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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2006  
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Contents >> Education and Training >> Education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people

Education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people

Contributed by Francis Mitrou, David Lawrence (Curtin University of Technology), John De Maio (Telethon Institute of Child Health Research) and the WAACHS team.

In 2002, more than half of Indigenous students aged 4–16 years (58%) in Western Australia were rated by their teachers as having low overall academic performance.

One of the most powerful tools for socioeconomic improvement is improving educational outcomes. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience relative disadvantage across a range of socioeconomic indicators, with education being one of those indicators. The education sector is well placed to make positive long-term change to the life outcomes of Indigenous children, families and communities.

This article focuses on the academic performance of Indigenous children and young people. The article initially examines Australian National Benchmark data for literacy and numeracy, comparing Indigenous students and all Australian students in Years 3 and 7. Indigenous students' overall academic performance and factors influencing performance are then examined using data from the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS).

While WAACHS relates specifically to Western Australia, information collected about factors associated with academic performance may be relevant to Indigenous students' academic performance at the national level.

LITERACY AND NUMERACY

Basic literacy and numeracy skills are essential for functioning in work and everyday life, and people who carry lower levels of literacy and numeracy through to adulthood are more likely to be unemployed than people with higher levels of literacy and numeracy.(EndNote 3)
There have been improvements in the proportion of Indigenous students achieving reading benchmarks in recent years. The proportion of Indigenous students in Year 7 achieving reading benchmarks increased from 60% to 71% between 2001 and 2004. The proportion of Year 7 Indigenous students achieving numeracy benchmarks has remained around 50% over the period.

Despite improvements in reading literacy, the proportion of Indigenous students in Year 7 meeting national benchmarks remains much lower than for all Australian students. In 2004, 91% of all Year 7 students achieved reading benchmarks (compared with 71% of Indigenous students in Year 7) and 82% achieved numeracy benchmarks (compared with 52% of Indigenous students).

The gap between the proportion of Indigenous students and all Australian students achieving national benchmarks has narrowed in recent years. Between 2001 and 2004 the gap between Indigenous students and all students achieving Year 7 reading benchmarks decreased eight percentage points (to 20 percentage points in 2004). For Year 7 numeracy benchmarks there was a three percentage point decline in the gap over the period (to 30 percentage points in 2004).

The proportion of Indigenous students in Year 7 achieving national benchmarks is well below the proportion achieving benchmarks in Year 3. For example, in 2004 the proportion of Indigenous students achieving numeracy benchmarks in Year 7 (52%) was well below the proportion achieving numeracy benchmarks in Year 3 (79%). While this pattern is also evident among all students, the difference between Years 3 and 7 in the proportion achieving the national benchmarks is more pronounced for Indigenous students.

SCHOOL CHILDREN(A) ACHIEVING READING BENCHMARKS, AUSTRALIA
GRAPH:SCHOOL CHILDREN(A) ACHIEVING READING BENCHMARKS, AUSTRALIA

Data sources

This article discusses the academic performance of Indigenous students. It mainly focuses on the factors associated with the academic performance of Indigenous students in Western Australia, drawing on findings from the 2002 Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS).EndNote 1) Data presented on the academic performance of non-Indigenous students are from the 1993 Western Australian Child Health Survey (WACHS).(EndNote 2)

Australian National Benchmark data for literacy and numeracy are from the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs' 2004 National Report on Schooling. National literacy and numeracy benchmarks represent minimum standards for aspects of literacy and numeracy below which students will have difficulty progressing at school. Testing is conducted for children in Years 3, 5 and 7 over four areas: numeracy, reading, writing and spelling.


SCHOOL CHILDREN(A) ACHIEVING NUMERACY BENCHMARKS, AUSTRALIA
GRAPH: SCHOOL CHILDREN(A) ACHIEVING NUMERACY BENCHMARKS, AUSTRALIA


OVERALL ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

There is a high level of disparity in the overall academic performance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in Australia. In 2002, the WAACHS found that more than half of Indigenous students aged 4–16 years (58%) in Western Australia were rated by their teachers as having low overall academic performance.

