Indigenous students are disproportionately represented in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools and the divide between rich and poor is developing an “unhappy racial dimension”, a new report has found.
This month the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Productivity Commission released promising statistics on Indigenous retention rates. The ABS found that while the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who finished school remained well below that of non-Indigenous students, the overall rate had increased by about 15% over the past decade.
The Productivity Commission’s report on government services found that in 2016 about 93% of Indigenous students in the ACT continued to the final year of school – the same as non-Indigenous students.
The figures were welcomed across the political spectrum as a sign of progress in the fight to close the daunting gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education outcomes in Australia.
But a new report suggests that while improvements in enrolment and graduation rates among Indigenous students are good news, they may be masking a growing race and class divide in Australian schools.
Published by the leftwing Centre of Policy Development, the report found that while most schools across sectors had increased their enrolment of Indigenous students in real as well as percentage terms, the most disadvantaged students were being concentrated in the poorest schools.
And the divide is magnified in regional areas where most Indigenous students attend school.
The CPD used MySchool data to group schools by their level of advantage – in Australia, the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA, is used to measure the socio-educational backgrounds of a student cohort – and found that while the proportion of Indigenous enrolments was growing in all sectors, the pace of growth was significantly faster in the poorest schools.
Comparing Indigenous enrolments across and between school sectors, the report found a “clear and strong association between the level of socio-educational advantage of schools and their proportion of Indigenous students”.
Between 2011 and 2016, the proportion of Indigenous enrolments in schools with the highest mean ICSEA grew from 0.66% to 0.75%, while the schools at the bottom increased from 31.66% to 37.41%.
“Over half of Australia’s Indigenous students attend these lowest ICSEA government schools,” the report’s author, CPD education fellow Chris Bonnor wrote.
“These schools, in contrast to others, face the biggest challenges in lifting student achievement. Their increasing concentration of the less advantaged provides a key explanation for poor and declining average overall student achievement.”
Bonnor’s report also found evidence that despite blanket increases in enrolments, only government schools with the lowest ICSEA were increasing the number of Indigenous students from the lowest quarter of socio-economic advantage.
MySchool data breaks up a school’s student cohort into quarters based on their family’s level of socio-economic advantage. Bonnor found that between 2011 and 2016, only government schools with the lowest ICSEA increased enrolments from the bottom quarter, by 7.3%, while enrolments from the top quarter shrunk by almost 3%.
In contrast, Catholic sector schools with the highest ICSEA increased the proportion of top quarter students by 7.5% while the bottom quarter shrunk by 4.7%.
Those numbers do not differentiate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Bonnor says the figures suggest schools with a higher ICSEA are not enrolling the most disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
“The Indigenous students they are enrolling are relatively advantaged [or] these schools are increasingly enrolling more advantaged students in general,” he wrote.
While that could partly be attributed to geography, Bonnor looked at areas where schools and school sectors were in competition and found that richer schools actually reduced their share of Indigenous students between 2011 and 2016.
The study looked at 202 schools in four large statistical areas in regional New South Wales – Coffs Harbour, Orange, Tamworth-Gunnedah and Wagga Wagga. It found that 54 had an Indigenous enrolment share much lower than the local population. Of those 54 schools, 37 were independent or Catholic.
In contrast, the study found that the remaining 148 schools had an Indigenous enrolment “in excess of the Indigenous proportion of the local population”.
For example, the highest suburban proportion of Indigenous people in Coffs Harbour is about 8%, but eight schools in the area have an Indigenous enrolment double that figure.
Similarly, Indigenous Australians make up between 8% and 20% of the suburbs of Tamworth, but half a dozen local schools have enrolments well above that figure including a 71% Indigenous enrolment rate at Hilvue Public School.
Bonnor said placing the most disadvantaged students in one cohort made addressing student achievement gaps next to impossible.
“The benefits of improved equity are substantial and widespread. But the chances of achieving the much-needed improvement in student achievement is diminished when we aggregate the most disadvantaged students – whatever their background – in schools which are already struggling,” he said.
Previous CPD reports have argued that the original Gonski deal agreed to by the former Labor government in 2012 failed to address systematic inequality.
Bonnor reserved judgment on the new funding deal the government passed last year, but he said that as long-existent class and race divides became more pronounced “the capacity of our school system to act as a catalyst for inclusion, equity and opportunity for Indigenous students is weakening”.