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Equitable and inclusive education: what does it mean for our First Nations students? Opinion

Australians want a fair and an equitable education system. We want a system where all students enjoy equal opportunities and experiences that will equip each of them to lead productive and purposeful lives. But this is not happening.

Australia ranks in the bottom third of OECD countries in providing equitable access to quality education1. Health and environmental challenges have created additional burdens on communities and education is not always a top priority for many struggling families.

The recent NAIDOC week reminded us of the inequities in our education system. We are failing our First Nations students who do not enjoy equal opportunities and learning experiences.

In this piece, findings from a recent report2 are shared to understand what works to bring about equitable education for our First Nations young people and how we can move forward from a place of deficit to a strength-based approach.


There are numerous figures that can be quoted on engagement and learning outcomes of First Nations students and how this compares with that of their peers. For instance:

  • Only 79% of Year 9 Indigenous students living in major cities are meeting national minimum reading standards in NAPLAN, compared to 92% of non-Indigenous students. The figures are worse for Indigenous students living in remote and very remote locations as compared to non-Indigenous students (32% and 54%, respectively)3.
  • Using conventional learning and assessment outcomes, students have lower attendance, retention and achievement across all age groups and in all states and territories.
  • Beyond education outcomes, there are generally lower labour force participation and employment rates, lower general socio-economic status and health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples4.

But there is a bigger problem that is being overlooked. These outcomes are geared to a very linear, one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all form of education5. Standardised testing and metrics are based on a model inherently developed on non-Indigenous terms and on deficit understandings, which fails to recognise Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander knowledge and ways of learning of First Nations people6.

This is despite evidence that suggests there is a plethora of social, environmental and cultural elements that play an important role in terms of generating and underpinning a successful learner5. For instance, there are valuable experiences and life skills gained from participating in Indigenous heritage, cultures, practices and languages.

In other words, there exists a central tension where the goals and purposes of education and what constitutes knowledge and success in learning in Indigenous cultures are different to mainstream understandings of educational successes7.

What this means is:

  • there is a failure to recognise that learning occurs in multiple settings and that much of the variation in student achievement is attributable to factors outside of school8,9
  • commonly reported education indicators and outcomes do not fully capture students’ characteristics, capabilities and holistic learning experiences that occur both inside and outside school gates5
  • the value of community kinship and cultural identity and what it means to shape a young person are not being fully understood by society.

These failures stand in sharp contrast to widespread agreement among employers and society that all young people, if they are to thrive in life, must be equipped with skills that build resilience, confidence and greater personal and social responsibility – skills a young person can gain and acquire outside formal education settings.

An evidence-based approach to addressing education inequity

In our work on addressing education inequity, 45 evidence-informed education programs and culturally inclusive studies were comprehensively reviewed with a view to finding solutions for addressing education inequity2.

The study focused on five demographic groups of students: those from low socio-economic or socio-educational households; from an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background; with a disability; who are refugees or migrants from a non-English speaking background; and who live in rural, regional or remote areas.

Programs were run in schools, but many were also implemented in partnership with organisations outside school settings, such as in local communities, industries and tertiary settings, and with community members acting as mentors.

Findings were synthesised to come up with 16 “levers for change” and a set of 22 actionable recommendations that can be implemented by various sector stakeholders.

What works to bring about equitable education for First Nations students

The report2 focused on program outcomes that not only led to improved attendance, engagement and learning of First Nations students, but also those that led to:

  1. strengthened student pride in their culture with a growing understanding of their Indigenous heritage, and
  2. a shift in whole-school culture through greater recognition, understanding and valuing of Indigenous culture.

It was found that where learning and pedagogy prioritised First Nations culture, knowledge and language, is built on shared understanding and values, is culturally responsive to diverse backgrounds and approached from a strength-based lens, they are shown to achieve better outcomes2.

Examples of programs and services2 that led to these kinds of outcomes were those that:

  • embraced families, culture and community, with opportunities for parent-led learning and most importantly were non-tokenistic and built on trust, respect, reciprocity and shared understanding
  • engaged students through activities that promoted traditional and contemporary Indigenous culture, finding ways to authentically involve the local Indigenous community, and providing Indigenous cultural activities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students
  • partnered with parents, Elders and the community to nurture and facilitate cultural perspectives and co-construct programs and using various forums designed to ensure the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice is heard
  • embedded a culturally sustaining pedagogy in curriculum and teaching practices
  • utilised various inclusive strategies such as involving local Elder and family; practising cultural sensitivity; making learning content engaging, accessible and culturally responsive; and ensuring rich and diverse epistemological legacy and multiple stories are reflected in curriculum, taught to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

The report also found mechanisms to strengthen ties between home, schools and communities include:

  • recognising families as first educators and engage families and communities in relationship building
  • building and sustaining leadership connections between school staff and community leaders.

