Good education and health are mutually reinforcing

Friday, 27 November 2015
Children performing at school.

It has been said that giving an extra year's education to a teenage mum adds some years to the life expectancy of their child at birth. If this is true it illustrates something about the complex relationship between health and education, and about intergenerational change where health and wellbeing are concerned. There is no more powerful determinant of lifelong wellbeing than the combined role of health and education.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs has an enquiry underway into the educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Being vitally concerned with the social determinants of health, the NRHA made a submission.

One of the greatest challenges and opportunities for public policy is to recognise how the interaction of policies from different sectors impacts on people’s lives - and to use these relationships to good effect. 

Improving educational outcomes – in attendance, curriculum quality and engagement, performance, completions and post-school transitions and success - cannot be delivered or sustained without progress in complementary areas, such as child and maternal health, community safety  and communications capability.

Governments are making commendable efforts in several areas, which promise – as the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Report 2015 suggests – to contribute to addressing structural disadvantage.  A key challenge for our political leaders and decision-makers is how to integrate and lever policy and programs so they are coherent and make sense in the lives of people they are meant to assist.  This is a very practical issue.

Education enables engagement and opportunity – and underpins the trajectory for life-long health and wellbeing.  It is crucial that the factors which contribute to the success or otherwise of schooling – beyond direct educational factors and models – are recognised in the Committee’s deliberations.  Just as social and economic factors affect health outcomes, so do health factors impact on educational engagement and attainment.

There is very strong evidence that improving education and health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are mutually reinforcing.  In short:

  • children are more likely to attend school and learn if they are healthy;
  • children who stay attached to education have better employment and life options and outcomes later in life;
  • higher education attainment is strongly and positively correlated with employment, income, health and wellbeing outcomes – with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who complete tertiary education achieving the most marked improvement, being broadly comparable with the outcomes for those of the non-Indigenous population;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (despite some improvements) are substantially less likely to remain in education than other Australians - and this is particularly so for those living in rural and remote Australia[1];
  • encouragingly, the evidence is that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are engaging in post-school education and momentum is building; and, not least,
  • a growing number and proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are choosing to study and practise in the health care professions – a crucial factor in improving the accessibility and capability of our health care system, particularly in rural and remote Australia. 

We are moving in the right direction.