Improving education outcomes for Indigenous students

by Andreas Schleicher 
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Indigenous peoples are the first inhabitants of their lands, but are often poorly served by the education systems in their countries. Why? Is it necessary to wait until issues such as poverty or appropriate legal recognition for Indigenous peoples are resolved? Can education systems be expected to address Indigenous students’ needs relating to language, culture and identity? Can non-Indigenous teachers be effective teachers of Indigenous students? How can Indigenous parents have confidence that their children are safe at school and receiving a high-quality education?

Indigenous students do well in some schools more than in other schools and in some education systems more than in other education systems. Pockets of excellence and promising practices rarely translate across systems or across schools within a single education system. Thus, education systems and individual schools seldom learn from each other about what it takes to improve education for Indigenous students. Learning from examples of success can enable systems and schools to do better and accelerate improvements for Indigenous students.

An OECD report, Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students, released on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August 2017), highlights examples of success by Indigenous students and how these successes have been achieved. These examples can be used to help education systems improve education outcomes for Indigenous students and to quicken the pace of doing so.

OECD analysis of progress across six Canadian provinces and territories, New Zealand and Queensland, Australia shows that success for Indigenous students in education is becoming a priority. These jurisdictions have a clear will and commitment to improve, and have put in place many initiatives to address challenges and accelerate positive change. In some cases, the improvements are clearly evident; in others, the efforts are not yet at a scale to make a difference or have not been in place for a sufficient period to affect Indigenous students’ education. Achieving progress requires the deliberate decision to do so and then a concerted effort to do enough to improve each Indigenous student’s experience in education.

Providing high-quality, early childhood education and care (ECEC) for Indigenous children sets them on an early pathway towards success. High-quality ECEC is culturally responsive to the needs of Indigenous children and their families. It encourages Indigenous children to be confident and curious, and builds social, emotional and early cognitive skills. It also means working in partnership with Indigenous parents to better meet their children’s needs. Such ECEC is best provided in Indigenous communities, where these children live, and should be both accessible to and affordable for their parents.

Another ingredient of success is establishing respectful and trusting relationships with Indigenous leaders and communities, both at the system governance level and at the individual school level. Schools that build genuine partnerships with Indigenous communities achieve much more for Indigenous students than schools that do not engage with these students’ communities and homes. The benefits of such partnerships are evident in student participation and attendance rates, and in indicators of student learning and achievement.

School principals can make all the difference – or not. In schools where Indigenous students are achieving well, there is generally a highly effective and committed school principal who has done “whatever it takes” to ensure Indigenous students attend school, are engaged in learning and are positive about their futures. These schools tend to use a “whole-of-child” approach that puts children’s overall well-being as the key priority. Effective principals also set high expectations for teachers and take responsibility for monitoring Indigenous students’ academic progress, to ensure targets are being met and that any needed interventions are put in place in a timely manner.

Teachers also need support, to build their capability and confidence in establishing relationships with and teaching students from communities with which they may not be familiar. With the right support, teachers can build both their cultural competence and effective teaching strategies, such as the use of the history and geography of the school community, so that they elicit the best out of all of their students. 

Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students
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Photo credit: Christopher David Rothecker

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