Issues In Educational Research, Vol 11, 2001   [Contents Vol 11] [IIER Home]

Education for indigenous students: Which outcomes-based document set is best?

Matthew Byrne
Education Department of Western Australia

Richard G. Berlach
Edith Cowan University


The past decade or so has seen Australian education authorities advancing the virtues of outcomes-based approaches to learning. In this study, two sets of outcomes-based materials were examined with the view of determining the most appropriate for the education of Indigenous students. The two documents were the Northern Territory Special Category Curriculum for Secondary Aged Indigenous Students (NTC) and the Western Australian Student Outcome Statements (SOS) incorporated within the Curriculum Framework (CF). The Learning Area of English was selected for investigation as it not only dealt with basic skills but also developed skills which affect competence in other learning areas. The choice of English also facilitated comparative analysis as a direct content relationship existed between the two documents under consideration.

This study was completed during a four year period (1996-1999) while the first author was employed as a full-time teacher at a Remote Community School in the north-west of Western Australia. Such an appointment afforded a unique opportunity to examine, teach and compare the two documents in question.

The research question to be investigated was as follows.

Are the NTC or the SOS approaches comparable in their provision of education for Indigenous Australians?
In attempting to answer this question, two subsidiary questions were examined.
  1. Do the theoretical assumptions underpinning each document differ in their appropriateness for Indigenous Australians?
  2. What comparisons can be made between the outcomes of the NTC and the SOS in the Learning Area of English?

The documents

Both documents under investigation are outcomes-based. The NTC was developed as part of a Commonwealth funded initiative aimed at improving access for secondary aged students to a more comprehensive range of educational programs. The NTC is comprised of three courses. These courses were designed to facilitate the development of teaching programs which reflect and respond to the needs and experiences of secondary-aged Indigenous students who do not yet have the levels of Standard Australian English (SAE) language, literacy and numeracy generally required to access mainstream secondary academic programs. The content of the courses take into account the SAE language competence of the students, their levels of literacy and numeracy, the English as a Second Language (ESL) context within which learning takes place, and the age range of the students. The major function of the courses is to assist teachers and schools in the teaching of SAE to secondary-aged Indigenous students who have a language background other than SAE. The intention of the courses is to provide students with the opportunity to continue developing their knowledge and use of spoken and written SAE, through the study of selected content stemming across the eight learning areas. The courses also explore the social and cultural contexts within which SAE is used.

The CF & SOS
In 1995 the Review of School Curriculum Development Procedures and Processes in Western Australia (cited in the Curriculum Framework document, 1998, pp. 6-7) recommended the creation of a Curriculum Council. The responsibility of the Curriculum Council was to develop a Curriculum Framework for all Western Australian Schools. The purpose of such a Framework was to describe outcomes as well as what teachers and schools needed to develop to better facilitate these outcomes. Through a collaborative and consultative process including ten thousand teachers, students, parents, academics and curriculum officers, the Curriculum Council in June 1998 submitted the inaugural Curriculum Framework to the Minister for Education. The Curriculum Framework was to be implemented through the Curriculum Improvement Program (1997-2004) in government, non-government and home schools by the year 2005.

The Curriculum Framework described in general what student outcomes from K-12 needed to be achieved for students to learn to live successful and rewarding lives in the twenty-first century. An Overarching Statement and eight Learning Area statements made up the Curriculum Framework. These statements, as outcomes, describe what students need to do, know and value as a result of attending school. The scope of the curriculum, in developmental phases and the key principles of teaching and learning, are also incorporated within the Overarching Statement and the eight Learning Area Statements.

The SOS support and link strongly to the Curriculum Framework. The SOS, incorporated within EDWA's Outcomes and Standards Framework, describe most of the outcomes students are expected to achieve in each of the eight Learning Areas, for the compulsory years of schooling.

SOS and indigenous education

According to Partington (1996) "the statistics of Aboriginal failure in the school system are dismaying" (p. 31). He highlighted the high drop-out rates, high levels of misdemeanour in schools and low levels of achievement as testifying to the less-then-desirable position of Aboriginal students as a group in Australian schools. The National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (1994, cited in Heitmeyer, Nilan and O'Brien, 1996) stated that
Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders continue to have the most limited, and in some cases no, access to education beyond primary school. They do not participate in education to the extent that other Australians participate, particularly in secondary education; in technical and further education and in higher education they participate only in particular and narrow fields of study. Aboriginal peoples and Torres Straight Islanders still do not enjoy equitable and appropriate outcomes from schooling (p.2). 'Failure' of Aboriginal students in schools generally could be due in part to inappropriate and unrealistic educational outcomes set for them. As Heitmeyer, Nilan and O'Brien (1996) observed, "there are profound differences in access to, participation in, and outcomes of, education for Indigenous people living in urban and rural locations" (p.15).
This less-then-desirable position of Aboriginal students within the educational system raises the question of which OBE curriculum is most appropriate for Indigenous people. In light of the above findings and the current national push for OBE and the development of the SOS in Western Australia, the appropriateness of two major outcomes-based programmes was considered worthy of investigation. It was felt that educational systems needed to ensure that the outcomes Aboriginal students were expected to meet were culturally appropriate and take into consideration their non SAE backgrounds.

