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A hand on Indigenous art at ACU Canberra Campus

Closing the Gap


The latest Closing the Gap report showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were significantly behind in key metrics such as life expectancy and school attendance. So, what’s the solution? Phillip Dreise, lecturer and project manager at ACU’s Learning and Teaching Centre, believes the answer may lie in incorporating Indigenous perspectives into learning.

When the Closing the Gap report revealed worrying findings for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a renewed focus on education, saying that it is key to “…giving young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians the opportunity to create their futures.”

The report shows a frustrating story for Australia’s First Peoples and those working with them to Close the Gap.

School attendance rates for Indigenous students have not improved since 2014 and sit at 82 per cent compared to 93 per cent for non-Indigenous students. In some remote areas attendance is as low as 63 per cent.

While gains have been made in the areas of numeracy and literacy, there remains a disproportionate share of Indigenous children below the national minimum standard.

However, it’s not all bad news. Year 12 attainment rates are steadily improving. In fact, they’ve risen from 59 per cent to 74 per cent in metropolitan areas.

The flow on effect has been an increase in university enrolments with the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments more than doubling since 2007.

It’s a trend ACU’s Phillip Dreise has seen first-hand.

“We’ve seen a 14 per cent increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments at ACU over the past five years," he said.

"Our retention numbers are also growing, showing that the support we’re giving, coupled with higher Indigenous staff employment, is going a long way to addressing disadvantage.”

And while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders currently make up 1.7 per cent of ACU’s student population, he’s hopeful that Indigenous enrolments will soon rise to 2.8 per cent – mirroring Australia’s Indigenous population.

Putting pins on a map of Indigenous language groups in Australia

Levelling the playing field

In primary and secondary schools, educators are working to Close the Gap through the Australian Curriculum. Since 2014 the curriculum has brought consistency to all Australian students’ education, regardless of their location or background. It covers 43 learning areas including science, the arts, English and technology. It also includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, with Indigenous perspectives embedded across all subjects. For instance, a science class may examine the melting point of beeswax and how it was used by Australia’s First Peoples.

Phillip said embedding Indigenous perspectives is an important tool to encourage participation in education.

“If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students see and hear these histories and cultures in their lessons, it enhances a sense of self-identity, self-confidence and pride,” said Phillip.

“It helps them be stronger and smarter in their journey through lifelong learning, and ultimately assists with closing the gap.”

An Indigenous student working on a computer

Reconciliation through education

The curriculum also aims to engage non-Indigenous students in “reconciliation, respect and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures.”

Knowledge, explains Phillip, is one of the most powerful tools in the fight for reconciliation.

“Ignorance breeds racism. If true reconciliation is going to occur in this country then we all need to know the histories associated with First Peoples,” he said.

It’s hope for reconciliation, and better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, that drives Phillip in his current project, Building Cultural Capacity. He’s working with ACU lecturers, curriculum writers and course reviewers to embed Indigenous perspectives and knowings into tertiary education.

Phillip believes that teaching Indigenous perspectives at the tertiary level is a “win-win” for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike. “Such inclusion can only have positive flow-on effects with the future clients of ACU graduates.”

While it will engage and encourage Indigenous students in their education, it will also broaden the world view of non-Indigenous students; teaching them strategies to practice their chosen professions in a culturally sensitive way.

“Every graduate from ACU will work with Indigenous people at some stage. Whether they’re a teacher, a paramedic, or a nurse, they need to know how to work in a culturally appropriate manner,” he said.

He explains that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, patients or students feel they are in a culturally safe space, they will be happy to continue using that service – whether it’s a school, a health service or a business.

And that will go a long way to closing the gap.

Phillip Dreise is a lecturer at ACU. He is the Project Implementation Manager of the University’s Building Cultural Capacity project.

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Phillip Dreise

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G