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An account of for the educational gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians

“… across every State and Territory there was an achievement gap between indigenous andnon-indigenous students across every year group for reading writing and numeracy.” (Ford, 2013, p12)

Executive summary

It is obvious that there is an educational gap between indigenousand non-indigenous communities in Australia. There are factors, which contribute to this, and this essay will address the various cultural, historic as well as other general historic events that have mainly contributed to this.  The culture related factors will mainly be based on the cultural aspects of the indigenouscommunities that make then not get involved in the mainstream educational system. Finally, the essay will make two recommendations considered primary for the effective uptake of education by aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders students and reduce on the high dropout cases by the same.

Cultural perspective

Culture has played a major role in impending success of indigenous students in Australia. Even though there are some few exceptions of indigenous students who perform exemplary, the majorities do not perform well and some drop out before level 12. According statistics, culture is one of the main factors thatcause this problem. Under culture, there are several factors.

The first is social attitudes. It is quite unfortunate that, even up to the present day Australia, the indigenous communities still face negative social attitudes. Negative attitudestowards the aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander communities have been in existence and actually began at the time of colonization by the British in around 1788 when the British began active activities in Australia (Malcolm & Konigsberg, 2006). The negative attitude regarded indigenous Australians as non-teachable and non-performers in school. This has extended up to date where indigenous students are not given the right attention and engagement by teachers because “it would be a waste of time and energy”.

The second cultural factor is related to language. This factor is highly dependent and is propelled by the remoteness of indigenous schools. These are schools located in the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders inhabited regions. With the schools located in these regions, it is obvious then, the majority of the students will be indigenous. Now, these students speak the indigenous languages for the better part of their life. For the teachers, who majority are non-indigenous, they have to teach using English as the main language. To communicate with the indigenous students, biliteracy and bilingualism has to be used. According to Malcolm & Konigsberg(2006), the traditionally spoken language is a vehicle to cognitive development and is the perfect stepping-stone for effective learning. When this is compromised from the world go, the learning process inevitably crumbles, no wonder most indigenous students drop out of school before level 12 (Nakata, 2002).

Environment is the other third cultural factor thatis a barrier to effective performance of indigenous students in education. The environment where aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities live is characterized by high levels of community violence and antisocial behavior. According to Sharifian (2005), these two cultural vices have been shown to have negative impact on student’s performance. These vicesaffect the students by affecting his or her emotional and physical wellbeing hence deviate the students focus from education. It is also agreeable that, such cases like death in the family, trauma or violence make one unable to cope with day-to-day life and students are not an exception (Sharifian, 2005). On the other hand, private study that forms a major part of student’s performancecannot take place in a noisy or violent environment.

The fifth cultural factor impending success of indigenous students in education is general family relations. For the majority of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders parents, they are not involved in the education process of their children (Nakata, 2002). This is because their family relations do not require a parent to be engaged in such activities, which to the parents, don’t “matter in society building”. According to Murray et al (2004), parent engagement is an important factor for a child to create interest in education.

Historical perspective

On the other hand, historically related factors also have a stake in the poor performanceof indigenous students in education.

The first is employment barriers. This factor is based on the fact that, the colonial masters regarded the indigenous communities as inferior and savages. On the other hand, the indigenous communities regarded the colonial masters as untrustworthy and they viewed them with fear and anger. These relations meant that, the two groups could not work together and education being a western element, the indigenous could not partake of it (Foster, 2000). Because to be employed in the western colonials system one had to be educated, they could not be employed. This unemployment has continued to impact on education of the education communities negatively because; even the teachers in the classes are non-indigenous.Going by statistics, in 1995, a survey found that 77% ofemployers could not employ indigenous employees because of such factors like culture, communication problems, lack of the appropriate skills and training, and misconceptions (Malcolm & Konigsberg, 2006).

The second factor is racism. Even though it is debatable if racism is present in Australia,one factorhas greatly contributed to inefficiency in aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders education. Racism in this context is based on skin color. According to Zubricket al (2006), peer pressure is one of the elements that students must be able to cope with in an educational system. It could be negative or positive depending on the context.However, in the case of indigenous and non-indigenousstudent’s relationship, peer pressure in most cases puts indigenous students down and they are unable to mix with their peer. This is an explanation as to why some indigenous students drop out of the education system.

The third factor is limited access to mainstream services.This was a result of segregation done by the colonial masters. The indigenous people were pushed away from their land to crowded remote regions in the name of making room for colonial activates. This segregation has continued to affect indigenous students up to date. According to Nakata (2002), today’seducation is more in line with the current mainstream services like the use of the computer among others.Indigenous students will not understand what a computer is especially those still in the remote segregation regions. For this reason, they remain challenged in catching up with the non-indigenous students.

Forth, is a factor closely related to segregation, dispossession.Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders where disposed of the good things they had. These included land, property, etc. this dispossession is the contributing factor to the deplorable condition of indigenouscommunities (Foster, 2000).The poor state lead to poor health and poor living conditions, a combination that does not favor academic performance. Unhealthy students are unable to attend class let alone perform well. In addition, poor health limits the intellectual level of a person especially due to lack of the appropriate nutrients required for brain development in early child growth (Nakata, 2002).

Fifth, assimilation which was the effort to make indigenous-English men also worked against education. First, the effort was to make aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders British, following a culture they had no knowledge of, speaking a language they could not understand, etc. the result of this was an “non-teachable” indigenous lot. As Wise et al (2005) puts it, a group without culture is a group that cannot be educated.