Document investigation procedure

The SOS and the outcomes from the NTC were organised in a fashion which allowed valid comparisons to occur. As the outcomes of the NTC and SOS existed as two separate documents, they were scanned into a computer and formatted. Data Tables for the purpose of comparison were thus created. These allowed for effective comparison to be undertaken.

Summative statements for the English Learning Area were generated using five criteria presented in tabular form (Table 1). The Summative Statements provided an initial descriptive statement of how each individual criterion related to the outcomes of the NTC and SOS respectively. The Summative Statements were the first step in the process of refining a comparison between the outcomes of the NTC and SOS. Significant literature pertaining to OBE (e.g.. Brady, 1997; Spady, 1993; Willis, 1998; Willis and Kissane, 1997) was consulted in order to facilitate comparison. The following criteria were selected as the five which were most consistently cited in the literature as being significant.

Table 1: Summative statements for the English Learning Area

1Structure The way in which the outcomes are organised and arranged into their constituent parts.
2Achieveability The way in which the outcomes can be accomplished.
3Content The level of detail in which the outcomes were written.
4Language The extent to which the outcomes are readable, comprehendible and the clarity with which they are constructed.
5Implicit values The implied values attached to and inherent in the stated outcomes in question.

Using the Summative Statements as a base measure, the criteria were applied to the Learning Area of English in order to facilitate a 'within' Learning Area comparison. That is to say, a comparison was made of compatibility between the two sets of outcomes for the criteria of Structure, then Achieveability, and so on. Thus, five 'within' Learning Area comparisons were made for English.


Do the theoretical assumptions underpinning each document differ in their appropriateness for Indigenous Australians?
The major reason for the lack of compatibility between the outcomes of the NTC and SOS is due to the context in which each was written. This provides the key to unlocking the theoretical underpinnings and assumptions of each document set.

EDWA insists that there are certain outcomes that all students should reach as a result of attending government schools, due to its development and subsequent mandating of the SOS. Currently, the entire educational process (support materials, organisation, processes and professional development) related to EDWA is geared around enabling students to reach those specified outcomes reflected in the SOS documents (EDWA: Curriculum Directions, 1997).

The NTC courses were written as special category documentation addressing specifically identified learning needs of secondary-aged Indigenous students from backgrounds other than English. These students, who for a variety of reasons had not attained academic Language proficiency (Cummins, 1991), needed to undertake successful study at the secondary level. A set of outcomes informed by ESL and English as a Second Dialect (ESD) research and methodology acted as the assumed answer to an identified need.

The NTC is outcome based in the sense that the system has acknowledged what the students should learn, however, whilst the educational process is geared to meeting the outcomes of the NTC in the specific identified locations of need, it does not apply to all students within the Northern Territory. The NTC does not assume that all students should be assessed by the same outcomes, given that the context at each local level is different and undergoing constant change. This allows the freedom to be less prescriptive with regard to Special Category students.

Both the NTC outcomes and the SOS are part of a traditional outcome-based educational philosophy, and both have been mandated by the relevant Territory/State body. The NTC is at the more conservative end of the spectrum and as such not as far advanced at a system wide level compared with the SOS. The NTC has also been written with a specific audience in mind whereas the SOS have much broader applicability.

What comparisons can be made between the outcomes of the NTC and the SOS in the Learning Area of English?


On a structural level both sets of outcomes endeavour to cover the English knowledge skills and understanding of students across the areas of Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing and Viewing. A focus on the understanding and sharing of values is documented in both sets of outcomes. A similar number of outcomes in the English Learning Area are evident in the NTC outcomes and the SOS. Both have curriculum support documentation in the form of programs of work for the NTC and 'Getting Started' materials for the SOS.

The English SOS, however, are a set of generic, levelled statements from 1-8 divided into four Substrands of Speaking and Listening, Viewing, Reading and Writing. The NTC outcomes exist as a non-levelled list embedded with twenty units of work with 84% of them focussed on equipping students with the explicit skills and knowledge of being able to use and comprehend SAE. The structural differences evident between the NTC and SOS make direct links between individual outcomes logistically and semantically implausible.


Achieveability rates are vastly different between the two sets of outcomes. The NTC outcomes constitute a short to mid-term achievement rate, with the SOS being more long-term determinates of achievement. It is possible for the students of the NTC to attain all specified outcomes in approximately four years while the SOS take 12 years or longer. The NTC outcomes span from years 8-12. The SOS span from K-12 with the possibility of a student being placed in one of the eight levels for up to two years (Willis, 1998).