The incidence of low academic performance is considerably higher among Indigenous students than non-Indigenous students. In comparison, in 1993 less than one-fifth of non-Indigenous students aged 4–16 years (19%) in Western Australia were rated as having low overall academic performance according to the WACHS.

Teacher rated academic performance for Indigenous students for numeracy and literacy was similar to overall academic performance. In 2002, 59% of Indigenous students aged 4–17 years in Western Australia were rated as having low academic performance in literacy, and 57% were rated as having low academic performance in numeracy.

The disparity in academic performance between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students is evident from the earliest years of schooling onwards, and is maintained until the early high school years. For example, similar proportions of Western Australian Indigenous students in Year 1 (39%) and Year 7 (38%) were rated as having average or above average academic performance. In comparison, 82% of non-Indigenous students in Year 1 and 81% in Year 7 were rated as having average or above average academic performance.

The apparent rise in performance among Indigenous students observed from Year 8 onwards merely reflects the fact that some of the lower performing Indigenous students have by then left school.

Evidence suggests that if a student begins school with a learning deficit, and has not caught up to their peers by their fourth year of schooling, it is most likely they will never catch up.(EndNote 4) (EndNote 5) Some researchers suggest that the key to achieving educational parity for Indigenous children may lie in the pre-school and early school years.

STUDENTS(a) ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(b), WESTERN AUSTRALIA
GRAPH:STUDENTS(A) ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(B), WESTERN AUSTRALIA


Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey

The WAACHS was conducted between 2000 and 2002 by the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (ICHR) and examined the health, wellbeing and education of Western Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0–17 years.(EndNote 1)

While the WAACHS collected several measures of academic performance this article focuses on teacher rated academic performance. School teachers of survey respondents rated students in comparison with other students of the same age. Students with low academic performance were those who were rated below age level. Students with average or above average academic performance were those who were rated at or above age level.

WAACHS teacher rated academic performance data was validated by comparing teacher ratings with Indigenous students performance in national benchmark testing for numeracy, reading, writing and spelling conducted by the Western Australian Literacy and Numeracy Assessment. The strong associations between the WAACHS teacher ratings and students performance on the national benchmark tests suggest that the teacher rated academic performance collected in WAACHS is a reliable measure of academic performance.

Western Australian Child Health Survey

The WACHS was conducted in 1993 by ICHR in collaboration with the ABS, and surveyed the health, wellbeing and education of children aged 4–16 years in Western Australia. There was no specific focus on Indigenous children, with those sampled outside of the Perth metropolitan area excluded from the survey. The WACHS methodology served as a template for the WAACHS, hence many data items are comparable between the two surveys.

In this article, the academic performance of Indigenous students based on 2002 WAACHS data is compared with 1993 WACHS data for non-Indigenous students. These two surveys used the same method to collect teacher rated academic performance, with assessment of academic performance based on comparisons with other students of the same age, rather than against benchmarks of academic achievement. So even if there have been changes in the level of academic achievement, the distribution of teacher assessed academic performance for all students is expected to be similar in 1993 and 2002. It is therefore feasible to use the two surveys to compare the academic performance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students despite the gap in time between the two collections.


STUDENTS(a) RATED AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(b), WESTERN AUSTRALIA
GRAPH:STUDENTS(A) RATED AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(B), WESTERN AUSTRALIA

INDIGENOUS STUDENTS(a) RATED AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(b) BY LEVEL OF RELATIVE ISOLATION, WESTERN AUSTRALIA – 2002

GRAPH: INDIGENOUS STUDENTS(A) RATED AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(B) BY LEVEL OF RELATIVE ISOLATION, WESTERN AUSTRALIA – 2002



...LEVEL OF RELATIVE ISOLATION

The academic performance of Indigenous students in Western Australia varied across Levels of Relative Isolation, with the proportion of Indigenous students rated by their teachers at average or above average academic performance decreasing as isolation increased. A little under half (49%) of Indigenous students were found to be at average or above average academic performance in the Perth metropolitan area (i.e. No relative isolation) compared with 21% of Indigenous students in areas of Extreme isolation.

FACTORS SIGNIFICANTLY ASSOCIATED WITH ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

In the WAACHS a wide range of factors associated with the academic performance of Indigenous students were analysed. These included factors related to the students own physical health and social and emotional wellbeing as well as factors relating to their primary carer, family and household and school environment.

