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Indigenous early education gap remains wide

Indigenous children continue to have an educationally poorer start in life. The federal government’s 2016 Closing the Gap report revealed the target early education enrolment rate for Indigenous childhood fell considerably short.

On average, based on 2013 data, only about 75 per cent of Indigenous 4-year-olds were enrolled in an early-learning program. The enrolment rate was highest in remote communities, where it was 85 per cent, and lowest in major cities, at 67 per cent.

Dr Nicholas Biddle, fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, noted that these figures would have been even lower had several demographic changes not occurred amongst the Indigenous population. “In summary, it’s [affected by] migration, identification change [from non-Indigenous to Indigenous] and mixed partnering,” he said.

The Closing the Gap outcomes led the government to decrease its previous target of 100 per cent Indigenous 4-year-old early education enrolment by 2025, to 95 per cent. The first dataset for the new target will be available in March this year.

Biddle believed meeting this target would be “very challenging”, as low early education rates are closely aligned with Indigenous people’s economic and locational disadvantage. “These are quite hard for a policy to overcome,” he explained. Though he also noted that, with a younger Indigenous population, “there’s less of a history to overcome”.

Biddle said that preschool, an optional component of early education, is critical for better cognitive and behavioural outcomes for all children. In relation to this, he conducted a study and found that, on average, “The quality of educational instruction and the level of qualifications amongst preschool workers was much higher than it was amongst childcare workers.” This means hitting the target, which encompasses both preschool and childcare, may be insufficient.

Nevertheless, the government has introduced several policy initiatives in pursuit of the new 95 per cent enrolment goal. Biddle, however, considers a non-government initiative, Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali: Reconciliation in Schools and Early Learning, one of the most effective. It assists teachers in incorporating Indigenous themes into their lessons, for the benefit of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. As for the government initiatives? “They’re not going to be enough,” he maintained.

By contrast, Samantha Page, chief executive of Early Childhood Australia, is openly critical of a certain government policy. She is concerned that the recently tabled Jobs for Families childcare package will “threaten the viability of Aboriginal-run child and family service centres … and further disadvantage Aboriginal children.” She recommended it be modified to ensure qualified instruction of Indigenous children, three to four days a week, for a least two years before the commencement of formal schooling.

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