For a long time, educators have bemoaned the ‘poor’ outcomes of education for remote First Nations students.

Setting aside what ‘poor’ means, there is a lot of research that helps us understand how outcomes can be improved.

First though, we need to reconsider what success looks like for remote students.

The research suggests that Year 12 completion is not the high priority that it might be in metropolitan areas.

While the hope that education will lead to jobs is strong, it is not as high on the list of priorities as being strong in language and culture, and being connected to country with an identity firmly rooted in the context from which students come.

These are non-negotiables.

The hope is that students will confidently walk in two worlds.

What is also clear from the research is that it is not teachers who inspire students, it is family and community role models who encourage students to be who they can become.

All of these key findings raise important questions for boarding providers (schools or dedicated residences).

How can a boarding school ensure that the non-negotiables of cultural strength and identity remain a priority for the student?

How can schools inspire, if it isn’t without the support of local First Nations people, supporting and inspiring young people?

And if completing six years of secondary education is not that important, how can schools have a significant and positive impact to ensure students and parents have their hopes realised?

The answers to the questions are complex and require careful consideration.

Firstly, schools must ensure the psychological and cultural wellbeing of students is at the core of their priorities.

Secondly, schools must find meaningful ways to engage with parents, and should also ensure that First Nations people are appropriately represented in the governance structures of schools.

Thirdly, academic and boarding staff may require specialised professional learning to ensure they are not only mindful of the needs of students, but that they teach and care for young people in culturally responsive ways which limit the possibility of racist thinking and practices.

Fourthly, schools need to ensure that adequate resources are in place to provide these fundamental basics.

None of this is easy.

However, the research tells us that the risks of ‘doing’ education badly can be catastrophic for students and may well have detrimental impacts on their communities.

Too many students fail to realise the hope of walking in two worlds and end up not being able to walk in one.

This is why research is so important. It points us to lessons that will help us all avoid the mistakes of the past and improve the chances of success for young First Nations people.

Written by Dr John Guenther, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.


John Guenther is the Research Leader Education and Training, with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin, Northern Territory. Over the last 15 years, John has conducted research and evaluation projects which have focused on remote contexts, covering all states and territories of Australia. While his work has focused mainly on learning, the intersections between training and education with health, wellbeing, traditional knowledge systems, economic, natural resource management, mining and a range of social issues, feature in his work.