Potential factors influencing Indigenous education participation and achievement

By Nicholas Biddle, Timothy Cameron Research report 28 November 2012 ISBN 978 1 922056 34 4


The focus of this paper is on the factors, other than access, that influence the decision for Indigenous Australians to participate in education. The authors use a number of datasets to investigate 11 research questions relating to early childhood and post-school education participation and achievement. Overall, constraints on education participation and achievement appear at the time of pre-school education and have long-lasting effects. In order to improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous Australians, policy should focus on the earlier years of schooling. This research was funded through the NCVER Fellowship Program.


About the research

This report examines two sets of issues, the first being whether Indigenous Australians obtain a lower return on investment in education and training than other Australians. If they do, then this would partly explain why, in general, Indigenous participation in education and training is relatively low. The second issue is whether Indigenous participation is different once background characteristics — such as remoteness — are taken into account. To investigate these questions, the research uses previous research and a number of datasets: the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, the Census of Population and Housing, the Australian Early Development Index and the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth.

Key messages

  • In terms of the return from education and training:
    • On average, Indigenous Australians are happier at school than other Australians, suggesting that a low level of happiness is not the main reason for low completion rates.
    • Once Indigenous students receive a tertiary admission rank they are as likely as non-Indigenous students to go to university.
  • In terms of the effect of controlling for background characteristics:
    • Differences between Indigenous Australians and other Australians in education participation remain after controlling for remoteness and socioeconomic status.
    • Indigenous females may need to have a higher level of education than Indigenous males to experience the same level of wellbeing.

The overall message is that, on the whole, Indigenous Australians have a positive return from education and training. Therefore it can be concluded that differential returns are not especially important in understanding differences in participation. The authors also find that, almost universally, background characteristics (including academic achievement at an earlier age) do not explain differential participation. Differences appear at an early age and then compound through the schooling system.

This research was funded through the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) fellowship program, which encourages researchers to use NCVER datasets to improve our understanding of education.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

The main aim of Indigenous policy is to improve the level of wellbeing of the Indigenous population. Borrowing from the capabilities literature, it can be argued that all Indigenous Australians should have the ability to live the type of life they value. It is fitting, therefore, that three of the six 'Closing the Gap' targets the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has identified to improve the accountability of governments are related to education participation and attainment.

Meeting the Closing the Gap targets, however, will require a thorough understanding of why Indigenous Australians make the education decisions they do. By posing and attempting to answer a set of empirical research questions, we aim to make progress in the development of a behavioural model of education participation that is relevant to the Indigenous population. We also aim to identify key factors that are likely to be constraining education participation and which are potentially amenable to amelioration through public policy.

We combine information from a few datasets: the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (the NATSISS), the Census of Population and Housing, the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) and the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY). This allows us to partially answer some of the questions posed and be a little more definitive with others. Ultimately, we aim to shed some light on the process of Indigenous education participation and attainment.

The first question we consider in the paper is whether there is empirical support for there being large benefits from education for the Indigenous population and, if so, whether these benefits vary by gender or remoteness. We find that those people who have completed relatively high levels of education tend to have better outcomes than those without qualifications or those who drop out of school at a young age. Differences tend to be greatest for economic variables (employment, income and financial security), but are also present for a number of broader measures of wellbeing, such as self-reported happiness and sadness, self-assessed health and the ability to have a say within the community. Differences also tend to be greatest for females and those who live in non-remote Australia — two groups within the Indigenous population with relatively high levels of participation.

Having identified differences in benefits by remoteness, we then consider whether the geographic distribution of the Indigenous population explains disparities between them and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of education participation. What we find is that, while geography is important, the geographic distribution of the Indigenous population explains less than half of the difference in education participation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aged 15—19 years.

Having shown that geography is not the only factor explaining low education participation, we then turn our attention to the early childhood education experience. We show that Indigenous children are less likely to attend preschool than non-Indigenous children. Some of this difference is explained by geographic location and socioeconomic background. However, after controlling for these observed factors, differences in attendance still remain. The Indigenous presence in the preschool and carer experiences of discrimination are key determinants of participation.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Indigenous students in their first year of school were significantly more likely to be identified as being developmentally vulnerable than non-Indigenous children. Indigenous children who attended preschool were significantly less likely to be developmentally vulnerable than those who did not, with the biggest differences for literacy and numeracy. Closing the gap in preschool attendance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children will likely lead to a reduction in the disparity in school-readiness. However, it is unlikely to eliminate it entirely.

Another factor potentially driving differences in education participation is the school sector that Indigenous Australians are able to access. According to the 2006 census, 84.2% of Indigenous school students aged 5 to 17 years were attending a government school, compared with 64.6% of non- Indigenous students. These differences remain once other characteristics such as geography, demography and the socioeconomic status of the child's family are controlled for. To the extent that attendance at a private school confers benefits on the individuals, differences in participation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students may explain some of the difference in later school outcomes.

One might expect that, given the barriers they face, Indigenous Australians would be less happy at school than their non-Indigenous counterparts. However, this does not appear to be the case. Indeed, Indigenous Australians are on average happier at school, with the difference widening once other characteristics (like socioeconomic background and average test scores) are controlled for. Indigenous students are also significantly more likely to agree that they really like being a tertiary student than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Low levels of happiness at school and in post-school education do not appear to be the main reason for low Indigenous completion rates.

Despite this relatively high within-school wellbeing, Indigenous Australians have relatively low expectations in terms of completing Year 12. However, this difference disappears once socioeconomic characteristics are controlled for, and becomes positive when a range of school factors (like test scores) are included in the model. While Indigenous Australians are less likely to expect to complete Year 12, this is driven by observable factors.

Indigenous Australians are more likely to drop out of school before completion than non-Indigenous Australians. However, this difference is driven by observable characteristics such as academic achievement at the age of 15. Once these characteristics are controlled for, there was no significant difference. There were, however, differences in the tertiary entrance rank attained by Indigenous students at the completion of Year 12. These results show that the gaps between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians in terms of school outcomes as opposed to school completion can still widen in the latter years of school. This has implications for future education prospects, which in turn can impact on economic and social wellbeing across the life course.

As with high school expectations, Indigenous Australians are significantly and substantially less likely to expect to undertake post-school education. This difference in expectations is not driven by the relative socioeconomic background of Indigenous youth, but the differences do disappear once other school-based characteristics such as the student's own test scores and the test scores of others in the school are controlled for. Once again, actual and perceived ability are driving the differences in education expectations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.

An Indigenous youth is much less likely to undertake post-school study than a non-Indigenous Australian. This difference holds even after controlling for a range of important characteristics (for example, socioeconomic background and test scores). Once Indigenous students obtain a university entrance score they go to university with about the same probability as non-Indigenous students. This points to a need for a policy focus on why Indigenous students are less inclined to study towards a university entrance score. Moreover, policy should focus on the reasons Indigenous students receive lower scores on average, rather than on those students who have already received a score.


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