Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2021. Indigenous education and skills. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 27 October 2021, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-education-and-skills
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Indigenous education and skills. Retrieved from https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-education-and-skills
Indigenous education and skills. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 16 September 2021, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-education-and-skills
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Indigenous education and skills [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2021 Oct. 27]. Available from: https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-education-and-skills
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2021, Indigenous education and skills, viewed 27 October 2021, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-education-and-skills
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Higher levels of education have been linked with improved health and wellbeing, health literacy, income, employment, better working conditions and a range of other social benefits (ABS 2011; Biddle & Cameron 2012; Hart et al. 2017).
Education is a major focus in efforts to improve health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In particular, early childhood education, Year 12 or equivalent, tertiary and post school educational attainment have been highlighted as specific areas requiring action and improvement (Closing the Gap).
This page provides an overview of indicators relating to Indigenous education and skills, reviews progress towards the Closing the Gap education targets and discusses the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and effects on education in Australia. See glossary for definitions of terms used on this page.
In 2020, all Australian governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Coalition of peaks representatives worked in partnership to develop the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement), committing to 4 key Reform Priorities and 16 socioeconomic Closing the Gap targets. Five of these targets relate to school readiness and education.
Target 3: Increase the proportion of Indigenous children enrolled in Year Before Fulltime Schooling (YBFS) early childhood education to 95% by 2025.
Target 4: Increase the proportion of Indigenous children assessed as developmentally on track on all 5 domains of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) to 55% by 2031.
Target 5: Increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 attaining Year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96% by 2031.
Target 6: Increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) to 70% by 2031.
Target 7: Increase the proportion of Indigenous youth (15–24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67% by 2031.
Note: The baseline values for these targets were derived from the 2016 National Early Childhood Education and Care Collection (Target 3), 2018 AEDC (Target 4), and the 2016 Census of Population and Housing (Targets 6 and 7).
Prior to the National Agreement, there were 7 Closing the Gap targets set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) under the National Indigenous Reform Agreement; 4 of which related to education. Of these earlier targets, the Closing the Gap Report 2020 assessed those on early childhood education and Year 12 or equivalent attainment as on track:
However, the targets on school attendance (set in 2013) and reading and numeracy (set in 2008) expired unmet:
The former COAG target to increase the proportion of Indigenous children enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling was carried over to the new National Agreement. Based on 2020 data, the target of 95% enrolment by 2025 was on track (Closing the Gap Target 3).
Based on 2019 data, 92% of Indigenous children were enrolled in early childhood education in the year before full-time schooling. Among these children, 96% were enrolled for 15 hours or more per week (SCRGSP 2020).
Attendance rates (the proportion of enrolled children who attended for at least 1 hour in a reference week) for Indigenous children were generally lower in Remote and Very remote areas, and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children was highest in these areas (Figure 1).
This chart shows that the attendance rate for Indigenous children enrolled in a preschool program was highest in Major cities and Inner regional areas (both 97%) and lowest in Very remote areas (78%). The attendance rate for non-Indigenous children ranged from 98% in Major cities to 95% in Very remote areas.
The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) is a census type data collection for all children in their first year of full-time schooling, conducted every 3 years. Based on their observations, school teachers assess these children on 5 domains of early childhood development (Figure 2).
The 2018 AEDC assessed 308,953 children, of whom 19,074 (6.2%) were Indigenous. Across each of the five AEDC domains, between 60–64% of Indigenous children were assessed as being developmentally on track (Figure 2) (DET 2019a).
This chart shows the proportion of children assessed as developmentally vulnerable, at risk and on track for each AEDC domain (Physical healh and wellbeing, Social competence, Emotional maturity, Language and cognitive skills and Communication skills and general knowledge). Across each of the five domains: a higher proportion of Indigenous children were assessed as developmentally vulnerable (between 16%–21%) compared with non-Indigenous children (between 6%–9%); a higher proportion were assessed as at risk (16%–20% compared with 9%–14%); and a lower proportion were assessed as on track (60%–64% compared with 77%–86%).
Around one-third (35%) of Indigenous children were assessed as on track on all 5 domains. The National Agreement target for Indigenous children to thrive in their early years aims to increase this proportion to 55% by 2031 (Closing the Gap Target 4).
The 2018 AEDC results also showed that, nationally:
The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children who were assessed as developmentally vulnerable on one or more domain(s) has narrowed over time (from a gap of 25 percentage points in 2009 to 21 percentage points in 2018). However, in 2018 the proportion of Indigenous children who were assessed as developmentally vulnerable on one or more domain(s) was twice that of non-Indigenous children (41% compared with 20%) (Figure 3).
