News & Insights

The Cathy Freeman Foundation – closing the education gap

July 1, 2014
min read

The Cathy Freeman Foundation aims to close the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Chief Executive Officer, Sonya Stephen, explains how their programmes provide pathways to a brighter future.

Improving educational outcomes

The education gap is unapcceptably high: only 40 per cent of Indigenous children reach Year 12, compared with 76 per cent nationally. The Cathy Freeman Foundation (CFF) works on improving skills and educational outcomes and providing pathways that are critical to children’s success at school. Since its launch in 2007, CFF has developed a community-based model of educational support that reaches more than 600 Indigenous children and their families on Palm Island every year. Palm Island is located 65 km north-east of Townsville and is one of Australia’s largest discrete Indigenous communities, with up to 4,000 residents. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics it is the fourth most disadvantaged community in Australia.

As CEO of CFF, Sonya Stephen says their focus is threefold – facilitating strong improvements in literacy, attendance and behaviour.

“Since our programmes commenced, there has been an 88 per cent increase in children reaching early literacy benchmarks, and a seven times increase in the number of Year 12 enrolments ”, said Sonya.

CFF aims to help close the education gap for Indigenous children via five interrelated educational programmes including the Early Learning Childhood Programme which focusses on improving the literacy rates of children from preschool through to Year 3, and Starting Block which provides classroom resources to measure and ultimately recognise and reward improvements in literacy, attendance and behaviour. In 2013, the culmination of six years of continuous education improvement on Palm Island was acknowledged by the former Prime Minister, The Hon Julia Gillard MP. The Federal Government agreed to support organisational capacity building for growth to three new remote Indigenous communities, with the proviso that CFF sourced corporate and private support for programme delivery.

Following rigorous community consultation and partnership development, CFF now plans to bring the benefits of its proven Palm Island education programme to three additional Indigenous communities in remote Queensland and Northern Territory. This will help close the education gap for a further 800 Indigenous children in new locations, reaching a total of 1400 children each year.

Collaboration between CFF, the community and parents

CFF operates at a grassroots level within the community, helping to give Indigenous children access to quality education, sporting opportunities and healthy lifestyle choices – the ingredients for a bright future.

“Parents are engaged in all our programmes and this is paramount to ensuring the whole community gets behind the children’s education”, said Sonya. “We recognise that the most important teacher in a child’s life are his/her parents and that if a child’s parents support their learning, that child is so much more likely to do well at school.” Through partnerships with organisations such as the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, CFF delivers reading and literacy activities both at home and school. These activities are all facilitated by CFF’s locally employed Indigenous Community Liaison Officer.

During the last seven years, CFF’s local staff have slowly and critically built the trust of families, encouraging them to participate in school events, read to their children, run their own early literacy playgroups and share in their children’s learning achievements.

The CFF Scholarship Programme

In partnership with the AIEF, the CFF programme provides students with scholarships to private boarding schools. This programme is unique, because unlike other scholarships that require academic or sporting excellence, any Indigenous student from Palm Island with the desire and family support can apply to receive a scholarship, as long as they are eligible to receive ABSTUDY and the family is in financial need.

“Many Indigenous children on Palm Island don’t have the option of exploring education further afield due to a lack of financial assistance and an absence of choice. The Scholarship Programme provides them with access to a range of quality schooling options, exposing them to greater opportunities and strengthening their prospects for success later in life,” said Sonya.

Each partner school is specially selected because of a demonstrated commitment to Indigenous children and for their ability to provide ongoing, culturally appropriate support for each child.

The Bennelong Foundation supported one of the first young achievers who will graduate from Year 12 at the end of 2014: Mary* commenced as a boarder at a Townsville private school in 2010, and is now an active member of the school community. She works hard at her studies and volunteers in a range of leadership roles.

Mary’s mother, Josephine, has noticed big improvements in Mary’s dedication to learning and extracurricular activities as a result of the scholarship programme. She said: “Mary has really broadened her horizons, she's able to look outside the box and now she's got all these plans about what she wants to do!”

“When kids like her get a scholarship, they already feel they've achieved something and they’re inspired to go even further,” said Josephine.

Getting involved

CFF is always developing corporate partnerships that draw on employees’ skills, passions, expertise and motivation to create positive social change. Volunteers can participate in a range of programmes that either directly or indirectly contribute to educational outcomes for Indigenous children.

Through online fundraising portals ‘Everyday Hero’ and ‘Go Fundraise’, the possibilities are endless.  From running in the Melbourne Marathon or City2Surf, to riding a lap of the Tour de France or holding an afternoon tea or corporate breakfast, there is away for everyone to become an Ambassador for Indigenous education.

For more information, visit CFF’s website ( or follow them on Facebook for all the latest updates.

Introducing Jarred, 17 years old and about to finish Year 12

Jarred* is one of 600 students on Palm Island who are assisted by CFF every year, and is proud to share his own education success story. “My name is Jarred. I live on Palm Island which is home to me and my family, and is a remote Indigenous community with a population of 3,800. Like a lot of the boys here, I like to spend my time swimming, spear fishing and training for Rugby League.

I’m 17 years old and will finish Year 12 this year. When I was little, I didn’t think I’d finish high school and I used to just hang out during the day. CFF and my school teachers then spoke to me about goals and helped me to set my own goals – to turn up to school, to work on my reading and writing, and to improve my maths. They said if I did this, I could get a Starting Block Award (this programme awards children who reach agreed goals, such as school attendance, at an Awards ceremony at the end of the term). They also explained that when I met my goals, I could go on a trip to Sydney with CFF.

It was really good to visit Sydney because I hadn’t travelled past Townsville. That trip made me realise how if I achieve my goals, I can go places. After this trip, we set up a work placement with a construction company. The company was really happy with my effort, so they offered me an apprenticeship in carpentry. I told them I could only start when I finished school and they agreed. At the moment, I’m focused on trying my best at school and in sports too.

For us kids who turn up to school, we can participate in netball and Rugby League training and then we can compete against kids on the mainland, which helps make school fun. I’m looking forward to working and making money. One day I’d really like to build houses on Palm Island.”

*Please note, in order to honour the privacy agreements, the names have been changed in this story.