Suraiya Abdul Hameed

Now, more than ever, we need change in Indigenous education

This week (May 27-31) is National Reconciliation Week. The theme this year is ‘Now more than ever’. We need change in Indigenous education now more than ever. We share our research on excellence in Indigenous education where we ask big questions about what is needed to shift Indigenous education from gaps to excellence.

Excellence is a concept that has been used across education as a way of describing an aspiration to be outstanding in the delivery of schooling imperatives. Recognised as a culturally constructed term, the common thread in understanding excellence is striving to be the very best at whatever the endeavour is. 

When we look at the language and aspiration in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy and practice, the dominant framing is that we aim to ‘close the gap’. 

The Excellence in Indigenous Education project started with this observation and a curiosity about how deficit language impacts the way that educational leaders and practitioners conceive of and enact their work in schools. 

Our research

We commenced our pilot study in 2019 with three secondary schools in Queensland’s urban, regional and remote areas. And we asked big-picture questions about what Indigenous people, school leaders, and practitioners think excellence in Indigenous education looks like. We also asked for practical examples of what excellence in Indigenous education looks like in practice. These questions were asked through face-to-face collaborative yarning. 

We recently published findings in the Australian Educational Researcher journal from Indigenous voices in the pilot study as we know it’s vital to centre the voices of mob in policies that affect us. 

Key findings

There were distinct themes that emerged from the analysis when we explored how people conceptualised excellence in Indigenous education. 

Theme one: the young person – identity and building young people up

The conversations with participants about excellence in Indigenous education showed the importance of the young person’s experience. This study emphasised the interwoven themes of culture, identity, and empowerment for young people; illustrating a reimagined narrative of Indigenous education. The participants agreed that a strong identity is crucial for Indigenous students’ resilience and success in educational settings. They argued that understanding one’s culture and identity is a protective factor and a source of pride and belonging in an environment that often marginalises Indigeneity. The consensus was clear: knowing and embracing one’s cultural identity transforms negative perceptions into positive educational experiences. The study also focused on the importance of supporting the aspirations and achievements of Indigenous young people by building them up. Empowerment through education was seen as key, with community engagement and school-based initiatives appearing to play vital roles. 

Theme two: school culture and leadership

The culture of a school and the effectiveness of its leadership was the second theme to emerge. Schools should be welcoming and inclusive to Indigenous students, staff, families and community. It was made clear that the way educational leaders engage with the community is crucial and they need to be authentic, purposeful, and relational. However, not all Indigenous peoples in this study reported an inclusive culture in their schools but those that did have inclusive leaders expressed that they had the freedom to think and work ‘outside the box’ within an educational context.

Our study highlighted the need for culturally competent leaders in Indigenous schools who can implement a shared model of leadership.

Theme three: relationships

The third significant theme in our study was relationships, this finding aligns with Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing being and doing. The theme of relationships also links in with identity. Engagement with Indigenous students and families should be grounded in relationships, not just school priorities. Positive relationships and high expectations between educators and students can be a strong motivator for students to be engaged at school. Additionally, relationships need to stem out into the broader community and with community Elders. The unique knowledge Indigenous people bring to these relationships can have a significant impact on Indigenous excellence in schools and Elders have voiced that they know what’s best for our kids as we have lived experience and can share the knowledge we have with young people. However, schools should not take the knowledge and time shared by the community for granted. 

Strengthening Indigenous voices

Since completing the initial research, we have undertaken a further study to expand the data to foreground the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on excellence in Indigenous education. Using a community sampling method, we invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members to participate in an online survey. Within two weeks of launching the survey, there were over 200 responses, with voices captured from over 90 mobs from all states and territories across Australia. We are currently analysing these data but thought we would share some of the important messages shared with us to date. 

When asked, “What does excellence look like in Indigenous education?” the responses are rich and diverse. Central tenants to the responses were the importance of culture, strengths-approaches, well-being and understanding truthful histories. 

What participants shared:

“…..when I talk about excellence in education it is from an Indigenous perspective and what I know is what is good for First Nations students, is good for everybody because it’s about relational practice, strength based, individual and high expectations. The difference with Indigenous education is acknowledging that not telling the full story of Australia’s history by negating First Nations valuable contribution is damaging to all Australians so Indigenous Education needs to also encompass new Learning, Unlearning and then Relearning about who we are as Australian, including all the untold First Nation’s story, which requires ongoing truth-telling, deep listening, deep understanding and then authentic action through First Nations voice.” 