In 2018, Language and cognitive skills (school-based) was the domain with the largest gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children assessed as developmentally vulnerable (a difference of 23 percentage points), while the smallest gap was for Emotional maturity (13 percentage points) (Figure 2).
This chart shows that the proportion of Indigenous children assessed as developmentally vulnerable on one or more AEDC domain(s) decreased over time (from 47% in 2009 to 41% in 2018). The rate for non-Indigenous children was lower and decreased slightly over the period 2009 to 2018, from 22% to 20%.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a standardised test of knowledge and skills administered to a random sample of 15-year-old students by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in over 70 countries. For more information on Australia’s results, see School student engagement and performance.
Australia’s 2018 PISA results showed that:
This chart shows that the mean performance score for reading literacy for Indigenous students declined from 448 in 2000 to 431 in 2018. The score for non-Indigenous students declined from 531 to 507 over the same period.
Overall, school attendance rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in years 1 to 10 did not improve between 2014 and 2019. Attendance rates decreased by 2 percentage points for Indigenous students and by 1 percentage point for non-Indigenous students over the period. In Semester 1, 2019, the attendance rate for Indigenous students was 82%, compared with 92% for non-Indigenous students (ACARA 2021).
The Northern Territory had the largest change between 2014 and 2019, with Indigenous student attendance decreasing by 7 percentage points. All other jurisdictions had a decrease of 3 percentage points or less over this period (ACARA 2021).
In 2019, the attendance rate was 23–24 percentage points lower for Indigenous students in Very remote areas (61%) compared with those in Inner regional areas (85%) and Major cities (84%). Attendance rates for non-Indigenous students did not vary greatly by remoteness, and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students grew with increasing remoteness (ACARA 2021).
School attendance rates for Indigenous students were steady between primary school year levels (84%–85%) but reduced as the secondary school year level increased (to a low of 72% for Year 10 students). For non-Indigenous students, the attendance rate ranged from 93% during primary school to 89% for Year 10 students (Figure 5).
COAG’s target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within 5 years by 2018 expired unmet (PM&C 2020). School attendance was not included as one of the 16 new targets in the National Agreement but is included as an indicator for Outcome 5 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieve their full learning potential.
This chart shows that attendance rates for Indigenous students were lower than for non-Indigenous students across all primary and secondary school years. The attendance rates were steady in primary school year levels and declined during the secondary school years for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students widened as the secondary school year level increased.
The target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy by 2018 was assessed by measuring the difference in the proportion of students at or above the national minimum standard in National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results. Progress was tracked for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Based on an assessment of 2018 NAPLAN data, this target expired unmet. However, there were improvements for reading and literacy for Indigenous children over the decade to 2018 and the gap narrowed by between 3–11 percentage points across all year levels (PM&C 2020).
Based on NAPLAN data from 2008 to 2019:
Reading and numeracy was not included as one of the 16 targets in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap but is included as an indicator for Outcome 5 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieve their full learning potential.
This chart shows that the proportion of Indigenous students meeting the national minimum standard for reading in Year 3 was lower than for non-Indigenous students. The rate for Indigenous students increased from 68% to 83% from 2008 to 2019 and the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students narrowed over the period.
Progress has been made in Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) attainment for Indigenous Australians aged 20–24, with an increase of 21 percentage points between 2008 and 2018–19 (from 45% to 66%). The rate for non-Indigenous Australians increased by 5 percentage points over this period (from 85% to 90%) (Figure 7).
The gap in Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) attainment rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 narrowed by around 15 percentage points over the decade to 2018–19 – from a gap of 40 percentage points in 2008 to around 25 percentage points in 2018–19. The 2008 Closing the Gap target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment or equivalent by 2020 was on track to be met at the time of the Closing the Gap Report 2020 assessment (PM&C 2020).
This chart shows that the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had attained a Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) was 45% in 2008 and increased to 66% in 2018–19. The rate for non-Indigenous Australians was 85% in 2008 and 90% in 2018–19 and the gap between the two populations narrowed over the period.
The National Agreement includes a new target to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 attaining a Year 12 or equivalent qualification to 96% by 2031. The new target measures a Year 12 attainment or Certificate III or above as the equivalent qualification, a change from the 2008 target which measured a Year 12 attainment or Certificate II or above as the equivalent qualification.
In the 2016 Census of Population and Housing (Census), the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–24 who had attained a Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate III or above) was 63% (Closing the Gap Target 5).
