The bottom line in Indigenous education:

Why we're not seeing the progress we need

At the core of it, what unions stand for is really what Indigenous education is all about – trying to alleviate inequalities experienced by anybody in our society.

The success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is heavily dependent on resourcing, and in a lot of cases Australia is just not getting it right, journalist Sara El Sayed writes.

As all school staff will know, while Indigenous education resources are key, scarcity – whether it comes from a genuine lack of money or skewed priorities – is real.

While the issue is complex, solutions continue to be identified from within our community.

The boarding school effect

A large number of Indigenous students, particularly in regional areas, attend boarding schools.

This is due to the under resourcing, or plain absence, of secondary schools in remote communities.

There are benefits to boarding schools, as outlined in the recent study A ‘Better’ Education: An examination of the utility of boarding schools for Indigenous secondary students in Western Australia, including improved employability, access to positive networks and improved agency.

However, as the study also highlights,there are a number of challenges that come a long with the current boarding school process.

Co-author of the study Dr Mary-anne Macdonald from Edith Cowan University’s (ECU’s) Kurongkurl Kattitjin, Centre for Indigenous Australian Education and Research said in a media release that Indigenous boarders face unique challenges including homesickness, language barriers, racism, discrimination, culture shock and post school transitions.

“Having a remote home can mean that students are very conflicted about what they’re going to do post Year 12. Do they pay the social cost of staying in the city far removed from community, language, culture and experience, or do they go home?”

Macdonald also noted the linguistic differences that students may need to overcome.

“Students in a mainstream school who may be coming from a remote community where English is not the first language might be a couple of years behind academically and some can believe that their Aboriginality is the reason they’re not achieving at school, rather than their set of unique experiences,” she said.

“Some schools deal with these obstacles well and provide the right support, and some schools don’t seem to be very aware of what makes boarding school challenging.”

Do we know what works?

A systematic review of over 10,000 Australian studies, the Aboriginal Voices Project, showed that in some cases we know what works in supporting Indigenous students, but in many cases we don’t.

Dr Cathie Burgess, Senior Lecturer specialising in Aboriginal Studies and Indigenous Education at the University of Sydney, and one of the 13 academics who took part in the systematic review – said there were a number of successful studies but they were usually small scale.

“Larger scale studies tended to have Indigenous students as a subset of a bigger group, so any findings often weren’t specific to Aboriginal people, it was more about low socio-economic status or under-achievement,” Burgess said.

“We did find approached that work but they tended to be very contextual – an approach might work in one particular community, but won’t work in another community.

“To some extent that is the nature of Indigenous education – it reflects the diversity of Aboriginal people and cultures across the country.

“There are some basic concepts that are relevant across the whole gamut, but they still need to be tailored to specific communities.

“One of most successful programs is Connecting to Country run by the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group.

“It is a three day cultural immersion program for teachers, run by local Aboriginal community members.

“Community members decide on the cultural knowledge, history and information that teachers need to know.

“Teachers are given the opportunity to visit sites, talk to local organisations to see what they do within the community. Elders, parents and students talk to them about what they feel education should look like.

“By the end of the three days, the teachers and the community had developed connections.

“The teachers could then go back to school and tell the students about whom they had met and what they had learnt – and this shows the students their teacher has an interest in their culture.

“It’s about building those relationships.

“That has to happen before you even start to think about educational outcomes.

“Unfortunately, what tends to happen in a lot of cases is once a program gets up and running and starts to have an impact, the money runs out – personnel support or financial support – it is always finite.

“Teachers are left scrambling to implement new programs, but once there is a change of government there is a change of approach, so there is a lot of frustration in schools.”

Asking too much

Burgess said the cornerstone of any program in schools is engaging with parents and community members, to have their input in to how things can work – but schools cannot always ask Indigenous people to do it for free.

“A lot of people volunteer their time, but a lot of Indigenous people work – they are doing this on top of their job – so if schools want that engagement they need to pay for it.

“There is a problematic idea that Indigenous people will do this for free because they want the change to be made – which is fairly patronising in many ways.

“If an organisation were to get a consultant from the private sector to consult on any organisational issue they would be paying big dollars, and in most cases would not hesitate.

“But as soon as it comes to Indigenous expertise it often has to be on a volunteer basis. There is no respect there.”

“Additionally, Indigenous staff in schools are always caught in a bind because they by and large want to make a difference for the students and improve outcomes, but they get left with all the work.

“It is usually on top of their core role.

“A history teacher, for example, shouldn’t be expected to take on all these extra roles just because they are Indigenous.”

IEUA-QNT member and Indigenous Education Adviser for Townsville Catholic Education Tammi Webber described the importance of employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in schools in dedicated roles.

“The overwhelming majority of our 30 Catholic schools in the Townsville region employ Indigenous Education Workers.

“They are school officers who are crucial in ensuring there is a cultural connection between community, families, our students and our schools.

“In our office we have a large Indigenous education unit.

“There are seven of us who work in that department – but we oversee and manage a lot of large scale initiatives and programs which then filter down into our schools, which the Indigenous Education Workers help implement and initiate.

“All of our schools are also asked to have Indigenous Education Advisory Groups. This could be the Indigenous Education Workers as well as parents, Indigenous teachers, community members and traditional owners – so they assist our schools with any new initiatives and any cultural understandings that the schools may need for their context.”

Action is needed

Being an active ally for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples is integral, and as a collective we know this.

Webber said unions play a crucial role in supporting and advocating for the most disadvantaged in our society.

“At the core of it, what unions stand for is really what Indigenous education is all about – trying to alleviate inequalities experienced by anybody in our society.

“It doesn’t matter your race or culture, we’re all equal in all capacities.”

Non Indigenous staff play a vital role in supporting their students, but also standing in solidarity with their Indigenous colleagues.

Taking the time to listen, but also the importance of taking action.

If your school or site does not currently have a Reconciliation Action Plan, take the first step in establishing one. Visit to start this process.

If you feel your school lacks adequate professional learning, discuss this with your colleagues and make this known to your school leadership.

One of the most well known statements by the Queensland Aboriginal activists group describes the importance of solidarity:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This quote is often credited to activist Lilla Watson, who has insisted the statement was the result of a collective process by the entirety of the Queensland Aboriginal activists group.

Solidarity creates change – and the collective underpins this.


Aboriginal students reap great rewards from boarding school - but face unique challenges. Edith Cowan University Media Release published 19 July 2018.

A ‘better’ education: An examination of the utility of boarding school for Indigenous secondary students in Western Australia by Mary-anne Macdonald, Eyal Gringart, Terry Ngarritjan-Kessaris, et al. (2018) published by the Australian Journal of Education.