Connection to culture supports Aboriginal students

Greg Miskelly showcases a new study that reveals the importance culture plays in helping Aboriginal students complete their HSC.

26 October 2021
A young woman stands with her arms extended out behind and in front.
Image: More motivated: Year 12 student Penelope Fisher

NSW school programs that support the culture of Aboriginal students also increase the likelihood they will attain their HSC.

That is the finding of a comprehensive study by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation that examined survey data and HSC results from almost 40,000 secondary students - including 3686 Aboriginal students.

It discovered that Aboriginal students in Years 7 to 9 who “feel good about their culture” while at school were much more likely to aspire to complete their HSC.

Warren Welham is the principal of Northlakes High School, on the NSW Central Coast, where around two in 10 of students identify as Aboriginal.

Mr Welham said his school had celebrated and recognised Aboriginal culture over many years, in many different ways.

“Aboriginal culture is integral to our school identity and it’s how we engage our Aboriginal students. We not only have dedicated didgeridoo, dance and art groups, but we also involve Aboriginal elders and community members in sharing their local knowledge and culture, and developing the students as future leaders,” he said.

Year 12 student Penelope Fisher said her education had been transformed by feeling valued and connected.

"‘I am part of the dance group here at Northlakes. I love coming to school and learning about my culture, and it’s helped me feel supported and more motivated to focus on studying for my HSC exams next year,” Ms Fisher said.

Auntie Jo Spain is a local elder and Aboriginal Education Officer who supports student learning and cultural activities at the school.

In an interview with the ABC’s Conor Duffy she said her students feel encouraged to succeed.

“They seem to know where they're heading now. They’ve got their journey, they know what path they want to take after school and that's what it's all about — so they can get the good jobs,” Ms Spain said.

Education and Early Childhood Learning Minister Sarah Mitchell said the findings showed that connection to culture, language and heritage was a key driver behind Aboriginal students’ successful HSC attainment.

“We are seeing that when Aboriginal students are supported to maintain a strong connection to culture during their schooling years, the more likely they are to complete Year 12,” she said.

“It’s important for all schools everywhere to recognise and celebrate the culture, history and customs of all students and communities in order to foster classroom environments where students feel supported to achieve great things.”

The report, also studied more than 8,000 primary school students to explore different approaches that successfully supported Aboriginal students.

It suggests that other long-term drivers behind a successful HSC attainment – such as a positive attitude to homework, and students’ effort and motivation – were nurtured at primary school age.

These drivers were very similar for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students – and where higher expectations were set by teachers or families, the result was a higher engagement at school.

But the statistics suggest for older Aboriginal students, cultural recognition at school can be a unique catalyst for educational success.

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