A new target in the National Agreement is to increase the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–34 who have completed tertiary qualifications (Certificate III and above) to 70% by 2031.
Based on data from the 2016 Census, 42% of Indigenous Australians aged 25–34 had completed a tertiary qualification as their highest educational attainment (Certificate III and above). This was 72% for non-Indigenous Australians aged 25–34 (Figure 8).
This chart shows that the proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 25–34 who had attained a tertiary qualification (Certificate III or above) increased from 19% in 2001 to 42% in 2016. For non-Indigenous Australians the proportion increased from 49% in 2001 to 72% in 2016.
For Indigenous students in government-funded Vocational education and training (VET) courses:
Improvements have been made in university enrolments and course completions for Indigenous Australians in recent years. Between 2010 and 2019:
Despite this progress, Indigenous Australians continue to be under‑represented in universities, comprising 1.9% of the domestic higher education student population, compared with 3.3% of the total Australian population. Indigenous Australians comprised 2.3% of the domestic higher education student population aged 25–34, compared with 3.4% of the Australian population this age (DESE 2020, 2021 unpublished; ABS 2019).
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all levels of the education system in Australia in 2020.
The majority of students experienced a rapid transition to home-based online learning due to school closures. Although children of essential workers and vulnerable students were still able to attend school, the vast majority of students used home-based learning. The response to COVID-19 emphasised persistent inequities experienced by vulnerable population groups (Drane et al. 2020). Indigenous students across Australia and persons living in remote areas are among those with an existing risk of increased challenges with access to technology, support and isolation (Bennett et al. 2020; Lamb 2020).
The COVID-19 response also included social distancing measures, travel restrictions, the closure of non-essential services, stimulus packages and free childcare for working parents (Storen et al. 2020).
These and many other complex factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic may shift trends in education data. The data presented on this page reflect the ‘pre-COVID-19’ picture because data are not yet available for the COVID-19 period. Further assessments on the impact of COVID-19 on education for Indigenous Australians will be made in the future as data allow it.
For more information on Indigenous education and skills and on progress on the education-related Closing the Gap targets, see:
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2011. The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, October 2010: links between education and health. ABS cat. no. 4704.0. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2019. Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2006 to 2031, ABS cat. no. 3238.0. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2020. Australian demographic statistics: National, state and territory population, ABS cat. no. 3101.0. Canberra: ABS.
ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) 2019. NAPLAN achievement in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy: national report for 2019. Sydney: ACARA.
ACARA 2021. National Report on Schooling in Australia Data Portal: Student Attendance. Sydney: ACARA.
Bennett R, Uink B & Cross S 2020. Beyond the social: Cumulative implications of COVID-19 for first nations university students in Australia. Social Sciences & Humanities Open,(2)1.
Biddle N & Cameron T 2012. Potential factors influencing Indigenous education participation and achievement. Research report for the National Vocational Education and Training Research Program. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.
DESE (Department of Education, Skills and Employment) 2020. Selected Higher Education Statistics – 2019 Student data. Canberra: DET.
DET (Department of Education and Training) 2019a. Australian Early Development Census National Report 2018. Canberra: DET.
DET 2019b. Trends from the AEDC. Canberra: DET.
Drane C, Vernon L & O’Shea S 2020. The impact of ‘learning at home’ on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Literature Review prepared by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, Australia.
Hart M, Moore M & Laverty M 2017. Improving Indigenous Health through education. The Medical Journal of Australia 207(1):11–12.
Lamb S 2020. Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes for disadvantaged children, brief assessment. DESE, Australia.
NCVER (National Centre for Vocational Education Research) 2020. Australian vocational education and training statistics: Government-funded students and courses 2019. NCVER, Adelaide.
NCVER 2021. Australian vocational education and training statistics: government-funded students and courses — January to September 2020. NCVER, Adelaide.
PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2020. Closing the Gap Report 2020. Canberra: PM&C.
Productivity Commission 2021. Closing the Gap information repository. Data dashboard: Socioeconomic outcome area 6. Viewed 16 July 2021.
SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2020. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators 2020. Canberra: SCRGSP, Productivity Commission.
Storen R & Corrigan N 2020. COVID-19: a chronology of state and territory government announcements (up until 30 June 2020). Research paper series, 2020–21. Department of Parliamentary Services.
Thomson S, De Bertoli L, Underwood C & Schmid M 2019. PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume I Student Performance. Victoria: Australian Council for Education Research.
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