The schooling experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are often inaccurately described by what researchers “shortage perspectives”. This means that others talk about their experiences in a way that is not representative of the lived experience.
It is rare to hear directly from Indigenous students and youth in research and reports.
Indigenous students, their parents and their teachers shared their experiences as part of the ongoing “Footprints in timestudy. Our research using this dataset highlights the experiences of Indigenous primary schools.
Our findings show that young Indigenous students are involved in their school life. But they and their families still experience significant levels of racism and want more education in indigenous culture and language.
Meanwhile, teachers say they are not trained enough to appreciate and teach Indigenous cultures in their classrooms.
Footprints in Time is also called the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children. Since 2008, it has been tracking the development of Indigenous children to understand what they need to grow up strong.
It includes annual data collection and tracks approximately 1,700 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in urban, regional and remote locations. Interviewers spoke to more than 1,200 of the original families for most of the 15 years of the study.
Our new primary school report has been prepared as the majority of children in the survey have now completed primary school. For this we used data collected between 2009 and 2019.
Here are some of our initial findings ahead of our full report due mid-2023.
Students are engaged
In education debates, the prevailing assumption is that school involvement is a conflict for Indigenous students and their families.
Yet more than half of the children in this data set were very strongly and consistently involved in school throughout primary school.
Parental trust and involvement in schools was also high – with high rates of classroom visits (76%), attending school events (76%), talking to other parents (72%) and contacting the teacher (68% ).
Read more: How can Australia support more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers?
Racism is a problem (despite what some teachers think)
Our report found a discrepancy between how teachers deal with cultural identity, the training they received and the racism experienced by parents and students.
Many teachers spoke of a “color blind” approach, where teachers had a general sense that racism is not an issue in their classrooms.
As one teacher noted:
I strive to treat every child the same as any other in terms of race. This is what I try to teach my students. I emphasize that a color or religion is not what makes us different.
Another teacher emphasized that students were simply treated “the same” in order to promote a culturally inclusive classroom:
We treat ALL students the same. Culturally, our students do not know they are different/the same; five of the six are Aboriginal students.
But this approach doesn’t seem to work. Nearly a quarter (24%) of students said they had been racially bullied at school, while 22% of parents said they had experienced racism at their child’s school.
Meanwhile, 53% of teachers also said they had insufficient cultural competence course.
Despite many schools noting that they celebrate Indigenous Days with significance, 41% of parents surveyed reported no or limited representation of Indigenous teachers or staff at their child’s school.
Read more: Racism hits Indigenous student attendance and grades
Time to change the homework approach?
Teachers were asked what strategies they used to encourage parents to support children’s learning at home. Of the more than 400 responses, homework was in the top three. This included weekly homework to review what is being taught in class, as well as readers and flash cards.
This was despite there being little evidence for it academically benefits of homework in the early years.
When asked what they would like to change about school, children indicated that they do less homework. They also said they wanted to see less staff turnover, better play areas and less bullying.
Opportunities to learn indigenous languages
While learning to read and write in standard Australian English is important, those are important too Indigenous literacy and languages.
Nearly 90% of parents surveyed said they wanted their child to learn an indigenous language at school, but only 21% of children were given this opportunity. Most teachers (57%) reported that their schools did not provide an Indigenous language program.
There was also very little access to specialized language teachers in remote areas, despite the fact that most of the children in the study who had an indigenous language as their mother tongue lived in remote areas.
Primary school teachers were most likely to report that they would benefit from successfully teaching Indigenous children (61%), followed by learning about the Indigenous culture in the area (59%), and then learning to use Indigenous knowledge appropriately to teach (58%).
About 18% of teachers were convinced that they were adequately trained. Overall, an average of 84% of primary school teachers said they would benefit from some form of additional training. This echoes the words of a parent who shared his own experience at school:
I was always proud to be black, but we didn’t learn any (Indigenous) history.
Read more: Tradition and innovation: how we document sign language in a Gurindji community in Northern Australia
Our report highlights several areas where we can make positive – and necessary – changes. These include:
improve cultural competence training for teachers. This training is the responsibility of schools, policy makers and universities
professional learning should explicitly address bullying and racism based on race and provide teachers with clear strategies to put into practice
it is essential that teachers think personally about their approach and how a “color blind” approach might not work
teachers must act to strengthen relationships with families and create opportunities for parent involvement throughout the primary school period
we need to make Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island history and cultures a national priority across the curriculum. It must be delivered fully and universally regardless of location and number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
Homework policies in primary schools in Australia should be transparent and evidence-based. Consideration should be given to whether homework is a barrier to involvement with Indigenous children
the overall lack of Indigenous language programs is a major concern and a national plan to address this should be a top priority for the government.
The National School Renewal Agreement
These priorities should be addressed in the following National School Reform Agreement.
The agreement is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth, states and territories, designed to improve student outcomes in Australian schools.
The current agreement expires in December 2024. And the new one is now being examined by an expert panel, with a report in October. Government has asked looking at supporting students, student learning and performance, teacher attraction and retention, and data collection.
Indigenous voices are key to improving each of these areas and should be central to future discussions.