I want to love the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap. I want to be able to write that finally policy is being shaped and formed using evidence, and that finally we will see an increased improvement in the educational provision to and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. After all this is supposed to be an ‘historic agreement’.
There is so much to like about the premise of this ‘new’ agreement and its sixteen targets. The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, through the forming of the National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, within the development of the Agreement is indeed ‘historic’. The fact that the Minister of Indigenous Australians, who collaborated and worked to produce the document, is Indigenous, is ‘historic’.
But then, it is also ‘historic’ in every sense of the word, that the targets set for education are essentially the same as previous years. We have the same commitments and the same expectations set in the previous iterations of Indigenous education policy going back to 1975. The targets are just presented differently.
So no, I don’t love it.
In this post I want to tell you why I specifically don’t love two targets that are semi-related to my research interests in primary and secondary schooling.
Target 5: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (age 20-24) attaining year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96 per cent.
Target 6: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) to 70 per cent.
I say ‘semi-related’ because while the targets do not specifically speak to primary and secondary schooling and what needs to be done there (other targets do), the acquisition of a year 12 or equivalent qualification or tertiary qualifications is reliant on transitioning through the schooling system in some capacity.
Rhetoric of investment and failure
I have previously critiqued how maintaining these particular targets is seen by the government as gaining “a return in investment” (clearly and explicitly stated in the 2019 Closing the Gap Report). And there is a lot of talk about failure. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has even said the targets set within the former National Indigenous Reform Agreement were doomed to fail.
Hidden within the rhetoric of investment and failure are the realities of Indigenous early school leavers who disengage or resist western schooling systems and who enter the welfare system.
So let’s look at the reality of the “investment” in these targets for young Indigenous people.
Government requirements for our young people
Job seekers who are 21 years or younger looking for work were prior to COVID provided a Youth Allowance. Those on JobActive (now referred to as JobSeeker) or a Youth Allowance are to engage with an Employment Services Provider.
According to the Jobactive website
“These Jobactive providers [are] contracted by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment to support young people aged 15-21 into employment” .
A component of the work of Employment Services Providers is providing training and upskilling. What this means, and anyone who has applied for assistance through Centrelink in recent years will know, is that people applying for welfare are encouraged (and due to mutual obligation requirements – MUST) undertake training; namely, Short Courses in Work Readiness leading to a Certificate II for Youth to a Certificate III in an area of interest working towards employment for those 22 years old and older.
What I am trying to highlight here is that the welfare system is built to ensure that such targets set within the ‘historic’ Closing the Gap Agreement appear to be achievable because of the systems the government has in place within the welfare system, and not education.
Addressing the real issues
The data collected from these systems can be skewed, and not actually address the issues of unemployment or underemployment or even, improving the educational attainment of Indigenous peoples.
I have seen so-called education providers attached to Jobactive programs come onto community and deliver programs where the students are told what to write for each entry within the module books. People sit in silence copying notes from a whiteboard, word for word.
Interestingly enough the new agreement states
“It is recognised that Year 12 certificates, and their equivalents, are not in themselves guarantees of high-level skills and future success”.
So there is even an admission there is no guarantee that by increasing the number of Indigenous people with Year 12 certification or a Certificate II will mean increased entry of Indigenous people to the workforce or further study.
So why the focus on the need for such certification?
I would say it is because data shows that parity is almost achieved when considering the employability of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with Bachelor degrees.
But then, it is important to remember that this is a space where it is inevitable that the targets set are achievable because of the structures already set in place and not focused on getting a Bachelor. In reality I see it all as merely ‘busy’ work – giving the illusion of progress and working towards equity, when in fact, the probability of gaining any ‘return in investment’ is simply a farce.
And don’t get me started on the recent announcements on the Jobs-ready Graduate Package. The inequities and disregard of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in higher education seems to be experiencing an onslaught of daily attacks.
What would make a difference
Instead of all this busy work we need Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to be engaged in learning from the early years through to tertiary education if our future livelihoods are ever to truly see progress.
There is a need to put a critical eye on the current education system and seek ways to ensure that the knowledges, histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples are prevalent. Indigenous students need to see themselves valued and respected in the system. We urgently need an update of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015.
So, what I don’t love the most about this agreement is that there is still no current Indigenous education policy.
This ‘historic’ Closing the Gap in Partnership agreement fails to truly look at what is provided within schools and trigger change. Until that happens, we are all just ticking boxes.
Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Assistant Dean (Indigenous) in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne. Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education. Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice. Her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy” was awarded the Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education. Melitta is on Twitter @melitta_hogarth