As factors can be interrelated, multivariate analysis techniques were used to determine which factors had a significant effect on academic performance, independent of their effects on other factors.

Three key factors were found to be the predominant drivers associated with low academic performance. While these were not the only factors associated with academic performance they represent those which had the most impact. They were selected as the most powerful due to both the strength of their association with low academic performance and the high proportion of Indigenous students affected by them. The three factors were: emotional or behavioural difficulties, school attendance and the educational attainment of the carers of Indigenous students.


Level of Relative Isolation

Level of Relative Isolation is based on an extension of the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) known as ARIA++. Based on the ARIA++ scores, five categories of isolation have been defined specifically for use in WAACHS that reflect differences in access to services for Indigenous children. These five categories are referred to as Levels of Relative Isolation and range from none (Perth metropolitan area) to Low (e.g. Albany), Moderate (e.g. Broome), High (e.g. Kalumburu) and Extreme (e.g. Yiyili).(EndNote 1)


...EMOTIONAL/BEHAVIOURAL DIFFICULTIES

The extent to which Indigenous children and young people experience emotional or behavioural difficulties affects their ability to grow up to be emotionally resilient young people.(EndNote 6) Western Australian Indigenous students assessed by their teachers at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties were almost three times more likely than students at low risk to have low academic performance.

In 2002, around one in six (17%) Indigenous students aged 4–17 years in Western Australia were rated at high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties by their teachers. Four in five (80%) of these students were also rated as having low academic performance by their teachers. In contrast, less than half (48%) of Indigenous students at low risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties were also rated as having low academic performance.

The most common specific emotional or behavioural difficulty experienced by Indigenous students (as assessed by their teachers) was hyperactivity followed by conduct problems and problems with social behaviour, such as sharing.

In 2002, a little over one-fifth (22%) of Indigenous students in Western Australia were assessed as being at high risk of clinically significant hyperactivity. Children with hyperactivity have significant problems with restlessness and fidgeting and are easily distracted and often unable to stop and think things through or finish what they have started.(EndNote 6) Just under one in five (18%) Indigenous students at high risk of clinically significant hyperactivity were rated as having average or above average academic performance. In contrast over half (52%) of Indigenous students at low risk of clinically significant hyperactivity were rated as having average or above average academic performance.

Almost one in five (19%) Indigenous students were assessed as being at high risk of conduct problems. Children with conduct problems display a range of behaviours including lying, stealing and fighting, along with temper tantrums and disobedience.(EndNote 6) Just over one in five (23%) Indigenous students at high risk of clinically significant conduct problems were rated as having average or above average academic performance. In contrast, 48% of Indigenous students at low risk of clinically significant conduct problems were rated as having average or above average academic performance.

Around one in six (17%) Indigenous students were at high risk of problems with prosocial behaviour (i.e. had poor social skills). Social skills that entail being considerate, sharing, helpful and kind are abilities that are important at school as well as at home, work and in recreation.(EndNote 6) Just over one in five (23%) Indigenous students with a high risk of clinically significant problems with prosocial behaviour, and 48% of Indigenous students at low risk were rated as having average or above average academic performance.

Less than one in ten students were assessed as being at high risk of peer problems (9%) or emotional symptoms (7%). Children with peer problems may not have friends, be liked, be picked on by other children, play alone or prefer adult company to the company of peers.(EndNote 6) Children with emotional problems may be overly sad, fearful, worried or nervous. They may also complain of physical symptoms even when these are shown to have no physical cause.(EndNote 6)
Similar proportions of Indigenous students at high risk of clinically significant emotional symptoms (29%) and peer problems (25%) were assessed as having average or above average academic performance. In contrast, much higher proportions of Indigenous students at low risk of clinically significant emotional symptoms (44%) and peer problems (45%) were assessed as having average or above average academic performance.


WAACHS analysis of factors associated with academic performance

A range of factors associated with academic performance were collected in the WAACHS. These included factors related to the health and personal characteristics of the students, the education and socioeconomic background of carers, as well as a range of factors relating to the family, household and school environment.

