Date of Submission



The research problem underlying this study concerns the potential of a mainstream secondary school to offer an inclusive and equitable experience of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) students. The research explores how Indigenous students experience education at St Mary’s Catholic College, Cairns.

Three specific research questions frame the organisation of this study:

  1. How do Indigenous students experience teaching and learning at St Mary’s?
  2. How do Indigenous parents experience the education of their children at St Mary’s?
  3. How do Indigenous students and their parents experience the implementation of inclusivity policies at St Mary’s?

This study adopts an interpretivist paradigm that is underpinned by constructionist epistemology. Data are analysed from the theoretical standpoint of symbolic interactionism. A case study methodology organises the choice of data-gathering strategies. These are document analysis, focus group interviews and in-depth, individual interviews. This study’s participants are purposively selected from four stakeholder groups: Indigenous students, Indigenous parents, Indigenous support staff and non-Indigenous teachers. In total, 54 stakeholders were participants.

The research generates seven conclusions that add to new knowledge, practice and policy concerning how Indigenous students experience education at St Mary’s.

First, St Mary’s Indigenous students consider their identification as Indigenous to be irrelevant to their engagement in the learning process or to their achievement of learning outcomes. Further, they argue that a serious focus on school academic work is not inconsistent with honouring Indigenous culture and values.

Second, St Mary’s Indigenous students consider teachers’ non-Indigenous backgrounds to be no disadvantage to their learning. Instead, Indigenous students value the presence of differing cultural identities in the classroom for what they contribute to the learning experience. Similarly, Indigenous parents consider a paucity in the number of Indigenous teachers at St Mary’s will not negatively influence their children’s academic outcomes. Instead, they believe interactions with non-Indigenous teachers to be beneficial learning experiences for their children.

Third, Indigenous parents believe that their decision to enrol their children at St Mary’s is a way of ensuring their positive futures. This decision may incur criticism that is supposedly justified by cultural identification values, from extended family members. St Mary’s Indigenous parents consider the defining and dividing of closely related people in order to maintain boundaries of inclusion and exclusion to be harmful for and divisive of Indigenous people.

Fourth, Indigenous families consider St Mary’s to be an authentic, supportive and engaging place for all school community members. Parents noted that the school’s respect of Indigenous peoples and cultures reflected a fundamental characteristic of Catholic education. They value the policies and practices of inclusive education that honour their cultural identities and enable them to experience belonging to an authentic community.

Fifth, Indigenous students consider it more educationally advantageous that teachers identify and address their individual learning needs rather than employ specific pedagogies considered to be preferred by Indigenous students in general. They are appreciative of reflective educators who adopt a variety of pedagogies in order to communicate authentically with all students.

Sixth, ongoing professional development that challenges teachers to become knowledgeable about the different ways of learning that are equally legitimate and appropriate in diverse teaching contexts is needed at St Mary’s. This professional development would encourage teachers to employ a wide range of pedagogies that ensures quality relationships and communication with Indigenous students.

Seventh, St Mary’s Indigenous support staff form an essential relationship between Indigenous students and their families, non-Indigenous teachers and the College leadership. This relationship allows for a better understanding of cultural differences that encourages positive learning outcomes for all students. Non-Indigenous teachers’ valuing of Indigenous aides and elders as co-educators in the classroom is essential for the successful implementation of inclusive education policies.

Document Type


Access Rights

Open Access


262 pages

Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Faculty of Education and Arts

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Research Location