CANBERRA — In 2008, the Australian government made a formal commitment to address indigenous disadvantage in Australia known as “closing the gap.” The inequality or gap refers to shorter life expectancy, high rates of infant mortality, poorer health, lower levels of education and employment among Australian Aborigines.
Australia’s indigenous people, also known as the First Australians and keepers of this resource-rich nation, exist at the bottom of their country’s socioeconomic ladder. On average, an indigenous Australian’s life expectancy is 10 to 15 years shorter than their non-indigenous counterparts, indigenous infants are four times more likely to die in their first year of life and indigenous people are six times more likely to commit suicide.
On February 2017, the Australian government delivered its progress report on “Closing the gap.” Out of the seven goals of life expectancy, child mortality, employment, reading and writing, school attendance, early education and year 12 attainment, only school competition was marked as “on track.”
“Closing the gap” poses some very complex practical challenges like geographical isolation and physical access issues along with cultural and socioeconomic factors.
Needless to say, access to quality health, employment and affordable housing all combine to form the social determinants of educational success. The Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap in indigenous education update identified access to early childhood as “not met.” School completion was marked as “on track,” with more than 61 percent of Indigenous Australians aged 20-24 completing Year 12, up from 45 percent in 2008.
Improvements in literacy and numeracy were shown as “not on track.” The reading, writing and numeracy targets are measured according to the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests as a proportion of students meeting the national minimum standards. While 95.9 percent of non-indigenous students in Year 7 were at or above the national minimum benchmark for reading in 2014 NAPLAN, the figure was only 77.1 percent for indigenous students.
The figure is even more concerning for students living in remote areas with only 34.9 percent reaching the benchmark. In another national assessment, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), indigenous students showed a gap of about two-and-a-half years of schooling when compared to their non–indigenous counterparts.
Educational attainment is associated with numerous measures of well-being including socio-economic determinants such as income and housing, health determinants such as risky behaviors and preventative service use, as well as other aspects like crime and justice.
By closing the gap in indigenous education, the likelihood of individuals engaging in selected health risk behaviors, including smoking and acute high-risk alcohol consumption, is significantly reduced. According to a study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, those with Bachelor’s degrees or above were nearly half as likely to be current daily smokers (24 percent) as those with Year 9 or below (55 percent).
In addition, the rate of full-time employment more than tripled for indigenous adults, from 18 percent for those with below Year 10 attainment, to 63 percent for those with Bachelor’s degrees or above.
While improving the outcomes in educational attainment have been incorporated as performance targets in the National Indigenous Reform Agreement and the National Education Agreement, it cannot be dismissed that improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians requires a multifaceted approach. From a view point of closing the gap in indigenous education, improvements in schooling and educational attainment should be spearheaded by improvements in socioeconomic areas, such as health and housing affordability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Looking ahead, investing in early childhood, safe communities, schooling, nutrition, health, housing and well-being would indubitably help in closing this abyss aptly named “the gap.”
– Jagriti Misra