In 2009, there were 492 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Diocesan schools making up 2.8 per cent of the total student population. In 2020, there are 1,443 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students making up 7.2 per cent of the total 19,904 student population.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments in NSW Catholic Schools in 2009 were 3.2 per cent, and in 2020 are 3.3 per cent – 8,478 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in a total of 257000 students. This means 17 per cent of all NSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments are in our Diocesan schools – but we have only 7 per cent of total NSW student enrolments
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says 5.8 per cent of all students in Australian schools are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The average enrolment growth rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese for the past eight years is 11 per cent per year.
The Diocese Catholic Schools Office’s Strategic Plan 2020–2022 provides impetus for new energy and direction in our work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. The strategic goals are to know every student; build the capacity of every teacher, leader and school; and nurture a culture that is adaptive and innovative.
Meeting the diverse needs of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and families also aligns with our system focus on embedding the research work of internationally renowned researcher and author, Lyn Sharratt, summarised in the 14 Parameters of Schools and System Improvement. A critical component of this work is developing shared beliefs and understandings about learning across our system as well as shared responsibility and accountability for implementing and embedding a defined number of evidence-based approaches.
A major goal of this work is ensuring that no sub-group of students is performing better or worse than any other. With enrolment numbers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students increasing more than any other sub-group in our Diocese, the improvement in their academic and wellbeing outcomes is now everybody’s business.
It is timely that we are also in the process of reviewing our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy. Part of this process was to engage in an external, independent review in 2019 to determine the impact and relevance of the current policy; assess the level of support and responsiveness to school and local community needs; and develop a set of recommendations for future directions.
Review feedback from CSO indigenous and non-indigenous staff, and our schools, affirmed strong enthusiasm, energy and support for our renewed Aboriginal Education focus. However, it became clear that we lack a consistent understanding across our system and schools about three questions.
Is “Aboriginal education” only for students who themselves are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, or is learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia a key element for all Australian students?
What does a culturally sensitive system and school look like?
What does “reconciliation” mean?
One of the indicators of our success in a renewed Aboriginal Education focus will be hearing confident and informed answers to these questions from our indigenous and non-indigenous staff, students and parents by the end of 2022. An important strategy will be ensuring our work is shaped by the voices of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, students and parents as well as by the cultural guidance and advice of the traditional custodian groups.
In response to the review, the CSO-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education team has been expanded. We have also increased the number of Aboriginal Education teachers in our schools, many more of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These new staff members will be supported to ensure they can make a real difference to Aboriginal Education for all.
We are in the process of developing specific targets for the CSO and our schools by the end of 2022. We recognise we will only be successful in achieving tangible progress in Aboriginal Education if “we are all in it together”. The incorporation of a strengths based mindset will be a critical part of this process. Ensuring our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are known, and their strengths and successes celebrated, will help embed this mindset.
We recognise the need to build the capacity of all staff members of the CSO and our schools through providing quality professional learning in cultural awareness, Aboriginal perspectives and evidence-based approaches to meeting the learning and wellbeing needs of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We also hope to demonstrate adaptive and innovative approaches to Aboriginal Education that ensure not only improved learning and wellbeing outcomes for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students but also enhanced and shared understandings of Aboriginal Australia by all.