Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student education

5th February 2015 · Les Trudzik

ACIL Allen Consulting, in collaboration with PhillipsKPA and Professor Mark Rose from Latrobe University, recently completed a three year longitudinal evaluation of the implementation and outcomes of the national strategy for Indigenous education—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014.

The evaluation identified a broad suite of school-wide configurations that influence what works for various students in different contexts. To understand these differences, ACIL Allen developed a student learning framework to help schools define the most influential characteristics that they felt impacted on student achievement in their communities.

This enabled each school to highlight the factors having the largest local influence, often reflecting areas towards which the school was placing the greatest degree of targeted attention. The student learning framework proved to be an effective tool for drawing out contextual differences and distilling the rationale for particular school responses.

Data measures may also be locally defined

Contextual differences were also observed amongst schools in their measurement of outcomes achieved. While several nationally-consistent datasets — Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), NAPLAN (literacy, numeracy, reading) and attendance (by jurisdiction, by school sector) — provide an overarching view, they often do not reflect local progress.

The national level datasets generally paint a picture of continuing gaps in educational achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students. While some small improvements are identified in some areas, in general there are limited, incremental changes observable on a year-to-year basis.

At the local level, however, schools were often able to monitor achievements through datasets tied to their teaching and learning strategies, particularly in literacy and numeracy. This data is not reported, but is significant for schools to track students and tailor their teaching to specific learners or cohorts.

Therefore, what appears important is not that schools are measuring the same thing consistently, but that the monitoring process at each school is matched to the learning approach selected.

The most advanced schools demonstrated high levels of data literacy, with information about student performance used to establish high expectations for improvement among students and to inspire teachers in their classroom practice. In many cases, student achievement data was shared transparently with parents and communities. A few schools took the step of guaranteeing a defined set of student outcomes in return for families supporting their children to attend and engage.

Beyond this, the evaluation also found a broad range of activities that are not usually measured, but are critical to engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in schooling. These include:

  • celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture across the school, which was central to engaging both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students
  • ensuring that school leaders play a central role in establishing school-wide practices
  • engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and support staff
  • forming positive, trusting relationships between school staff and parents/communities
  • establishing forums across schools to learn from one another about successful practices.

Impact of mobility on attendance

The Australian Government has a major policy focus on school attendance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The evaluation found that attendance is a multi-faceted challenge, extending beyond truancy and absenteeism, and regularly involving issues of situational mobility and transience that are beyond a student’s control. Through the evaluation, family and student mobility was identified as a critical factor impacting on attendance, along with all elements of school and student performance.

A deeper study of student mobility in Far North Queensland found that family and student mobility significantly impacts on schools, not only in remote areas, but also in provincial and metropolitan regions, which receive students from remote communities for periods of time. For example:

  • one metropolitan school experienced 372 episodes of student mobility (marked by student arrivals and departures) within a single school year, with more than 1,500 student days lost to mobility in 2013
  • due to mobility, a student enrolled at one school with 10 years of formal schooling had only been present at school for between 1.5 and 3 years in total
  • another student was out of school for approximately 79 days between leaving one school and enrolling in the next
  • between January 2009 and March 2014, one student moved between five different schools eleven times.

The evaluation found that schools and school systems are generally not well prepared to handle mobile student populations, with often insufficient data sharing between schools to help understand students’ movement between schools and associated learning needs. Significant efforts were often required to integrate students into classrooms, though these processes were not consistent across schools. In addition, school sectors (public, Catholic and independent) use differing student management systems and may not be able to easily share information, despite knowledge that students often move across school sectors.

The reality is that mobility will continue in many parts of Australia. There is a need to better understand mobility, and for schools to develop systems and processes that address needs in response.

Where should education systems prioritise attention?

Several areas require continued attention over coming years, including:

  • the readiness of schools to prepare for, and manage students with a diverse variety of needs
  • acknowledgement of attendance as broader than truancy
  • the importance of relationships, often facilitated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in schools
  • the need for care during students’ transition points, which occur within and between the early childhood, school education and post-school systems.

A future domain structure was proposed through the evaluation to support school systems and schools to address the needs of students. This emphasises schools’ responsibility to be (in turn):

  • culturally responsive
  • ready for children
  • collaborating with parents and communities
  • achieving high levels of attendance
  • setting high expectations
  • achieving learning outcomes
  • managing transition points and pathways.


The evaluation report is publicly available (via: http://www.scseec.edu.au/archive/Aboriginal-and-Torres-Strait-Islander-Education-Action-Plan/ACIL-Allen-Evaluation-Report.aspx), and describes activities at the national, systemic and school levels. It focuses on describing priorities across six key Action Plan domains: school readiness; engagement and connections; attendance; literacy and numeracy; leadership, quality teaching and workforce development; and pathways to real post-school options.