to deliver mainstream standard classroom instruction in three “academies” in Cape York communities on indigenous lands.
Queensland’s achievement is remarkable because it has a lower expenditure per student than other States, notably for “indigenous-specific” outlays that support “culturally appropriate” indigenous programs.
High outcomes with low expenditures are not a coincidence. Many indigenous-specific programs are not just wasteful but counterproductive because they take attention away from the classroom.
All principals must have the right to opt out of indigenous-specific programs and to instead get this funding for classroom learning.
WA cannot afford to rest on its laurels. COAG targets are misleading. Even if they are achieved by 2018, failure rates will still be high in indigenous and “residualised” schools because COAG targets aim to fix only “half the gap”.
On this timetable, many students graduating from indigenous schools in 2018 will not qualify for a job. This is not acceptable for a go-ahead State like WA.