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Private boarding school vs public school education for Indigenous students

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 11 November 2004

The mere mention of the term “private school education” elicits thoughts of elitism confirmed in part by the discernible grand structure, usually white or aged granite chapels, signifying the religious bias of the institution, sitting snugly on the highest and most expensive real estate in the city.

But it is within the confines of this very staid environment that prominent Indigenous leader Noel Pearson believes will be found the keys to unshackle the social burden of our youth that will provide educational opportunities and will lead them and their communities to a brighter and more prosperous future.

It is regrettable that neglect by decades of Indigenous leadership and government bureaucracy has allowed the innocence of our youth to become seriously scarred from witnessing extremes of social disorder in their communities. And it shows no signs of abating. The consequent feeling of hopelessness combined with a high level of daily anxiety has impacted significantly in the abysmal educational outcomes of school-age children living in Cape York communities and many other Indigenous communities throughout the country.


Noel Pearson’s blueprint

Noel Pearson advocates sending Indigenous high school students away from their communities to attend boarding school in the cities as a means of addressing chronic academic under-achievement. Pearson told The Weekend Australian (October 30, 2004) that Aboriginal youth had no chance in life unless they attend “high-quality, high-expectation boarding schools down south”.

Ronald Wilson, the former High Court judge, human rights commissioner and co-author of the Bringing Them Home report, warned that any scheme should not be based on compulsion. "Education is fundamental to advancement and achievement but there must be safeguards," he said. Sir Ronald told The Weekend Australian it was vital that such a scheme be voluntary and led by Indigenous people.

The Queensland government briefing paper - prepared for the Council of Australian Governments in May - said that from 1997-2004 only 6 per cent of Cape York students completed Year 12.

So are these extravagant learning centres - especially those talked about disapprovingly by Mark Latham -  and located at the smarter end of town, the answer to addressing the current Indigenous leadership vacuum that exists nationally? What has alarmed Noel Pearson into looking south of the tropic of Capricorn to the finest private schools as a potential saviour for our youth?

Indigenous Education Statistics

The 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey demonstrated the lack of secondary and tertiary qualifications impacts negatively on an Indigenous person's ability to obtain ongoing, gainful employment. The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) also notes that if Indigenous Australians do not “keep up” with the rest of the Australian population in educational attainment this will result in Indigenous Australians being less competitive in the labour market and increase the risk of continuing the cycle of severe poverty and disadvantage.

The CAEPR report shows that 39.5 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians had completed Year 12 or equivalent compared with 16.8 per cent of Indigenous Australians. Further, 1 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians reported that they did not go to school compared with 3 per cent of Indigenous Australians.


The retention rate for Indigenous students fell from nearly 90 per cent in year 10 to 67 per cent in year 11. By comparison, the rate for non-Indigenous students falls less dramatically from year 10 to year 11 from nearly 99 per cent to 90 per cent.

There has been an increase in Year 12 retention rates for Indigenous students from 1997 to 2001 from 32 per cent to 36 per cent respectively. These rates remain substantially lower than the rates for non-Indigenous students.

Census data for 2001 identifies people aged over 15 years who were attending a technical or further educational institution (such as a TAFE college) or a university or other higher educational institution. The ABS has reported that Indigenous people participate at a similar rate to non-Indigenous people in post-secondary education, although this varies across age groups, type of institution attended and across geographic regions.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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