Indigenous Students and Vocational Education and Training in Schools: Ladder of Opportunity or Corrugated Iron Ceiling?

Article excerpt

Indigenous students complete secondary education at about half the rate of non-Indigenous students, yet are twice as likely to participate in Vocational Education and Training (VET) in Schools subjects. This paper explores the reasons for this phenomenon. It draws on data from two national studies: a survey of 20 000 young people and their experience of vocational learning, and a qualitative study that included interviews with 118 Indigenous VET in Schools students and 160 school staff and other stakeholders. It discusses the role of VET in addressing the needs and aspirations of Indigenous students, and identifies key aspects of good practice in the provision of VET for Indigenous students. The paper argues that VET in Schools cannot succeed as a 'stand alone' solution to the problem of Indigenous educational disadvantage, but must be offered within the context of educational provision that accommodates the diverse educational needs and aspirations of Indigenous students.

Introduction

The historical influences on the present situation of Australian Indigenous peoples are well documented. We are all familiar with the children of the stolen generation and the ongoing debate over land rights. The recent 'history wars' reflect the highly contested nature of historical accounts of white settlement and its impact on Indigenous peoples. While there are different perspectives, we cannot ignore the history of invasion, dispossession, and social exclusion that has shaped the lives of Indigenous peoples and constricted their opportunities.

Education is seen as a source of empowerment for Indigenous peoples. Despite debate about the role of education in improving opportunities, and numerous inquiries into Indigenous education at a national and state level, the fact remains that Indigenous students continue to be significantly disadvantaged in terms of educational participation and achievement. Apparent retention rates for Indigenous students from Years 7-8 to Year 12 are about half those of non-Indigenous students. Recent data indicate modest improvement: apparent retention has risen from 29 per cent in 1996 to 38 per cent in 2002. This compares with much slower growth for non-Indigenous students in the same period, but from about double the base (72 per cent to 76 per cent).Thus the relative position of Indigenous students has improved slightly over that time (ABS, 2002).

Numerous reports indicate that Indigenous academic achievement is also lower (e.g., The National Report to Parliament on Indigenous Education and Training, Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). Substantial research has been conducted to identify the reasons for Indigenous students having lower than average attendance, retention and achievement, and many contributing factors have been identified, especially relationships between teachers, students, parents and the community (Godfrey, Partington, Harslett, & Richer, 2000; Herbert, Anderson, Price, & Stehbens, 1999; Lester, 2000; Munns, 1998; Rigney, Rigney, & Hughes, 1998; Schwab, 1999). Relevant teacher expertise in cultural awareness, cross-cultural communication and teaching English as a second language also impacts on the quality of teaching and learning experienced by the Indigenous student (Bourke, Rigby, & Burden, 2000; Herbert et al., 1999; Purdie, Tripcony, Bouhon-Lewis, Fanshawe & Gunstone, 2000). Some Indigenous students find engagement with school difficult because of nonschool factors, such as poverty, poor health, imprisonment, high family mobility and indigenous inter-group tensions (Bourke et al., 2000; Gray, Hunter, & Schwab, 2000; Herbert et al., 1999). Students from remote communities face additional barriers to school engagement due to limited access to facilities and difficulties associated with living away from home.

Racism has been shown in numerous studies to impact on Indigenous students' relationship with school (Groome & Hamilton, 1995; Rigney et al. …