Aborigine kids let down in classroom

Amanda Banks
24th March 2006

ENGLISH needs to be adequately taught to Aboriginal students to break the cycle of academic failure, chronic absenteeism and low retention rates.

A confronting report to be released today by Fiona Stanley's Telethon Institute for Child Health Research has found the education system is failing indigenous students and has made little progress since the 1960s.

Researchers say the findings are powerful evidence for a major overhaul of Aboriginal education and a shift in policy.

They say it is critical their 15 recommendations - including early intervention, education for parents and carers, mandatory Aboriginal studies for teachers, support for students at risk of emotional and behavioural problems and a national research agenda - be acted on urgently, because the costs of complacency will be astronomical.

The report is the nation's most comprehensive survey of Aboriginal education, and involves data from 2500 students that has been collected since 2001. It found the disparity between the academic performance of indigenous and non-indigenous students was enormous - to the surprise of researchers, an even wider gap than those found in comparisons of physical and mental health.

Nearly 60 per cent of Aboriginal children were rated by their teachers as having low academic performance, compared with less than 20 per cent of their non-indigenous classmates.

The survey found Aboriginal students begin their schooling at a clear disadvantage to their non-indigenous peers, with a difference in academic performance apparent from Year 1 and the gap continuing to widen because children were rarely able to catch up.

The report found indigenous students' comparatively poor academic performance was linked to that of their parents - a legacy of the Stolen Generation and past policies that have excluded Aboriginal people from mainstream education.

"The findings challenge the prevailing wisdom in key areas," the report states.

"It is clear from the findings of the survey that physical health problems and poor nutrition are not the major factors holding back the performance.

"Until the more deep-seated problems of social and emotional wellbeing and the ongoing consequences of past policies of exclusion from school-based education are addressed, the prospects for major improvements in academic performance are limited."

The report identified language as a major barrier to improving education, finding that students who used "Aboriginal English" in the classroom - an adapted language that uses different sentence structures and meanings and employs some traditional words - were more than twice as likely to be rated low in academic performance as students who spoke Australian English.

The report urges language programs to be provided for indigenous students from kindergarten and preschool, and says there should be the compulsory and explicit teaching of standard Australian English throughout all years at school.

Colleen Hayward, head of the Telethon Institute's Aboriginal research division, said the aim was not to destroy traditional language or prevent the use of Aboriginal English in the home and playground.

However, the practical reality of requiring Australian English standards in the learning environment had to be recognised, Ms Hayward said.

"It is pretty clear there needs to be a whole re-focus - it is critically urgent," she said.

The Australian