The method of assessing achievement is not compatible. The NTC has clear procedures for measuring the extent to which students have attained the outcomes of the course and for ensuring system-wide comparability. No uniform or prescriptive method exists for assigning SOS given that schools are currently in the implementation phase of the Curriculum Framework until 2005. However, schools have available to them the 'Pointers' contained within the SOS documents and the 'Work Sample' documents that can be used in networking, at the school and district level, in an attempt to maintain system-wide comparability (Education Department of Western Australia, 1997).

The manner in which achievement is recognized is not compatible. Students receive three sets of awards and recognition when they achieve outcomes in the NTC on a monthly and semester basis, and at the completion of a course (18 months - 2 years). No uniform or prescriptive method exists for reporting on SOS. The methods used for recognizing achievement in the SOS is a school-based decision and may occur at varying intervals throughout the school year and may differ from school-to-school.

Content (level of detail)

The definition of an outcome was similar between the NTC and SOS and the domains of learning covered by the outcomes were essentially the same. Existing State curricula and the National Profiles have informed both sets of outcomes. However, even though the same areas of English Language content appear to be covered, these are undertaken at a different level of detail.

The NTC outcomes comprise a simpler and more explicit level of detail to that of the SOS. The NTC outcomes take into consideration the language competence, levels of literacy and numeracy, ESL and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) context within which learning takes place, as well as the age range of the students (12-18 years), thereby making the content notably specialised. Conversely the SOS are a set of generic, highly detailed learning outcomes, applicable to all students in government schools covering the breadth of student abilities from K-12.

Consideration of the ESL and EFL contexts in which learning takes place allows the outcomes of the NTC to commence with a greater emphasis on spoken language, which gradually shifts to an emphasis on written language. Such an approach augurs with pedagogical approaches advocated by second language acquisition theorists (Cummins, 1991). The SOS are evenly distributed across 8 Strand and Sub-Strand levels thus giving equal emphasis to spoken and written English.


The concise, explicit, and largely objective language of the NTC outcomes makes them more readable and comprehendible than their Western Australian counterpart. Generally speaking, one skill and/or idea is covered in each of the individual NTC outcomes reflecting the ESL considerations stated above. Conversely, the SOS are stated using mostly compound sentences which address more than one idea and/or skill at a time making them more complex. The descriptive language used by the SOS has been identified by Willis (1998) as professional language. Thus the complex and generic nature of the SOS makes their initial reading and subsequent comprehension difficult.

Implicit values

In the realm of Implicit Values there was little compatibility evident between the outcomes of the NTC and SOS as reflected in the summative statements and 'within' Learning Area comparison. This is due in part to the different purposes which the outcomes endeavour to meet. The SOS describe what all students in Western Australian Government Schools should know, understand, value and practise in English from years K-12. In an attempt to cater for all students across the State, the SOS are generic, contain large linear jumps of expected learning progress and are targeted at the 'norm' of the student population.

By contrast, the NTC outcomes have been written for secondary aged Indigenous students in remote communities who for a variety of reasons, have not attained academic Language proficiency (Cummins, 1991) needed to undertake successful study at the secondary level. Thus the Outcomes of the NTC have been informed by ESL and English as a Second Dialect (ESD) strategies which is more likely to facilitate the development of specific and essential English language knowledge and usage within the outcomes.


Are the NTC or the SOS approaches equally effective in their provision of education for Indigenous Australians?
This study has found that, in the learning area of English, there are significant incompatibilities between the NTC and the SOS across five criteria. It can be strongly suggested that, in an area which is foundational to success in other learning areas, Indigenous students are better served by the outcomes of the NTC than those articulated in the SOS. Further, it appears that the major deficit in the SOS, when compared with its Northern Territory counterpart, is the minimal attention which is given to issues relating to ESL and ESD.

The English SOS endeavour to provide students with "the communication skills and critical understanding of language necessary for active participation in society" (English SOS, p. 3). According to Leinhardt (1992) learning is related to the culture or community in which it exists. Partington and McCudden (1992) stated that Australia's population is made up of a diversity of peoples" (p. 274). Given the diverse nature of Australian society, it may seem audacious to expect that the SOS would be appropriate for Indigenous students whose background is vastly different to that of SAE speakers.

