A key element of the 2023 budget was a pledge to “achieve a better future” for Indigenous Australians through measures that would make a “practical difference”.
This included a particular focus on the Northern Territory, with a commitment of A$250 million for Central Australia. Of this, more than $40 million was earmarked to improve school attendance in these local communities.
While the emphasis on Indigenous students is welcome, it is important to recognize that there is as yet no quick fix for Indigenous education and that the focus would be better placed on the education system as a whole.
“Indigenous shortage— where Indigenous issues are portrayed as a “problem” to be solved — is a thriving industry. Here we see a lot of government money being spent, but not enough long term change or improvement for Indigenous Australians.
The budget papers
The budget papers feature a glossy Empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people booklet. This eight-page document emphasizes key principles such as the need to work with the local community, the need for system-wide change of government organizations, and an increased voice of First Nations in decision-making.
But actions speak louder than words. While partnership with the local community and a raised voice may be achievable with substantial effort, system-wide change of a government organization is highly unlikely without a paradigm shift within the organization.
The booklet also includes a section on Central Australia, which is a national focus in recent months, with the coverage of a youth crime wave.
Read more: Beneath the Alice Springs ‘crime wave’ are complex issues — and a lot of politics
This has undoubtedly led to the government’s $40.4 million budget for On-Country Learning “to improve school attendance, engagement and learning outcomes” for students in Central Australian schools.
On-Country Learning is an approach to teaching that incorporates Indigenous knowledge, affirms ties to rural and Indigenous sovereignty, and involves more of a distance focus.
Culturally appropriate education
In a separate measure – included under “economic empowerment” – there is $38.4 million to support “culturally appropriate” education for First Nations children, “with a focus on remote areas”.
The idea that Indigenous students in remote areas are struggling compared to their urban counterparts has been an ongoing issue – like reported annually in NAPLAN results. The further away the students are, the more difficult it is to meet the minimum reading and writing standards of our westernized education system.
Often these debates do not take into account how ratings can be culturally biased and how students in remote areas may not speak English as a first language.
Teachers need to be better trained
Both announced funding measures require teachers, the majority of whom are non-Indigenous, to be educated about Indigenous Australia. Expert teachers who are confident and capable are needed to teach Indigenous content and in Indigenous contexts such as On-Country.
Unfortunately, many teachers feel low self-confidence and insufficient preparation. It could be argued that the Indigenous voices in education may not have been heard or listened to. Indigenous academics have been striving for years to change this.
Read more: Is Indigenous education policy deliberately held back?
The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership has also recently developed cultural competence sources for teachers.
Teachers need more training and support and accountability within the education system. In other words, there must be ways to ensure that teachers acquire these skills as required by the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
Urban versus remote
We also need to consider how Alice Springs, where the crime spree was reported, is categorized as ‘urban’.
So, where is the specific funding to support Indigenous education in urban settings? Much of the funding and research focuses on remote Indigenous issues and assumes that Indigenous people living in cities are taken care of by so-called mainstream systems for non-Indigenous people.
If the events in Alice Springs are anything to go by, this is obviously not the case. More funding and research should be used to explore and understand the Indigenous urban experience and improve Indigenous education outcomes in all regions.
Read more: First Nations students engage in primary school but face racism and limited opportunities to learn Indigenous languages
We need more indigenous teachers
Another point to consider is the lack of indigenous teachers. These teachers already have the requisite indigenous cultural insights and perspectives. Federal government funded More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher initiative tried to increase the number of Indigenous teachers, but funding stopped in 2016.
About 3.2% of the Australian population identify as Indigenous, while about 2% of the teaching staff identify as indigenous.
The meaning of these statistics changes for Northern Territory contexts where about 32% of the population identifies as Indigenous. It is clear that the proportion of Indigenous teachers in the NT is slightly higher than in the rest of the country, but there are no publicly available official figures.
The NT Department of Education has a Remote Aboriginal Teacher Education program to increase the number of teachers in remote schools. Attention should also be paid to increasing the number of indigenous teachers in urban areas.
More money does not guarantee change
It’s great that the federal government understands that change is needed in Indigenous education and that it can only be done with strategy and funding.
But success is not about making more money available.
This depends on how this is used to make effective change. And this will not happen without deeper cross-cultural understanding and engagement.
The terms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Indigenous and First Nations have been used interchangeably throughout the article.