“Students identifying and achieving individual educational, personal and cultural goals with teacher and community/family support”

“Excellence in Indigenous education is prioritising self-determination and the well-being of our mob in classrooms. Not just thriving academically, but socially and emotionally too – excellence is more than good grades. Feeling proud of who you are in the classroom and feeling supported and strong so you can be the best version of yourself – this view of excellence in Indigenous education supports the development of strong Indigenous futures and this benefits the nation as a whole.”

“To me Indigenous education should involve respect, valuing, appreciating and celebrating First Nations culture and traditions. By doing this allows the process of understanding, following protocol and opportunities for community involvement to create ongoing learning that has been part of this country for over thousands of years. Indigenous education should be everyone’s business.”

Excellence in Indigenous education

“Excellence in Indigenous education reflects a commitment to honouring Indigenous cultures, languages, and knowledge systems while promoting academic success, cultural pride, and community well-being.”

As much of the strategic direction in education centres around policy, it was important to gauge participants’ perspectives on whether it was important for Indigenous education policy to aspire to excellence. All survey participants shared that they either agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to aspire to excellence in Indigenous education policy. Shifting the narrative in education policy from “gap-gazing” to aspirations of excellence is timely. Some participants shared these perspectives in their vision for excellence in Indigenous education for future generations:

Aspiration to excellence

“ …..Closing the Gap education outcomes are scrapped and, in turn, deficit discourses. Indigenous students are no longer a ‘problem to be fixed’ but able to practice culture and engage meaningfully in education systems that suit them and their needs.” 

“We should stop saying ‘closing the gap’. Yes it should be a policy, should drive funding priorities and be made accountable through reporting. But the overt deficit thinking means whilst we aim to build Aboriginal people up through programs, we tear us down in the minds and thought processes of ‘well to do’ others. Need to shift from the mainstream thinking if we succeed, we’ve done something amazing.”

To understand some practical ways forward, we asked, How can schools work with local Indigenous communities to create a culture of excellence in Indigenous education? It appears from the preliminary analysis that there is a strong emphasis on Indigenous-led solutions, respectful relationships, providing space to beginning heard and valuing Indigenous families and communities to create this culture in schools. Participants shared: 

“Value community as equal and that know best for their children”

“Let the Indigenous communities lead the process- they are the knowledge holders of creating the excellence and for it to be meaningful and not tokenistic”

“Listen to the voices of our Indigenous young people in classrooms and their families – create space for input from Indigenous families. Also, celebrate success stories of Indigenous students (beyond attendance rates).”

We anticipate to publish the findings of this larger study over the next few months. 

How to make a start

Things educators and policymakers could do to get started in transforming excellence in education:

  • Make identity-affirming practices a priority in all schools. Some examples of identity-affirming practices are aiming to have your Indigenous staff ratio equivalent to your Indigenous student numbers, incorporating local perspectives and knowledges across all aspects of the school, and ensuring diverse Indigenous peoples and role models are represented in all aspects of the curriculum. 
  • Consider how Indigenous leadership is incorporated in school settings. We know that Indigenous leadership is vital in moving Indigenous education forward. Yet, the Indigenous-identified roles are usually among the school’s lowest ranked. Consider how Indigenous leadership can be elevated structurally in education moving forward.
  • Embed relational approaches by making space for people to connect and share – this means having fewer transactional interactions and spending more time building relationships over time.

Left to right: Marnee Shay is an Aboriginal educator and researcher and an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Jodie Miller is an associate professor at the  University of Queensland. Her work focuses on improving the educational outcomes of students most at risk of marginalisation in school, particularly in the fields of Mathematics and Indigenous education. Danielle Armour is a Kamilaroi woman and senior lecturer at UQ, she has worked in Indigenous education for over 20 years. Suraiya Hameed is an interdisciplinary leader, educator and researcher specialising in Educational Leadership at University of Queensland. She researchers within the areas of Educational Leadership, Global Policy and Education & Equity, Inclusion, Diversity and Culture.