Where are the gaps?

First, while great programs and culturally inclusive studies are being implemented across schools and communities, it is not being done in a systematic way nor are their outcomes rigorously evaluated.

Indigenous experts strongly recommend building evidence-based criteria and conducting consistent high-quality external evaluations of programs and initiatives6,10. An absence of strong and robust evidence to support outcomes limits the ability to confidently prescribe the programs as best practice models.

Secondly, there is no systematic approach to capturing, documenting and assessing outside school experiences and learnings within the existing school curriculum or through non-traditional education models5. This means that First Nations students’ competencies and skills learnt in cultural settings and in their communities are not being properly and formally recognised.

How can we move forward? 

Key recommendations specific to First Nations students that were identified in our report2 were:

  • Develop cultural competence training for schools, educators and service organisations on how to work and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families, and communities.
  • Develop culturally relevant pedagogic and curriculum programs that seek to impact more directly on learning and well-being outcomes6.
  • Adopt a rigorous, empirical and consistent approach to evaluations of culturally responsive Indigenous education programs, so that successful ones can be cautiously replicated across education settings6.
  • Capture students’ learning experiences inside and outside education settings, and establish a framework that recognises their progress in general capabilities and life skills.
  • Embed sensitivity, inclusivity and flexibility in approaches to collecting evidence and assessing academic and non-academic skills to ensure diverse cultural learnings are captured authentically based on shared understandings.

Achieving equitable education for our First Nations students benefits everyone. The learning of Indigenous culture and knowledge is for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. There need to be changes in teaching and curriculum to support the multiplicity of social and cultural identities so that all students are balanced in both worlds, strong in their Western knowledge and English and in their Indigenous identity, cultural knowledge and language.

We need to re-think, re-purpose and re-define what counts as ‘success’ in our education system so that success and performance do not continue to be measured through Western-informed ‘mainstream’ understandings. Our system should not continue to fail our First Nations students.

Author Note: Meera Varadharajan wishes to acknowledge her non-indigeneity. However, contents of this article have been informed by reports that were written after extensive consultation with indigenous experts in the area of education.

Dr Meera Varadharajan is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact. 


  1. Chzhen Y, Rees G, Gromada A, Cuesta JA and Bruckauf Z. An unfair start: inequality in children’s education in rich countries. 2018 [cited 2020 Jun 24]. Available from: https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/995-an-unfair-start-education-inequality-children.html
  2. Varadharajan et al. (2022). Amplify Insights: Education Inequity. Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Sydney. Available from https://www.csi.edu.au/media/uploads/amplify_insights_education_inequity_report.pdf
  3. Productivity Commission. School education - Report on Government Services 2021 [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Mar 16]. Available from: https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2021/childcare-education-and-training/school-education
  4. Doyle L, Hill R. Our children, our future: achieving improved primary and secondary education outcomes for Indigenous students: an overview of investment opportunities and approaches. Sydney: AMP Foundation, Effective Philanthropy, Social Ventures Australia; 2008
  5. Shergold P, Calma T, Russo S, Walton P, Westacott J, Zoellner D, et al. Looking to the future: Report of the review of senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training. [Internet]. Australia: Education Council; 2020. Available from: https://uploadstorage.blob.core.windows.net/public-assets/educationau/pathways/Final%20report%20-%2018%20June.pdf
  6. Lowe K, Harrison N, Tennent C, Guenther J, Vass G, Moodie N. Factors affecting the development of school and Indigenous community engagement: a systematic review. Aust Educ Res. 2019 Apr;46(2):253–71.
  7. Varadharajan et al. (2021). Amplify Insights: Education Inequity. Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Sydney. Available from https://www.csi.edu.au/media/uploads/amplify_insights_educationinequity_partone_full_report.pdf
  8. Bonnor, C., Kidson, P., Piccoli, A., Sahlberg, P., Wilson R. Structural Failure: Why Australia keeps falling short of its educational goals. [Internet]. Sydney: UNSW Gonski Institute; 2021. Available from: https://www.gie.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/documents/Structural%20Failure_final.pdf
  9. ASA (American Statistical Association). ASA Statement on using value-added models for educational assessment. 2014; Available from: https://www.amstat.org/asa/files/pdfs/POL-ASAVAM-Statement.pdf
  10. Harrison N, Tennent C, Vass G, Guenther J, Lowe K and Moodie N. ‘Curriculum and learning in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education: A systematic review’, The Australian Educational Researcher 2019 Apr;46(2):233–51.
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