To assist with analysis these factors were grouped into four broad categories and logistic regression modelling was used to determine the relative strength of factor associations with academic performance in each of these groups.

A final model was then used to assess the joint impact of factors found to be significantly associated with low academic performance across each of the four broad analysis categories – student, carer, family and household and school environment. This model highlighted factors which had the most impact on academic outcomes for Indigenous students.

Surprisingly some factors were not highly significant. For example, of the physical health factors tested, only two were found to be significantly associated with academic performance – speech difficulties and functional limitations.

Independent of a student's sex, age, level of relative isolation and school type the following factors were identified as significant predictors of low academic performance.(EndNote 1)

  • Student factors – speech difficulties, functional limitations, risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties, language other than English mainly spoken in the classroom, whether student usually does homework or study in a homework class, and whether the carer has seen the class teacher in the past six months about a problem the student was having at school.
  • Carer factors – primary carer's education, labour force status and attendance at an Aboriginal funeral in the last 12 months.
  • Family and household factors – number of homes lived in, and whether gambling causes problems in the household.
  • School environment factors – student to teacher ratio, days absent from school, unexplained absence from school, school suspension and repeating a year at school.

Source: Zubrick, S and Silburn, S et al 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.


PROPORTION OF INDIGENOUS STUDENTS(a) AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(b) BY RISK OF CLINICALLY SIGNIFICANT SPECIFIC DIFFICULTIES(B), WESTERN AUSTRALIA – 2002

GRAPH: PROPORTION OF INDIGENOUS STUDENTS(A) AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(B) BY RISK OF CLINICALLY SIGNIFICANT SPECIFIC DIFFICULTIES(B), WESTERN AUSTRALIA – 2002

Measuring emotional and behavioural difficulties in Indigenous children

The WAACHS used a version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) to determine risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties in Indigenous children. The SDQ is used throughout the world to measure emotional and behavioural problems in young people and was specifically modified for Indigenous children and young people in the WAACHS.(EndNote 6)

The SDQ comprises a series of questions which look into five areas of emotional and behavioural difficulties: emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer problems and prosocial behaviour. A score is derived based on the responses to questions relating to the first four of these areas which is then used to indicate the risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties.(EndNote 7)(EndNote 8)(EndNote 9)

While the WAACHS collected information about the emotional and behavioural difficulties of Indigenous children from several sources this article is based on teacher reported SDQ.


... ABSENCE FROM SCHOOL

School attendance was significantly associated with academic performance – missing even a few days of schooling has a negative relationship with academic performance regardless of a student's Indigenous status.

In 2002, median days absent from school among Indigenous students was 26 days. This was considerably higher than median days absent for non-Indigenous students, 8 days in 1993. In 2002, Indigenous students who were absent from school for 26 days or more were one and a half times more likely to be rated at low academic performance than Indigenous students who were absent for less than 26 days in a school year.

A range of factors were associated with Indigenous students' attendance at school including their carer's education, risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties, students in families with multiple life stress events, whether a language other than English was main language spoken at home (Aboriginal English or an Aboriginal language), difficulties sleeping, and whether the student attended day care.

Academic performance and school attendance are both also associated with Level of Relative Isolation. The decline in average academic performance associated with absence from school varies with Level of Relative Isolation, declining the most in more isolated areas. For example, in 2002 academic performance for Indigenous students living in or close to major centres was rated at average or above average for 61% of students with zero days absent and 54% of students with 20 days absent.

In comparison, in areas of Extreme isolation, 47% of students with zero days absent were rated at average or above average academic performance in comparison to 19% of students with 20 days absent and 10% of students with 100 days absent. This suggests that students in or near larger population centres are more able to catch up when they miss a few days of school compared with students in more isolated areas.

... PRIMARY CARER'S EDUCATION

Indigenous students in the primary care of a person who had completed 13 or more years of education were over two times less likely to have low academic performance than students whose primary carer had completed between one and nine years of education.

Around six in ten (62%) Indigenous students whose carers had 13 or more years of education were rated by their teachers at average or above average academic performance. As the number of years of education for carers declined so too did the proportion of Indigenous students with average or above average academic performance. Indigenous students whose carers had not attended school were the least likely to have average or above average academic performance (25%).

