The first of two articles in the ‘NTN News’ and ‘Sunday Territorian’


A few months ago, along with many thousands of Australians, I watched the Memorial Service held for Doctor Yunupingu in Arnhem land. Many tributes and testimonials were offered, confirming his contribution to education and music.

One of the things that stood out most particularly was the way in which “older” Indigenous Australians spoke. What impressed me was evidence of the education obviously offered to them as young people. Their confidence, articulation and capacity to hold an audience through their conversational logic took me down the historical path – back to the “Mission” days of schooling and immediately after that period. Senior adults, as children, used to attend school regularly and learn a way that offered them sequenced, progressive and English based learning.

Since those days, education has become far more occasional for many Indigenous Australians. Irregular school attendance has negatively impacted on education.
A great deal of soul-searching goes on because Indigenous Education these days is failing. Certainly there are highlights now and again but all too often the downside of education is revealed. In my opinion it all comes down to one major issue – school attendance.

“Tempting” children and students to school

There are many inducements held out to encourage regular school attendance in community schools. Extended excursions, often interstate, are offered to reward long-term school atten!dance. Sport programs may be on offer. In some places there is a “no school, no pool’ policy. A significant number of communities offer meals provided to children when they attend school.
While school staff and government agencies do their level best to encourage school attendance, it is up to parents, primary caregivers and children themselves to respond. Far too many communities have school attendances in the 20, 30 and 40 percentile ranges; It is no wonder very little learning progression takes place. Neither should it be surprising that so many of the upcoming generation are functionally illiterate and not able to negotiate in the major language of our country. English is our transactional language and without it citizens are not going to succeed.

Unless there is a significant and uniform upturn in school attendance (and inducements don’t really make change happen – it has to come from the heart) nothing is going to alter except for a continuing diminution of educational outcomes. Attendance and punctuality habits must improve if so many of our younger Indigenous Australians are to go anywhere near emulating the achievements of their elders.

The problem is Territory-wide

The issue of school attendance and punctuality is not limited to remote areas. It also impacts on town and city schools.

A matter of real concern in many schools, remote and urban, is that of “lateness”. Significant numbers of children and students have an ingrained habit of being regularly late to school. A student who is 15 minutes late each day, misses out on 9.5 school days (nearly a fortnight) each year. It’s time that children can ill afford to lose! The early part of each day is key learning time.

One empathises with children who miss school because of illness and hope for their speedy recovery. There is however, a lot of absenteeism that occurs for reasons of a non-medical nature. Children miss school for a myriad of reasons – and all disrupt learning! It may be a case of birthdays, relations visiting, extending camping trips, taking extra days before and immediately after school holidays, adding to weekends– and so on.

When lateness and absence are added together, there are for many children, a significant number of school days and weeks missed each year. This takes from education and learning opportunities, playing negatively on student learning outcomes.

Skewed Holidays

In the Territory, school attendance is often affected by the timing of annual family holidays. During school holiday periods airfares are at their peak with accommodation costs considerably hyped. It’s very expensive to travel away during school holidays!

Many Territory families take their holidays during school time because to do so is considerably cheaper and more budget friendly. This is an economic decision and one easily understood – however it impacts on school attendance and student learning opportunities. Could airlines, in the interests of education, be persuaded to up costs of travel during school term time and decrease airfares and packages during the student holiday season? That would solve a myriad of school attendance issues.

System-wide challenge

Irregularity of student attendance in our schools is a sad negative, one contributing significantly to reduced student learning outcomes. Truancy, absence and sporadic attendance have a deleterious and challenging impact on far too many Territory Schools and their students. It can be fixed but that will take courage.

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