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Improving the Educational Experiences of Aboriginal Children and Young People

Special report

The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS) was undertaken between 2000 and 2002 by the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. The survey provides a knowledge base of the health, wellbeing and schooling of Western Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. In addition, survey data was linked to administrative health and school performance records. From this knowledge base, strategies can be devised to promote and maintain the healthy development of Aboriginal children and young people.

Survey methodology and instrumentation were developed in consultation with Aboriginal leaders, key Aboriginal bodies (ATSIC, regional councils, the Aboriginal Council of Elders, the Aboriginal Justice Council and the Western Australian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector) and through extensive community consultations throughout the State. The Australian Bureau of Statistics was a principal provider of consultancy services, expertise and support through all phases of survey development, implementation and analysis.

The third volume of findings from the survey, Improving the Educational Experiences of Aboriginal Children and Young People, focuses on the educational experiences of Aboriginal children, from past decades to the current day. Some of the findings run counter to conventional wisdom. With these data and the evidence that flows from them come expectations of actions and initiatives to address the difficulties they describe.

The transition to school

A very large percentage of Aboriginal children enrol in both kindergarten and pre-school in the years they become eligible. Nevertheless, the survey findings show that many Aboriginal children have excessively low levels of readiness to learn at school on arrival into Year 1.

Some face special challenges such as having English as a second or even third language. In other cases, the knowledge and skills children have acquired through informal learning or storytelling within the family may not be recognised or adequately valued in the classroom setting. This is as much a matter of the school’s readiness for Aboriginal children as it is a matter of children’s readiness for learning at school. Whatever the case, Aboriginal students are substantially behind non-Aboriginal students in academic performance at Year 1, and never catch up.

The available evidence shows that significant improvements in long-term educational outcomes can be achieved through community programs and services for young children and their families. Such programs need to facilitate good physical health, age-appropriate language development and the ability to concentrate and follow directions. They need to foster children’s basic pre-literacy skills such as the ability to attach sounds to letters, write their name and count. They should also stimulate the children’s interest in books and stories.

These programs should reach children in all forms of early child care, whether in the home, playgroup, day care or kindergarten setting.

Education systems have a responsibility to lead efforts to coordinate programs with sectors such as health and family and community services. A continued debate about jurisdictional authority, particularly between child care on the one hand and education on the other, simply avoids the need for education systems to adopt a leadership role.

Actions to engage carers and communities

The survey findings reveal substantial disengagement and alienation of carers from schools. This is measured by carers’ low levels of knowledge about the academic progress of their children in school despite their high degree of happiness with what the schools are doing.

Addressing this problem will require more than the creation of a welcoming environment in schools and having parent committees. Schools must reach out to carers and communities to build strong relationships. Responsibility for community engagement should not merely be delegated to Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers (AIEOs), but should be a shared responsibility of all school staff, and driven by the most senior staff within schools.

School attendance

There is no evidence that there has been any change over the past ten years in the attendance rates of Aboriginal children. Neither is there evidence that small-scale local solutions to poor attendance are sustainable in the long run or transferable to other settings. Patterns of, and associations with, poor attendance are documented in this volume. While complex, they are addressable. Attendance rates of Aboriginal children should be used as one of a range of indices of progress in establishing educational equity for Aboriginal children.

Health and wellbeing

A higher proportion of Aboriginal students are at moderate or high risk of clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties than non-Aboriginal children. There is a strong link between these difficulties, poor attendance and low academic performance. It is therefore very important for education, health and family services systems to work together to provide appropriate support and assistance to these students. The education system must develop appropriate supports for Aboriginal students with emotional or behavioural difficulties, implement them and report on their uptake and impact.

The survey findings highlight several health factors that affect Aboriginal children. While these factors were not shown to have a direct relationship with educational outcomes, common wisdom suggests that they need to be dealt with and can be addressed through school programs.

For example, conductive hearing loss affects both social and emotional wellbeing and speech and language development. Schools may be best placed to identify hearing problems, and hearing management programs may be best run through schools.

Proper diet and adequate nutrition are necessary for healthy development and good health in adult life. School breakfast and lunch programs may offer important health and mental health benefits to Aboriginal children and young people.

Language development

Teaching methods and curricula that support good speech and language development generally, and the teaching of standard Australian English specifically, should produce substantial educational progress for Aboriginal children.

Children who speak English as a second language (ESL) and children who speak English as a second dialect (ESD, ie children whose first language is Aboriginal English) perform at similar, poor levels compared with Aboriginal students with English as their first language. While there may be pedagogic differences in the teaching and learning requirements for ESL and ESD students, both groups will require considerable support.

