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Chapter 1: Prenatal, early childhood and education

Given the fact that there is no employment gap, or disparity, for first Australians who are educated at the same level as other Australians, the full force of our community leaders and governments must pack behind the achievement of parity in educational outcomes as a national priority.

We must doggedly remove all impediments, raise our expectations dramatically and pursue accountability for Indigenous education until we reach parity in outcomes between all Australian kids.

Andrew Forrest

These 27 recommendations and the evidence and implementation strategy that supports them, and the detail that backs them in the text of the chapters are critical to ending the disparity. These solutions are not expensive and parity is completely achievable with the strength of will from each of us.

Practically every parent we spoke to wanted to assure a strong future for first Australian children supported by educated, active or working parents. They want to nurture kids’ talents to their full potential rather than be viewed as a burden of disadvantage (where governments try and fix problems when it’s too late). Parents said they have no better reason to get and keep a job than to provide a better future for their children. Many reflected that they simply didn’t understand, or weren’t informed of the very negative impact on their child’s start to life caused by aspects of their own behaviour and lifestyle, including a poor diet and inadequate rest, unstable home environment, alcohol and gambling and extended periods of unemployment.

They have a good point!

From conception to three years of age our brain function and major neural pathways are established and are becoming hardwired.40

The average brain growth is almost infinite from a single cell to 380 grams at birth to 1.3 kilograms by three years of age, and then only to 1.5 kilograms by 19 years of age when the brain’s mass reaches its maximum. These learning pathways are what we all rely on to undertake more complex brain functions like exercising judgement, problem solving and juggling priorities.

Multiple interconnected influences, from family environments to the availability of community supports and economic resources are what affect the development of these pathways. A child who does not receive the required support and stimulation during these early years commences formal education without being ‘school-ready’ and the cycle of disparity has already started.

The most effective way to invest in a person’s future capabilities is a whole-of-childhood approach starting before birth, with intensive effort in pregnancy and the first three years when brain development peaks. This is the only way we will ensure that all children have reached the developmental stages necessary for succeeding at school and for building on this success in adolescence and adult life. We can prevent children from not succeeding initially at school and developing problems that compound in later life.

This is especially so for first Australian children as they are twice as likely as other Australian children to be developmentally vulnerable. Consistently lower birth weights and a higher incidence of conditions such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) mean that children start from behind before they get anywhere near the school gate.

Before we can address education, we need to get children into school with an even chance in life. Without access to programmes that nurture good parenting, many Indigenous children face lives ruined by parents who are simply not aware of the devastating impact that their lifestyle (drugs, alcohol, poor nutrition) has on their children’s entire future.

Education experts have reported that children need a school attendance record of at least 80% for schooling to be effective. In the Northern Territory’s very remote areas (where 57% of students in the Territory are educated, or 8,253 students), only one in five children is attending school more than 80% of the time. All of the Northern Territory is classified as ‘very remote’ apart from the three town centres of Darwin (including Palmerston), Alice Springs and Katherine. The average first Australian attendance rate in very remote Northern Territory schools is about 58%, compared with almost 83% in provincial areas. The recent Remote Schools Attendance Strategy has helped, but much more needs to be done and in many more schools if we are to break the cycle of disparity.

Children should be at school every day to ensure they benefit from the education offered to them and are not left behind. This year, the Prime Minister set a new Closing the Gap target: to end the gap in school attendance within five years and achieve at least 90% attendance across all Australian schools, regardless of student background. Every attempt should be made to assist and support first Australians to send their children to school every day. As a last resort, if parents are not meeting the bare minimum 80% attendance requirement and no special circumstances apply, stronger action may be necessary and penalties applied.

States are not implementing truancy laws. The number of fines imposed on parents for cases of truancy by any particular state or territory government over a 12-month period is very low, yet the incidence of truancy is very high. This seems to be wilful negligence by governments and a refusal to enforce their own laws. In Victoria, for example, it is reported that there have been no truancy fines at all since 2006. In Queensland in 2011, just two fines were imposed, yet 36,000 students missed 20 days or more of school in the first semester of that year alone.

We all tend to manage efficiently what we are measured on and governments are no different. It is inexcusable that a child be denied their right to a healthy future that is independent of welfare, because government officials and schools are not paying attention to school attendance rates. Paying states on actual attendance would give a clear focus on what is important. We must pay on results, not process.

The Family Tax Benefit (FTB) is not conditional on good school attendance, but it should be. Governments must make it clear to families applying for the FTB that the benefit is paid to enable them to raise their children responsibly and make sure they are at school each day.

There is no disparity in employment between first Australians with a decent education and other Australians. A decent education means leaving school with Year 12 or equivalent qualifications and the ability to go on to further education and training. There is employment parity now for first Australians with Certificate III or IV level training that most apprentices undergo, diploma or university qualifications.

If we get early childhood development and school education right, we don’t need to invest in or waste money by the billions in other areas as we do now. Measures relating to early childhood and school education are a long-term fix. There is a generation of Australians who have not benefited from education and many of the other measures in this report will be of greater significance in assisting them.

Employers consistently report the lack of job-ready school leavers with basic literacy, numeracy and employability skills as one of the major impediments to finding first Australian workers. Schooling, particularly for building literacy and numeracy skills, is critical for developing the workers of the future. First Australian students are, on average, two and a half years behind other students. Results in maths, English and science are particularly poor. Increasing school attendance must become a national priority.

We need the best teachers teaching in schools where the need is greatest. The schooling system, primarily a state and territory responsibility, needs to give first Australian children the best possible start to life—recognising that an individual’s earning capacity is directly linked to educational attainment. Teachers should be carefully selected on performance and likelihood to succeed in challenging environments, and supported through incentives to make sure first Australian students are given the best chance to succeed.

There should also be no question in any school in Australia about the importance of teaching basic English and maths as a first priority. For readers about to leap on the argument that first Australians need to preserve their culture through their language, let me remind you that the quickest way to lose language is to be unable to record it. This happens when kids have the sound knowledge of the alphabet needed to document the languages of our first Australians, given their tradition of oral languages.

This has left hundreds of first Australian boys and girls with no means of supporting themselves into the future without welfare. Further, an ideological lack of emphasis on English and numeracy hinders these children for life, and yet the education systems of Australia are dominated by people who use Aboriginal language retention as an excuse for not ensuring English literacy. They have one set of expectations for their own children and a much lower set for Indigenous children.

We must not tolerate any excuse for lower standards in any child’s education—not traditions, not ceremonies, not football carnivals nor even visiting sport stars and royalty days, and particularly not the apathy of governments. Nothing must get in the way of any Australian child’s fair chance at life.

These recommendations, if implemented, will ensure Indigenous babies are born healthy without being disabled by FASD or ear disease, are sent to school every day, educated and skilled, and ready to succeed in the world of work.