Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

A 'Formidable Challenge': Australia's Quest for Equity in Indigenous Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

A 'Formidable Challenge': Australia's Quest for Equity in Indigenous Education

Article excerpt

Indigenous education in Australia has been the subject of ongoing policy focus and repeated official inquiry as the nation grapples with trying to achieve equity for these students. Perspectives from recent developments in the USA and Canada highlight the similarity of challenges. The article employs a multidisciplinary approach to social theory to examine the underlying causes of the creation of a plateau effect of progress in this area. The article argues that the lack of progress is a reflection of a complex set of underlying factors, many of which are under acknowledged in educational debates. Arising from this examination is the need for a new governance model for Indigenous education involving both horizontal and vertical policy-making structures.


Aboriginal education policy formation Aboriginal students Aboriginal history policy analysis race


Australia 'discovered' the problem of profound educational disadvantage among its Indigenous people in the late 1960s. The disadvantage was evident in the high rates of educational failure among the first generation of Indigenous students to attend state schools, after generations of government policies aimed variously at their segregation and marginalisation.

Since the late 1960s, official concern at the continuing poor outcomes for Indigenous students has seen a wave of government-appointed inquiries into the failures of the education system to generate improved outcomes. In the 2005 commissioned government report, Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, the Chair observed:

   It is distressingly apparent that many years of policy effort have
   not delivered desired outcomes; indeed in some important respects
   the circumstances of Indigenous people appear to have deteriorated
   or regressed. Worse than that, outcomes in the strategic areas
   identified as critical to overcoming disadvantage in the long term
   remain well short of what is needed (Steering Committee for the
   Review of Government Service Provision, 2005, p. 19).

As the quote testifies--confirmed in a raft of official and academic studies--the experience of educational reform for Australia's Indigenous students has been one largely, although not exclusively, of failure. The benchmark for this under performance is the 1989 Commonwealth-State National Aboriginal Education Policy (the first of its kind), which set a target of the year 2000 for achieving equity. While steady, but slow, improvements have been made since the inception of the policy, the goal of equity in outcomes remains a distant one. In light of these difficulties, two key questions inform this article: Why has only slow progress been achieved? Why does this progress appear to have created a plateau effect?

To examine these questions, we conceptualise and theorise the nature of change in Indigenous education by applying social theory to illuminate the complex interactions between Indigenous people and the broader Australian society within which the dynamics of educational disadvantage operate. We employ a multidisciplinary approach to social theory, drawing upon perspectives from history, education, public policy and public administration in our attempt to fully grasp the complexity of the reasons behind the current slow rates of progress. We also hypothesise possible paths to achieving more rapid progress to equity. (This article builds upon earlier research: see Beresford, 2003; Beresford & Gray, 2006.)

Australia's Indigenous population

Australia's current Indigenous population is approximately 400 000 people, or 2 per cent of the population, of whom 70 per cent are under 25 years of age (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005). Indigenous people live in a variety of settings including major urban locations (around 30 per cent), in rural towns with fewer than 10 000 inhabitants (42 per cent) and 28 per cent in remote areas. …

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