Teacher education

Many of the improvements suggested by the survey data rely on teachers being trained and confident to work with Aboriginal students and to be knowledgeable about Aboriginal Australia. Research shows that teachers who have undertaken Aboriginal Studies subjects are more likely to perceive themselves as knowledgeable about Aboriginal history, current Indigenous issues, and pedagogy for teaching both Aboriginal Studies and Aboriginal students. Undertaking Aboriginal Studies also enhances their enjoyment of these teaching experiences.

Culturally inclusive schooling

Historically, the policies and practices of governments have often served to exclude Aboriginal people from education. Today some cultural influences continue to work against Aboriginal students, resulting in discriminatory practices (such as lower expectations) antithetical to the learning and participation of Aboriginal students. While this situation is clearly evident in the more isolated areas of the State, it also affects Aboriginal students attending schools in metropolitan or regional areas.

In response to this perceived need, the development of practical strategies for culturally inclusive schooling has been a major focus of Aboriginal education policy over the past two decades. This process culminated in MCEETYA’s National Statement of Principles and Standards for More Culturally Inclusive Schooling in the 21st Century and its endorsement by State, Territory and Australian Government ministers in 2000.

This statement of principles and standards has provided a framework to initiate policies for creating more culturally secure teaching and learning environments and has highlighted the importance of policy and strategies to address discriminatory practices.

Australian Government initiatives

The current Australian Government approach of bypassing jurisdictions and working directly with individual schools is laudable in its flexibility to adapt solutions to the specific circumstances of each location. However, this strategy is flawed in that:

  • programs that are developed are often too specific to be transferred to other schools;
  • trials are too small to demonstrate outcomes;
  • individuals with motivation and special skills are too heavily relied upon in the absence of effective mechanisms for program sustainability; 
  • there is an unrealistic expectation of people at the local level to find solutions to problems for which no-one currently knows the answer;
  •  programs often address only part of a problem and are defeated by other difficulties that the program does not cover;
  • it offers no coordinated or systematic approach to developing solutions.  

Many of the projects funded under Indigenous Education Agreements (IEA) and other initiatives are reported to show great promise, but there is no evidence that any have migrated from the trial schools to wider settings. For example, the efforts involved in producing the What Works reports and website have been undermined by the lack of a coordinated approach to designing the projects in the first place. The result is a set of resources that fail to make clear what does work and how to apply this in a school.

Secondary school aspirational programs

Aspirational programs, such as Follow the Dream, represent major current initiatives that consume a large proportion of the specific program resources aimed at Aboriginal students. The survey findings highlight how few Aboriginal students are currently eligible for these programs, given the high numbers of Aboriginal students that fall behind academically prior to Year 7.

Interventions left to the secondary school years are likely to benefit only a few students. The overwhelming bulk of the education literature in the area of remedial teaching emphasises the need to intervene as soon as problems occur. They show the low rate of success of remedial programs once students fall more than a year behind in their school work.

The role of the AIEO

The presence of Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers (AIEOs) and Aboriginal Teaching Assistants in schools was found to have no positive benefit on the academic performance of Aboriginal students, and has a negative effect on attendance patterns. These findings suggest that:

  • the presence of an AIEO in a school must be accompanied by substantial system and school changes in addressing the needs of Aboriginal students &nash; the presence of an AIEO is not a substitute for these changes
  • the role and duties of AIEOs and their professional development generally should be reviewed  
  • training and support of AIEOs to give this position a properly defined educational focus is essential  
  • the direction of the AIEO workforce may be best positioned to support key learning, including literacy, in the early primary school years.  

Future research into educational outcomes of Aboriginal students

At present there is a plethora of untested ‘good ideas’ projects failing to deliver any evidence of effectiveness or sustainability. Research must aim to produce findings that are more generalisable across educational settings.

There is almost no serious quantitative research available on Australian Aboriginal education. By ‘serious’, we mean systematic, rigorous, powerful and sustained research directed at developing measures and at using those measures to test and evaluate educational programs, methods and interventions, and to chart policy progress in achieving educational outcomes for Aboriginal children. Where else will education systems develop the capacity to do this if not through the research effort?

The findings and recommendations of this volume leave no place to hide for any of the parties involved. The present state of affairs in the education of Aboriginal children is unacceptable. Overcoming it will require a comprehensive review of current approaches to their schooling. 


This article has been prepared from edited excerpts of The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey Volume 3: Improving the Educational Experiences of Aboriginal Children and Young People. End notes and references are available in the full report.

Zubrick SR, Silburn SR, De Maio JA, Shepherd C, Griffin JA, Dalby RB, Mitrou FG, Lawrence DM, Hayward C, Pearson G, Milroy H, Milroy J, Cox A. The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: Improving the Educational Experiences of Aboriginal Children and Young People. Perth: Curtin University of Technology and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2006. 

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Western Australia (WA)
Transitions in schooling
Teaching and learning
Social life and customs
School attendance
Learning problems
English as an additional language
English language teaching
Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Education policy
Early childhood education
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Aboriginal students