Red Dirt Thinking on Educational Disadvantage

John Guenther, Melodie Bat , Sam Osborne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


When people talk about education of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, the language used is often replete with messages of failure and deficit, of disparity and problems. This language is reflected in statistics that on the surface seem unambiguous in their demonstration of poor outcomes for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. A range of data support this view, including the National Action Plan - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) achievement data, school attendance data, Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data and other compilations such as the Productivity Commission's biennial Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report. These data, briefly summarised in this article, paint a bleak picture of the state of education in remote Australia and are at least in part responsible for a number of government initiatives (state, territory and Commonwealth) designed to 'close the gap'. For all the programs, policies and initiatives designed to address disadvantage, the results seem to suggest that the progress, as measured in the data, is too slow to make any significant difference to the apparent difference between remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools and those in the broader community. We are left with a discourse that is replete with illustrations of poor outcomes and failures and does little to acknowledge the richness, diversity and achievement of those living in remote Australia. The purpose of this article is to challenge the ideas of 'disadvantage' and 'advantage' as they are constructed in policy and consequently reported in data. It proposes alternative ways of thinking about remote educational disadvantage, based on a reading of relevant literature and the early observations of the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation's Remote Education Systems project. It is a formative work, designed to promote and frame a deeper discussion with remote education stakeholders. It asks how relative advantage might be defined if the ontologies, axiologies, epistemologies and cosmologies of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families were more fully taken into account in the education system's discourse within/of remote schooling. Based on what we have termed 'red dirt thinking' it goes on to ask if and what alternative measures of success could be applied in remote contexts where ways of knowing, being, doing, believing and valuing often differ considerably from what the educational system imposes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-110
Number of pages11
JournalAustralian Journal of Indigenous Education
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2013


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