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Closing the gap – government plans for more teachers to work in remote Indigenous communities

Educational opportunities: In central Australia, Hermannsburg indigenous engagement officer Edward Rontji with Ntaria school kids.

PRIME Minister Scott Morrison has called teaching “a calling” as he unveiled a Closing the Gap plan to encourage more teachers to work at remote Indigenous community schools.

Under the plan, teacher graduates would have their university HECS debts wiped if they spend four years teaching in remote area Indigenous schools.

“If you’re a teacher in a very remote area, what you are doing is more than a job – it’s a calling,” Mr Morrison said.

“It’s an act and expression of love for your fellow Australians.

“And we should never take advantage of that great act of love.”

More than 3000 teachers and nearly 300 schools are expected to benefit.

“We want to get the very best teachers to go there,” Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion told ABC Radio.

“That we know is a policy that is going to work.”

Mr Morrison delivered his first Closing the Gap statement on February 14, telling Parliament that years of limited progress to close the gap was “unforgivable”.

“I want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to have the same opportunity as any other child in this country,” he said.

“But, it’s not true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children growing up in Australia today, and it’s never been true and I don’t know when it will be true.”

The gap has not been closed for life expectancy, child mortality rates, employment, or reading and numeracy. 

However, the report showed the early-education target was on track, along with the Year 12 attainment goal.

“The biggest improvement has been in Year 12 attainment, where there has been a jump of 18 percentage points since 2006,” Mr Morrison said. 

Stronger Smarter Institute senior research fellow Liz Kupsch said properly preparing teachers to go to into remote Indigenous schools would be crucial part of the new plan.

“There needs to be cultural awareness – who are the people and what do they understand about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia,” Ms Kupsch, a Waanyi-Ganagalidda and Wankamadla woman from the Gulf Country said.

“Because we know that the education system I grew up in (and I am in my 50s) definitely it wasn’t talked about in school. 

 “We know the teachers we are getting, some of them may never have even spoken to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, so it’s about what happens before or while they are in their university degrees; what subjects should be mandatory, not an elective, in their courses; what connections are they having with real Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before they go up to those communities.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he welcomed the Government’s plan to refresh the approach to the Closing the Gap targets.

Mr Shorten said if the Labor Party was elected to government, a priority would be a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition. 

“To those who dismiss constitutional recognition as symbolism or identity politics, perhaps unwittingly that final phrase is the closest to the truth, because enshrining a voice in the constitution is most certainly about identity,” he said.

“It’s about our national identity.”

National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Rod Little said there was “growing support for constitutional recognition”.

“I think it is one of those things that definitely has to happen to this nation so we can truly say we are all Australians,” he said.

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