For the past 13 years, prime ministers have reported to Parliament on progress towards the Closing the Gap targets on First Nations outcomes as one of the first items of business. This year there are new targets developed in partnership with First Nations stakeholders. The revised education targets aim to have 96 per cent of First Nations people aged 20 to 24 complete year 12, and 70 per cent of First Nations people aged 25 to 34 years complete a tertiary qualification by 2031.
As the CEO of Aurora Education Foundation, I see examples of Indigenous success every week. We recently learned, for example, that this year there will be Aboriginal academics teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge. The role of Indigenous teachers is incredibly powerful in expanding our perspectives and knowledge, and to know that this is happening at these top tier international universities is something we can all be proud of.
We all need to operate in the knowledge that the sky is the limit for Indigenous success. When students, teachers, career advisors, or families have low expectations, or do not see and harness potential, then aspirations and dreams can quickly erode.
In Western Australia, there were just seven First Nations students in the public education system who attained an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) above 75 in 2018. These seven students come from a group of more than 1500 Indigenous students who started year 9 in that same system three years earlier. We know this is not an accurate measure of the outstanding capabilities and intellect of Indigenous young people. The system must get better at understanding these students, supporting them and measuring their skills and achievements.
Too many Indigenous students have missed out on opportunities to learn in an environment that supported them to thrive. We hear too many 'what if' stories where inspiring young First Nations people have opted out of a school system that could have (and should have) done more for them. In contrast, there are also many 'right-place-at-the-right-time' stories where Indigenous scholars have looked back on their journey to success and pointed to game changing supports. Unfortunately, they were often a coincidence rather than a deliberate design feature.
So, what might a deliberate design feature look like? What might new actions look like to step up our efforts in line with the Closing the Gap targets?
A key part of this response lies in increasing the value that our schools place on First Nations history, cultures and knowledge. We will see stronger educational outcomes when Indigenous students feel a greater sense of belonging at school. The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report showed that one-third of Indigenous students don't feel like they belong at school and this proportion has been increasing since 2003. First Nations content and perspectives need to be embedded deeper in schools.
The recent #LearnOurTruth campaign led by the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition highlighted that while there were some overarching cross-curriculum priorities to embed Indigenous histories and culture it was often optional and heavily reliant on individual teachers.
This also needs to be reinforced outside the classroom in academy-style programs that focus on learning and academic improvement through a cultural lens. Through Aurora's work with Indigenous high school students, for example, we work with Elders and Indigenous mentors to teach Aboriginal visual memorisation techniques for students to remember the notes they have taken. A 'quick win' approach won't work here and a couple of NAIDOC assemblies and morning teas is not enough. Indigenous content, viewpoints, and expertise need to be rolled out with critical self-reflection and accountability across schools because tokenism can do more damage when it causes Indigenous students to shy away and disconnect.
More Indigenous content in the classroom and in academy-style programs would be a powerful step in creating learning environments that respect and value the unique place of Indigenous people. It would also provide a better space for Indigenous students to graduate without compromising their cultural identity.
Another important design feature is smoother transitions through high school and into higher education and employment. The ATAR pathway, for example, is too rigid and narrow and is stifling the potential of many Indigenous students. While some First Nations students are achieving excellent ATAR scores, many others have significant academic potential that is not picked up through ATAR pathways.
At Aurora, we administer the Charlie Perkins Scholarship and the Roberta Sykes Scholarship for Indigenous students to study at world-class international universities including Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard. Just under half of these scholars, myself included, were not academic superstars at high school and did not enter their undergraduate degree through a direct entry pathway.
Being seen as a number is not working for a lot of Australian students, not least First Nations students. In response to this, the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways calls for greater recognition of the value of a high school students' broader set of skills, capabilities, and experiences, both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Aurora is working with Learning Creates Australia to develop prototypes to present a fuller picture of the skills, knowledges, and intelligence that First Nations young people have developed throughout their learning journey. This will help Indigenous students and families to advocate for success in education on their own terms. It will also inform complementary support pathways for Indigenous students into further study or employment.
Finally, essential to all of these responses is the need to place a high value on Indigenous leadership and expertise. To comprehend this value, we need two things. The first is a greater understanding of First Nations histories, cultures and communities. The second is to critically reflect on our own perceptions and look for ways to do better. It's time to step up our engagement and change the narrative around the Closing the Gap targets to one that is better informed with more Indigenous leadership, and ultimately, success.
- Leila Smith is the CEO of the Aurora Education Foundation.