Early intervention crucial in improving Indigenous education

Too many Indigenous students are falling through the gap, while we’re trying to close it.

“Sound it out.”

“Ca – Ca – Ca.”

“Ah – Ah – Ah.”

“Te –Te –Te.”

“Put it all together.”

“Ca – Ah – Te.”


For a term, I helped high school students from the Tiwi Islands to read one-syllable words like this. I assisted math classes, whose ability to count was constrained by their twenty fingers and toes. I worked with history classes, who thought a King was Australia’s Head of State.

How could we let it get to this point?

The education standards surrounding Indigenous Australians are well known. The statistics, unfortunately, have become as easy to calculate, as they are discouraging. Too many Indigenous students are falling through the gap, while we’re trying to close it.

So then, how can we hope for Indigenous Australians to be fairly represented in our governments, on our boards, and in our universities?

Advocacy groups scream for greater Indigenous representation in Australian leadership roles. And they’re right. It’s not only the Indigenous people that need Indigenous role models. The Australian society needs Indigenous role models. All Australians that feel the sting of discrimination need Indigenous role models.

Their experiences give them special insight. Society and leaders need this insight. That sense of connection and understanding provides an irreplaceable social value.

But to garner these unique skill-sets that Australia so desperately needs, we rely on our last best hope – education.

I’m not pretending to know all the answers; I understand that this is a nuanced issue, with complexities starting long before an Indigenous child steps foot in a classroom. What is clear, however, that early intervention is central to reversing these trends.

We know that children from low-income families enter school having heard about 30 million fewer words than their high-income peers.

This late start snowballs.

Indigenous students become more than five times more likely than the general population to leave school at year 9 or below.

And these figures continue to haunt their later life.

Indigenous Australians are over three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.

So, if we’re serious about fair representation of Indigenous leaders in Australia, we need to lift standards of Indigenous education. These figures tear at our national conscience and hamper the potential for Indigenous leadership.

To foster this development, early intervention is essential. In some cases, support needs to be provided even before the child is born. Economist and Nobel laureate, James Heckman, showed that at age one there was no significant difference of cognitive abilities between a child of a college graduate and a child of a high school drop-out. By age two, a significant difference in cognitive skills suddenly emerges. And by age three, the severity continues to worsen.

Heckman refers to this as the ‘accident of birth’. It demonstrates that the earlier effective support is provided, the less likely risk factors are to compound into entrenched disadvantage.

For Indigenous children, whose safety net often resembles frayed pieces of string, early intervention in education is extremely difficult. Engaging with parents and family is a central requirement, but also a core challenge. It requires a shift in expectations and a demand to do whatever it takes.

Therefore, the future depends on what we do in the present. If we want to see an Indigenous Prime Minister and more Indigenous CEO’s, education outcomes must improve. This will require a greater emphasis on early learning and early support intervention for Indigenous Australians.

While greater resources will be inevitably needed, this investment is one that we can’t afford not to make.

As Dr. King once said: ‘if we can find the money to put a man on the moon, we can find the money to put a man on his two feet.’