The determinants of Indigenous educational outcomes

Author/editor: Hunter, B, Schwab, RG
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 160


This study examines the determinants of the educational attainment of young Indigenous Australians using data from the last three censuses and the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS).

An overview of Indigenous people within the education system

  • Indigenous teenagers stayed on at school longer between 1986 and 1996. Unfortunately, while the relative situation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians improved marginally for most age groups, the absolute difference in the percentages at school increased for all age groups over 15. Indigenous participation at the pre-school and primary school levels is high, but drops dramatically among older children.
  • Indigenous people are about ten times less likely to have a degree than other Australians. At the other end of the educational spectrum, Australia's Indigenous population was 21.6 per cent more likely to be unqualified. Notwithstanding this, there was some minor improvement in the qualification rate, relative to the rest of the population, in the last inter-censal period.
  • This educational disadvantage is highlighted by the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have poorer educational outcomes than the Indigenous populations of the Canada and New Zealand.

Modelling Indigenous education

The NATSIS analysis of the determinants of education outcomes for Indigenous teenagers, youth and adults reveals that:

  • The experience of arrest reduces the probability of attending school by 25.6 and 18.4 per cent for males and females respectively, but is not significantly related to having a post-school qualification for adults.
  • Place of residence appears to be a problem only for teenagers in remote areas who are about 20 percentage points less likely to be in school.
  • Local social environments in the household are strongly associated with increased attendance and retention rates at high school. For males, poor quality housing reduces the probability of being at school almost in half. Similarly, living in households where others have been arrested reduces the probability of attending school by an additional 23.3 and 19.8 percentage points for males and females respectively. The presence of household members who are qualified or at school significantly increases the chance that a person will be at school.
  • In addition, difficulty with English is a powerful predictor of whether or not an Indigenous adult has a Degree, Diploma or other qualifications.

The inescapable conclusion is that family and social variables dominate the decision to stay on at school. The effect of the geography variable, representing proximity to educational institutions, is in general dwarfed by the influence of the local social and family environment.

Policy implications

Increasing retention rates and education levels among Indigenous people relative to the rest of the population may be extremely difficult where there is no attempt to address ongoing social inequities, especially the high rates of arrest among Indigenous youth and poor housing stock of many Indigenous households.

Policy attention should also be focused on reducing the extent of contact, especially avoidable contact, of Indigenous teenagers with the criminal justice system. Where detention is unavoidable, policy efforts should focus on ensuring Indigenous people have the opportunity to finish high school.

Improving adult language skills could well provide an important approach to improving Indigenous education outcomes in terms of qualifications. One of the most effective means to improve language skills is through work or task-based adult education.

ISBN: 0 7315 2595 7

ISSN:1036 1774

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