Discussion of other consequential events in Australia history

The first event that will be attributed with the majority of the problems facing Australian indigenous communitiesis the arrival of the British in the country in 1788(Malcolm &Konigsberg, 2006). With the lack of space for their convicts in Britain, they needed space to house them. Australia was the best option being their catch of the time. In 1790-91, there was arrival of over 750 convicts in Australia. The first consequence of this was to displace and dispossess aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders off their land and possessions. The effect of this was massive poverty of these two communities. This had a general effect to the entire indigenous communities and as an extension; it affectednegatively educational performance of their children.Thefactors that affect educational success include poverty, poor health, and deplorable environment.

The second consequencewas misconception of indigenous culture by the early British colonialists. This leads to assimilation efforts by the British (Foster, 2000). The entire aboriginal culture, governance system as well as traditional education system where interrupted with if not completely dismantled. Note: the British were selective in determining what to dismantle and want to interrupt. For example, as they knew it would be difficult to govern the indigenouscommunitiesdirectly, they erected community leaders who were their “puppet”. For the case of culture, as they knew they did not need the culture of these indigenous folks, they dismantled it fully (Sharifian, 2005).This worked to confuse the indigenouscommunities and to an extension, had effect on academic success of indigenous effects.

The third event that affected the lives of indigenous people was the displacement and confinement in reservation camps.The camps were pieces of land considered infertile, unproductive, and unsuitable for human habitation (Murray, 2004).Based on the conditions of thecamps, the high populations of indigenous people could not be comfortably sustained. There was high competition for limited resources. The result was death of a high number of indigenous people. As a result of the congestion, disease outbreaks dealt the population a big blow as they spread fast and any control efforts (if any), would be highly challenged.The problems from these reservation camps meant aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students could not effectively partake in cultural educational system, not to mention the western educational system.

By extension, these reservation camps have contributed to the remoteness of indigenous communities that continuous to challenge the mainstream current education (Malcolm & Konigsberg, 2006).In addition, these reservation campshave contributed to poor housing of current day aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities. The state of poor housing is a contributing factor to student’s poor health and having negative impacts on family stability and education. To the most basic day-to-day lifestyle, poor housing has is the direct result of lack of sleep for children. Without sleep, children are unable to concentrate in class hence poor performance.

The early colonialists considered indigenous people weak and inferior and in their imagination, they would eventually die out, leaving the country and space to them.Soon after they had settled in the land, there started emerging mixed-race generations in the aboriginal reserve camps (Malcolm &Konigsberg, 2006). This was the fourth event theyaffected the state of indigenous people generally. This lead to an improved perception of indigenous people by the white men As a result, they stated tacking some of the indigenous people and tried to assimilate them. Even though this had mixed result with regard to education, it is to be consideredan overall positive event to the indigenous communities. The assimilated people lost their identity as they were forced to leave their culture while the mixed-race persons had the benefit of enjoying the white-man’s services, among them the current modern educational system. In general, indigenous people gained some positive perception by the whites, even though not as equals, but still not as inferiors who would die off.

The fourth event that had a major impact to the indigenous people was the referendum of 1967 and the removal of some of the discriminations in the constitution (Malcolm & Konigsberg, 2006). The eventfavoredthe aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people in general. The referendum saw the removal of two of themain clauses in the constitution that negatively referenced the indigenous communities and gave way for the commonwealth tolegislate onbehalf of them (Murray, 2004). This was a major step that led to start ofaboriginal disregard for education and has been increasing with years (Foster, 2000). However, according to Malcolm & Konigsberg (2006), the number of indigenous students in the educational system is way below their non-indigenouscounterparts.


Toimprove on the performance and involvement of indigenous people in the education system, here we will present two recommendations.

One;the adoption of a holistic approach to schooling. This will deliver a culturally and contextually relevant system to the indigenousstudents. This would be in the curriculum used for the remote indigenous schools. The main objective of this curriculum would be to relate what the student is learning to their lifestyles and experiences.The curriculum would be incorporated in a program that addresses other student needs like nutrition, travel, basic materials and other personal and learning support requirements. The education system would also be designed in a manner as to engage the student, the teacher, the parents, families and the community at large.

Two;the development of productive and genuine partnerships between schools and the indigenous community. This would be aimed to create a stimulating and responsive educational and academic servicing platform for indigenous system. Note: one of the main reasons why indigenousstudents are challenged in education is disregard of western education system by the indigenous community. To ensure the efficiency and long-term operation of this endeavor, it would require it being engraved in the national, state as well as territorial policy systems.


Foster, R. (2000). ‘endless trouble and agitation’: Aboriginal agitation in the protectionist era. Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia,28:15–27

Malcolm, I.G. and Konigsberg, P. (2006).Bridging the language gap in education in G. Leitner and I.G. Malcolm (eds.), Australia’s Aboriginal languages habitat, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin.

Murray, S. Mitchell, J. Gale, T. Edwards, J. Zyngier, D. (2004). Student disengagement from primary schooling: A review of research and practice, Centre for Childhood Studies, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Victoria.

Nakata, M. (2002, October). Indigenous knowledge and the cultural interface: Underlying issues at the intersection of knowledge and information systems. Annual Lecture at Jumbunna, University of Technology, Sydney.

Sharifian, F. (2005). Cultural conceptualizations in English words: A study of Aboriginal children in Perth’, Language and Education, Vol. 19, No. 1, 74-88

Wise S, da Silva L, Webster E, Sanson A. (2005 July).The Efficacy of Early Childhood Interventions. AIFS Research Report no.1, p.1

Zubrick, S.R. Silburn, S.R. De Maio, J.A. Shepherd, C. Griffin, J.A. Dalby, R.B. Mitrou, F.G. Lawrence, D.M. Hayward, C. Pearson, G. Milroy, H. Milroy, J. Cox, A. (2006). The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: Improving the Educational Experiences of Aboriginal Children and Young People, Curtin University of Technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Perth.

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