INDIGENOUS STUDENTS(A) AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(B) BY PRIMARY CARER EDUCATION(C), WESTERN AUSTRALIA – 2002

GRAPH: INDIGENOUS STUDENTS(A) AT AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(B) BY PRIMARY CARER EDUCATION(C), WESTERN AUSTRALIA – 2002


IMPROVING ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

Despite gains in some areas in recent years, such as improvements in literacy skills, the data presented in this article suggest that there is still enormous potential for positive improvement in one of the key areas of human development – education – for the majority of Indigenous children and young people.

Issues around the lower academic performance of Indigenous students are complex, with many factors involved. This article has focused on three key factors associated with low academic performance – risk of emotional or behavioural difficulties, school attendance and primary carer's education.

While the analysis presented suggests that there is potential for improvement in each of these areas, it also suggests that improvement in any one of these areas will not in itself solve the problem of low academic performance. For example, improving Indigenous students school attendance should lead to improvements in academic performance. However the gap of over 20 percentage points between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students with average or above average academic performance who have no days absent from school, points to the presence of other factors that are contributing to Indigenous students' lower rates of academic performance.

STUDENTS WITH AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(A): DAYS ABSENT FROM SCHOOL, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

GRAPH: STUDENTS WITH AVERAGE OR ABOVE AVERAGE ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE(A): DAYS ABSENT FROM SCHOOL, WESTERN AUSTRALIA


Historical perspective

Findings from a 1965–66 Western Australian survey showed considerable disparity between the academic achievement of part-Aboriginal children and European children.(EndNote 10) The survey examined the academic performance of part-Aboriginal children attending schools in the south-west region of Western Australia with European children attending Belmont High School, with teachers rating children on a three-point scale – above average, average or below average.

Results from the 1965–66 survey show that between 40% and 55% of part-Aboriginal children were rated by their teachers as below average in reading, English, spelling, arithmetic and general knowledge. For the European children, the corresponding proportions were much lower, ranging between 17% and 24%.

In Western Australia, widespread exclusion of Indigenous children from education was practised until the 1950s. In the 1940s, one estimate put the proportion of Indigenous children throughout Australia attending state schools at 7%, with only a further 25% receiving any education at all (most of these in missions).(EndNote 11) Much has changed since the 1960s in terms of Indigenous children's participation in education, with almost all Indigenous children of school age enrolled in school. Educational curricula and delivery have also changed markedly for all children.

While results from the 1965–66 survey are not directly comparable with findings from the WAACHS, the results indicate that the proportion of Indigenous students rated at below average by their teachers has changed little between the mid 1960s and the present day.



ENDNOTES
    1. Zubrick, S and Silburn, S et al 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.
    2. Zubrick, S and Silburn, S et al 1997, Western Australian Child Health Survey: Education, health, and competence, Australian Bureau of Statistics and the TVW Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Perth.
    3. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training 2002, Boys: Getting it right - Report on the inquiry into the education of boys. Australian House of Representatives, Canberra.
    4. Juel, C 1988,'Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first to fourth grades,' Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 80, no. 4, pp. 437–47.
    5. Francis, D et al 1996, 'Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis', Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 88, pp. 3–17.
    6. Zubrick, S and Silburn, S et al 2005, The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: The social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people, Curtin University of Technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Perth.
    7. Goodman, R and Simmons, H et al 2000, 'Using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) to screen for child psychiatric disorders in a community sample', British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 177, pp. 534–9.
    8. Goodman, R, SDQ: Scoring the SDQ, viewed 8 June 2006, <http://www.sdqinfo.com/ba3.html>.
    9. Zubrick, S and Lawrence, D et al 2006, Testing the Reliability of Aboriginal Children's Mental HealthAn Analysis Based on the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Australian Bureau of Statistics, cat. no. 1351.0.55.011, ABS, Canberra.
    10. McKeich, R 1971, Problems of part-Aboriginal Education with Special Reference to the South-west Region of Western Australia,PhD Thesis, The University of Western Australia, Perth.
    11. Beresford, Q and Partington, G 2003, Reform and Resistance in Aboriginal Education: The Australian Experience, The University of Western Australia, Perth.

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