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Reforming Indigenous school education: The charter school alternative

By Mikayla Novak - posted Tuesday, 14 December 2004

Participation and achieving excellence in education has long been considered a central determinant in policy efforts to improve the economic and social status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Indeed, it could be reasonably argued that the emphasis on education to ameliorate Indigenous disadvantage has taken on even greater importance, given the relatively youthful Indigenous demographic profile against the background of an ageing Australian population, and the growing understanding of human capital investment as a long-term contributor to national economic prosperity.

The modern market economy relies on continuous creativity, flexibility and innovation in order to function efficiently, and through it delivering income growth and employment, and so it is essential that all young people, including those from Indigenous backgrounds, are provided with adequate educational opportunities to participate in the economy and society of the future.

Indigenous education statistics

Notwithstanding some signs of improvement in recent years, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Indigenous school students, on average, are attaining lower educational outcomes compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, therefore exacerbating the degree of overall Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage.


According to the Australian Government’s 2002 National Report on Indigenous Education and Training (NRIET), there remain substantial gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in formative reading, writing and numeracy skills.

For example, in 2001, 72 per cent of Indigenous students achieved the Year 3 reading benchmarks, compared to 90.3 per cent for non-Indigenous students; 67.8 per cent of Indigenous students achieved the Year 3 writing benchmarks (compared to 89.5 per cent of non-Indigenous students); and 80.2 per cent of Indigenous students achieved the Year 3 numeracy benchmarks (compared to 93.9 per cent of non-Indigenous students). Similar differentials exist in terms of the Year 5 national benchmarks. Further, the national average apparent retention rate for Indigenous students commencing in Year 7/8 and continuing to Year 12 was 38 per cent in 2002, compared to 76.3 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

In addition to this, recent information obtained at a local level has added further weight to the insurmountable evidence relating to the extent of Indigenous underperformance within the education system:

  • A leaked Queensland Government briefing paper for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) revealed that, in 2003, only 6 per cent of Indigenous students in the Cape York region completed Year 12. From the three Cape York government secondary schools, only two students matriculated in 2003. Further, approximately 1,500 Indigenous students were eligible to attend school in Cape York, yet only 150 were enrolled.
  • A report released by the Fred Hollows Foundation indicated that not one child in the Northern Territory community of Wugularr, situated 120 kilometres south of Katherine, achieved the Years 3 and 5 national literacy benchmarks in 2002.

These outcomes are a cause for concern for educators, policymakers and the general community.

Pearson boarding school scholarships proposal

In recent statements reported in the media, Aboriginal community leader Noel Pearson advocated that in an effort to help lift Indigenous school educational outcomes, scholarships be provided to Indigenous students currently residing in remote communities to attend “high-quality, high-expectation boarding schools” in the non-government sector. Many of these schools are situated in the capital cities, with significant boarding schools also present in major regional centres. Funding for this proposal could be derived from new and redirected State and Commonwealth Government funding or from private sources, including from business enterprises.


Mr Pearson’s proposal appears to stem from fundamental concerns relating to the lack of quality educational services provided in government schools, which dominate educational services in remote communities in particular, and the impact of this lack of access to high-quality education on endemic welfare dependency in local Aboriginal communities.

If Pearson’s proposition that “the starting point for any honest discussion about Indigenous education must be the admission that it is, with few exceptions, a massive disaster and it has been so for a long time” is to be accepted, then clearly the boarding school scholarships model should be augmented by complementary strategies to support those students that remain within the government school system. In particular, the government school sector requires fundamental structural change to enable Indigenous students, particularly in rural and remote localities, to reap the benefits of choice and quality educational services that are currently provided by urban non-government schools.

Consistent with this, a number of prominent Indigenous figures, such as Queensland’s Cherbourg State School principal Chris Sarra and ATSIC Darwin region chair Kimberley Hunter, have suggested the Pearson model can be usefully complemented by policy reform which emphasises better linkages between schools and their communities, particularly the degree of Indigenous community involvement in individual schools and the education system as a whole.

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About the Author

Mikayla Novak is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. She has previously worked for Commonwealth and State public sector agencies, including the Commonwealth Treasury and Productivity Commission. Mikayla was also previously advisor to the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Her opinion pieces have been published in The Australian, Australian Financial Review, The Age, and The Courier-Mail, on issues ranging from state public finances to social services reform.

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