Russell is the eighth teacher to participate in our Teacher Tuesday campaign. He works in a school in Inverell, a New South Wales country town in Australia. Of the 680 students in his school, 125 are Aboriginal. Four of the 30 teachers in the school are Aboriginal as well, including Russell, who is Gamilori.
“The challenges Aboriginal people face are still there today and we need to recognize these,” he told us. These challenges result in the children often being on the back foot in school. “My first school was 98% Aboriginal and I had to speak Aboriginal English to give instructions to children because they didn’t quite understand. They hear the spoken language but they’re three steps behind before they start. They’re playing catch up from day one. I’d say you’d be lucky if 50% of your Aboriginal children had been to preschool.”
Although learning gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous children in Australia are clearly visible in student assessments, they have not received sufficient policy attention, and so have persisted for a decade and a half. The latest EFA Global Monitoring Report shows that, in Australia, around two-thirds of indigenous students achieved the minimum benchmark in mathematics in grade 8 between 1994/95 and 2011, compared with 90% of their non-indigenous peers.
Poverty can also hold back learning. The latest EFA Global Monitoring Report shows that 96% of the richest in Australia will achieve the minimum standards, compared with only 80% of the poorest. “Poverty draws a line in the sand,” Russell said. “You’re on one side or the other. That’s why I don’t set homework on a computer as I know some still don’t have computers at home, and that’s disadvantaging them. I don’t mind how it comes back as long as it comes back!”
In order for teachers to have a better grasp of the challenges the children in their class are facing, it is important for policy-makers to recruit teachers from diverse backgrounds who reflect the diversity of the children they are teaching. This is important because for marginalized children “it’s more about what’s going on outside of school than in school,” as Russell described it. “When I was at school it was sometimes difficult going to school with non-Aboriginal people. If I was in a classroom and someone didn’t want to sit next to me, I could be asked to move place. Now, those Aboriginal children have children of their own and, in their mindset, education tormented them, so it’s hard for us to get them to send their children to school.”
Faced with a class of children from marginalized backgrounds, teachers will need trainingin ensuring they catch up in class. Aboriginal education is compulsory in teacher training in Australia, and Russell also took classes on literacy among indigenous children. As a result, he tailors his teaching style to accommodate the Aboriginal children in his school: “You differentiate the curriculum to suit all needs and scaffold different results for different students.” He can expect all children to put in the same amount of effort, he explained, but can’t expect the results to be the same. “Homework is really hard to set because their home lives are often here one night and not the next. I try to set stuff I know they can do that isn’t affected by where they are.”
Not all teachers are happy to work in remote areas, however, leaving marginalized children often without the best quality teachers a country can offer. To provide a quality, equitable education, governments need to provide incentives to encourage teachers to work in disadvantaged schools. In Australia, for example, teachers build up more career points if they work in remote areas. “When you teach at the more remote schools you get 8 points per year, compared with 1 point on the coast,” Russell explained.
The incentives should be carefully managed, however. As Russell explained, “A lot of teachers come out here because of the incentives but leave after three years to go to teach on the coast instead. So there’s a high turn around in these areas and a lot of the western schools have a lot of beginner teachers. In my last school I was there for three years and I was the third longest serving teacher in the school. There’s such a high turnover so the kids don’t learn to trust you.”
As well as training, teachers need inclusive curricula and assessment materials to work with. Australia’s new curriculum will pave the way for indigenous language to be officially taught in school. The new syllabus also has more cultural references in it. With the new curriculum, “you don’t have to write in words, you can write in paintings now, for example,” Russell said. “I’ve had my students pull a story apart about the drought of the river system here – and I got them to paint it with indigenous symbols rather than write it. It is important that our children don’t lose their cultural heritage.”
As Australia’s experience shows, rich countries’ achievement levels may generally be higher, but their education systems can also fail significant minorities. Unless countries tackle inequality by reaching groups marginalized by poverty, immigrant status and other factors associated with wider disadvantage, they will fail to achieve the standards of learning that all their citizens expect and deserve.