Policy and Performance: Aboriginal Education in Western Australia in the 1990s

Article excerpt

Concern about low rates of participation and achievement among Aboriginal students intensified from the late 1960s. Twenty years later this concern was formalised into the National Aboriginal Education Plan (NAEP), a commonwealth/state agreement which identified 21 goals for Aboriginal education, grouped into four main purposes: to increase Aboriginal involvement in educational decision making; to improve equality of access for Aboriginal people to educational services; to increase Aboriginal participation to the same level as all Australians; and to achieve equitable and appropriate outcomes for Aboriginal people. This policy took effect from January 1990. Although progress in achieving these goals is recognised as being very slow (Partington, 1998, p. 4), there has been little examination at the state level of the effectiveness of the policy process underpinning Aboriginal education.

**********

Western Australia as a case study

Western Australia provides a significant case study to examine the issues of participation and achievement among Aboriginal students. Throughout the 1990s, Western Australia had among the lowest retention level of Aboriginal students of any state and the disadvantaged position of Aboriginal youth generally was signified by incarceration rates higher than all other states (see Beresford & Omaji, 1996). Despite this poor record, Western Australia is unique among Australian states in its commitment to evaluating its achievements under NAEP. Two extensive reports have been compiled by an independent consultant (hereafter referred to as the consultant's report/s). Although these are limited to providing data on the extent of implementation of NAEP goals, and do not, therefore, constitute an independent analysis of priorities in Aboriginal education, they nonetheless provide valuable data to interpret a number of underlying policy issues.

The core finding from the 1999 consultant's report justifies the need for examination of the policy process underpinning NAEP. In short, it found too little progress was being made:

   While there are some encouraging trends suggesting that the gap [in
   progression, retention and Year 12 graduation rates] may be narrowing in
   some areas, it is still wide, and where it is closing, it appears to be
   closing only slowly. The evidence of lower retention and progression rates
   at the end of the compulsory years of schooling, around Year 10, suggest
   that significant inroads are yet to be made into the problem of attrition
   from school by young Indigenous people. (Kemmis, 1999, p. 15)

Among the revealing statistics confirming the continuing poor educational outcomes for young Aborigines, three in particular stand out. In 1997, between 9 and 39 per cent less Aboriginal students than non-Aboriginal students achieved literacy and numeracy performance criteria; only seven Aboriginal students achieved a tertiary entrance score higher than the lowest score permitting direct entry to a Western Australian university; and truancy rates for Aboriginal students showed nearly 40 per cent had more than 10 full day absences (p. 10). From these data, it is impossible not to infer the continuation of deep-seated problems in the provision of Aboriginal education in the state, although Western Australia is clearly not alone in this regard.

Developing a framework for analysis

The data contained in the two consultant's reports invite examination of the structure of policy development in Aboriginal education. According to Bridgman and Davis (1998) this structure is best understood as a policy cycle by which `policy develops through a standard sequence of tasks that can be framed as activities or questions (p. 21). The key stages identified by Bridgman and Davis include: issue/problem identification; policy analysis (solutions); identifying policy instruments; consultation; coordination; implementation and evaluation. …