Closing the Gap: Historic national agreement

The National Cabinet, the Australian Local Government Association and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (Coalition of Peaks, pictured above) have signed the historic National Agreement on Closing the Gap, taking the country in a new direction to improve life outcomes among First Nations People, writes journalist Jessica Willis.

The new National Agreement is a pledge from all governments to fundamentally change the way they work with First Nations communities and organisations through four Priority Reforms that were overwhelmingly supported during the community engagements led by the Coalition of Peaks late last year.

Muriel Bamblett, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman and Chairperson of SNAICC – the peak body representing First Nations children and family services nationally – said having First Nations voices represented in the development and implementation of the agreement shows where we are as a nation on the road to reconciliation.

“To have [First Nations] people represented for the first time from every state and territory and in sectors where we have been really challenged in the past to have a seat at the table with ministers and decision makers is great,” Bamblett said.

“Throughout the journey we have really had the governments listen to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; what the important issues and targets are; and what reform principles need to be worked into any agreement.

“This agreement was signed off by all levels of government including local governments which are essential as they also have an obligation to local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“So we were really pleased that we got 16 targets and we got agreement to the four Priority Reforms, which I believe are key to the targets.”

Four Priority Reforms key to directing change

  1. Developing and strengthening structures so that First Nations people share in decision making with governments on Closing the Gap.
  2. Building formal First Nations community-controlled service sectors to deliver Closing the Gap services.
  3. Ensuring mainstream government agencies and institutions that deliver services and programs to First Nations people undertake systemic and structural transformation to contribute to Closing the Gap.
  4. Ensuring First Nations people have access to, and the capability to use, locally relevant data and information to monitor the implementation of the Priority Reforms, the Closing the Gap targets and drive their own development.

These Priority Reforms commit governments to new partnerships with First Nations communities across the country; strengthen community-controlled organisations to deliver Closing the Gap services; address structural racism within government agencies and organisations; and improve information sharing with First Nations organisations to support shared decision-making.

The National Agreement includes new ‘partnership actions’ – joint actions that all governments will take to give effect to each of the Priority Reforms – and ‘jurisdictional actions’ – additional actions to be undertaken within each jurisdiction taking into account state and territory circumstances.

All four Priority Reforms will have a target to measure government action in these areas which will be reported on annually.

New mechanisms are embedded in the National Agreement to ensure continued political ownership and accountability; that progress is publicly monitored; and that Closing the Gap remains a national priority.

This includes formal opportunities for First Nations people to have an ongoing and direct say on how the policy is working.

‘New’ targets to Close the Gap

The National Agreement also establishes 16 national socio-economic targets in areas including education, employment, health and wellbeing, justice, safety, housing, land and waters, and First Nations languages.

The targets bring focus to new areas important to the lives of First Nations people and will help to monitor progress in improving their life outcomes.

Bamblett said some of the new targets are ambitious but that some states and territories are already close to achieving them.

“In regard to the education sector, targets three, four, five, seven and sixteen are important,” Bamblett said.

These are:

  • Target 3: By 2025, increase the proportion of Aboriginaland Torres Strait Islander children enrolled in Year BeforeFull Time Schooling early childhood education to 95%.
  • Target 4: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children assessed as developmentally on track in all five domains of the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) to 55%.
  • Target 5: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginaland Torres Strait Islander people (age 20-24) attaining year12 or equivalent qualification to 96%.
  • Target 7: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15–24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67%.
  • Target 16: By 2031, there is a sustained increase in numberand strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken.

Bamblett particularly noted the last target was an often-overlooked factor that benefits students of all backgrounds when implemented.

“The value of learning and embedding First Nations language into the classroom is often over overlooked; however, where it does occur, we see the improvement in engagement, academic performance and in NAPLAN scores,” Bamblett said.

“When children who are proud of who they are, when they see and experience their culture in the classroom - their engagement in learning improves because it includes them,” she said. What is needed now, she said, is consistency in committing to change across Australia as well as appropriate funding.

Education targets on track but long way to go

As reported in the last edition of IE, of the previous targets only two were deemed to be ‘on track’ at the beginning of 2020 and both related directly to the education sector.

Bamblett said the hard work done in the education sector was the result of both top down and grass roots efforts but there was still work to do in terms of ensuring all schools are safe learning spaces for First Nations students.

“In some areas it is driven by really strong Aboriginal leadership, really strong policy, advocacy and engagement with community and schools.

“If we could get a consistent approach that would be good; however, I think when we do develop a plan for one place, we can’t assume it will work everywhere.

“It’s about looking at and understanding the uniqueness of the [local First Nations] community and their relationship with education.

“What does education mean to them? How do we apply it? And particularly, you go to some of those rural communities – what does education look like there? What models work there?

“We’ve seen so many amazing schools embracing culture but there are still many schools not doing it.”

Bamblett said these schools needed to start challenging racism, stereotypes and unconscious bias.

Changes cannot be tokenistic

A major challenge for the Australian education system when it comes to embedding First Nations culture, is to do so in a meaningful way rather than a tokenistic one.

Bamblett said that to close the gap in education, it takes more than “hiring an Aboriginal person to work in the school” when the policies and practices in place do not align with reconciliation.

She explained that schools need to build strong relationships with First Nations parents, community groups and elders.

“Have them working with and for the school community, celebrate significant days and acknowledge racism embedded in the curriculum, when it’s shown in the classroom and challenge it,” Bamblett said.

“A lot of people don’t think that children experience racism but it happens and it needs to be addressed.

“Now we have the internet there’s no excuse not to be informed and educate yourself.

“The internet gives so much valuable information and resources for all ages.

“Teachers need to be open and it really comes down to the values and attitudes of the individual teacher.

“This doesn’t mean be radical – it means being accepting of students for who they are and making the classroom safe for Aboriginal children and all children.”

To read the full National Agreement on Closing the Gap, please visit
A note on language: The IEU uses the term First Nations people at the request of our Yubbah Action Group; however, we do not change how First Nations people refer to themselves in respecting their right to self-determine.

First Language Instruction in schools
A new campaign launched by the IEUA-QNT Yubbah Action Group seeks to ensure First Language Instruction in schools and early childhood education classrooms, as a means of actively promoting reconciliation and working towards Target 16 of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

Nintiringanyi, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language Teaching Employment Strategy developed by First Languages Australia, has been a crucial body of research in helping to inform our union’s discussion and position on First Language Instruction.

Although most jurisdictions recognised the need for trained First Language teachers, very few have committed the funding and resources required for First Language Instruction programs.

The 2017 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) indicated 215,453 students in Australian schools identified as First Nations.

The research also noted the number of First Nations students attending non-government schools is rising.

Results from Australia’s 2016 Census show one in ten First Nations People reported speaking an Australian Indigenous Language at home.

Despite these numbers, First Nations Instruction in Australian education remains the exception, rather than the norm.
One of the major barriers identified in implementing First Language Instruction programs is the shortage of teachers and support staff who can provide instruction in First Languages.

Our union supports the right of individual students to access the curriculum in their first language and as part of this campaign will continue to explore options to address this issue as well as exploring case studies where First Language Instruction programs have been successfully implemented.