The April volume of Curriculum Directions Newsletter (Education Department of Western Australia, 1997) cited 10 tests that can be made to an outcome to determine its achieveability. Test 7 states:

Outcomes should be 'inclusive'. This means that the criteria by which students are judged are transparent and fair. To be fair, an outcome should not be framed so that some students are less well positioned than others, for inappropriate reasons such as social class or ethnicity, to achieve them (p.6).
Despite such rhetoric, the SOS have been framed with an inherent SAE language bias that is required by students for successful attainment of the outcomes. Aboriginal students in remote Western Australian communities do not possess this competence given their geographic isolation and subsequent ESL and ESD backgrounds. Even the Western Australian Education Department recognised this in issuing the following statement in the English SOS:
For students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who are in the early stages of learning English as a second language, the ESL Bandscales or the ESL Scales provide descriptions of achievement of language proficiency. English SOS can then be used when appropriate (p.3).
The statement above detailing the use of the ESL Scales or ESL Band Scales for those students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds acknowledges the specialised needs of a cohort of the Western Australian student population. To assess students using SOS without them having first attained academic English language proficiency needed for success in mainstream schooling, could easily be categorised as inappropriate, unjust and discriminatory. Foundation Outcome Statements (Education Department of Western Australia, SOS Overview, 1998) have been established for "students with intellectual difficulties" (p. 4). There seems to be little rationale in SOS documentation as to why intellectual difficulties have been catered for but not language difficulties.

Australia's Language: The Australian Language and Literacy Policy (1991) stated that students "learning through English as a second (or Foreign) language are said to take, on average, between five and seven years before they can operate on the same academic level as their English-speaking-background peers" (p.51). Given such a scenario, for those students learning ESL, the SOS appear to be inappropriate for a large chunk of their primary school years.


A number of recommendations are made, based on conclusions. First, students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds ought to have the opportunity to participate in the Special Category Curriculum as this allows for the bridging of their English Language competence to a level that may permit them to more successfully attain the SOS. Second, until such time as the above occurs on an individual basis, those students should not have to attain the SOS. Third, the NTC be retained in WA remote schools. Fourth, an investigation be conducted to determine the relevance and appropriateness of the 'pointers' contained within the SOS and the 'Work Sample' documents for Indigenous students. Finally, further investigation be pursued to determine the extent to which these findings for the Learning Area of English hold true for the other seven SOS Learning Areas.


Australia's Language: The Australian language and literacy policy. (1991). Canberra, Australia.

Brady, L. (1997). Incorporating curriculum outcomes into teaching practice: Learning from literature. Curriculum Perspectives, 16(3), 25-33.

Cummins, J. (1991). Conversational and academic language proficiency in bilingual contexts. AILA-Review, 8.

Curriculum Council (1998). Curriculum framework. Western Australia: Author.

Curriculum Council (1998). Guidelines for sectors, systems, schools. Western Australia: Author.

Curriculum Council (1998). Strategic plan through to 2004 initiatives 1998-1999. Western Australia: Author.

Education Department of Western Australia (1997). Curriculum directions. Curriculum Directions Newsletter, 2, 1-8.

Education Department of Western Australia (1997). Student outcome statements 1997 sample book. Western Australia: Author.

Education Department of Western Australia (1998). Overview, Student Outcome Statements. Western Australia: Author.

Education Department of Western Australia (1998). English Student Outcome Statements. Western Australia: Author.

Heitmeyer, D., Nilan, P., & O'Brien, A. (1996). The feasibility of radical change in Aboriginal education curricula and pedagogy. Curriculum Perspectives, 16(1), 13-24.

Leinhardt, G. (1992). What research on learning tells us about teaching. Educational Leadership, 49(7), 20-25.

Northern Territory Board of Studies (1995). Foundation studies English module. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Education.

Northern Territory Board of Studies (1995). General studies English module. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Education.

Northern Territory Board of Studies (1997). Handbook for foundation studies and general studies. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Education.

Northern Territory Department of Education (1996). Special category bridging courses, intensive English course, foundation studies course, general studies course: A background paper. Northern Territory: Northern Territory Education Department.

Partington, G. (1996). The potential of Aboriginal studies to combat racism. Curriculum Perspectives, 16(1), 31-42.

Partington, G., & McCudden, V. (1992). Ethnicity and Education. Wentworth Falls, NSW: Social Science Press.

Spady, W. (1993). Outcome-based education. Australian Curriculum Studies Association Workshop Report 5.

Willis, S. (1998). Outcome-based education: What does it mean for practice? Western Australia: Murdoch University, School of Education.

Willis, S., & Kissane, B. (1997). Systemic approaches to articulating and monitoring expected student outcomes. Education Department of Western Australia.

Authors: Matthew Byrne commenced his teaching carrer at Nullagine RCS where he remained between 1996-1999. He is currently teaching at West Leederville Primary School. This article is a condensed version of part of his recently completed BEd Honours thesis.

Dr Richard Berlach is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Edith Cowan University. He supervised the writing of the thesis upon which this paper is based. Email:

Please cite as: Byrne, M. and Berlach, R. G. (2001). Education for indigenous students: Which outcomes-based document set is best? Issues In Educational Research, 11(2), 1-11.

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