The second of two articles on this subject published by the ‘Northern Territory News’ on Saturday January 25 2014.
FIXING SCHOOL ATTENDANCE
The issue of school attendance in both remote and urban school situations is one attracting attention. Solutions are suggested, but rarely actioned.
While the issue of school attendance is one that dominates thinking for remote areas, the issue is of equal concern in urban schools. It impacts both Indigenous and non- Indigenous students.
An interesting and relevant point is that for many years, while school attendance was obligatory once children were enrolled, enrolment of children who were school-age was not mandated. In 2009 the act was changed and enrolment of school age children by parents or primary caregivers was made compulsory. However, there are still many school aged children in the Territory who have never been enrolled.
Numerous reasons for excusing school attendance by indigenous children are offered. It’s been justifiable for absence to occur over sorry business, ceremonial purposes and so on. There is also the phenomena of regular movement from place to place. This makes it hard to keep up with children and families. Computerisation of school records to track the movement of children from school to school has limited success.
Similiarly for non-indigenous children in urban schools, absence for a raft of reasons occurs during term time . A major factor is that of families taking holidays during school terms when airfares and accomodation are cheaper. Time away from school happens because of religious observances, visits by relatives and families deciding to take their own long weekends. Often children return late from holidays and leave before the end of term. Truancy and non-attendance are system issues for all schools.
I have often heard people say that school is not relevant for indigenous children. Students out in the bush might be “doing traditional things”. Who is to say they are not getting a better and more enriched education than provided by school.
From time to time people suggest that school is a mile to far because children are being instructed in the secondary language of English. This conflicts with the fact that many aboriginal people over the years have stressed the importance of schooling being conducted by English speaking teachers modelling in a way that does not dilute the English language. They don’t want speech and speaking in broken language idiom. People with whom I have worked in three communities have all expressed this need. Interestingly, none of them have been speaking from a background provided by interstate schooling. Their perceptions are based on local needs and understanding.
Lead from the front.
I believe a key problem is that principals and school leadership teams in communities are too often “reactive” when dealing with attendance issues. They know the problem but do nothing to fix it, waiting for others within the community to lead. They don’t do anything about overcoming the issue. They may be frightened that being proactive will bring retaliation. As a principal in remote schools, I got out there and dealt with attendance issues! I felt my job was to get the children to school. That needs to be the stance of school leaders everywhere.
Indigenous Australians respond to people as people rather than people occupying positions. There have been in remote and urban schools, a number of principals who have been very, very effective in engaging aboriginal children and their families within school contexts. That was because of their personal approach, their deep interest in and empathy with children and families. It is critically important to engage at a personal level with Indigenous Australians. Often that isn’t done.
Part of this has to be a willingness to sit and talk with members of remote, rural, town and urban communities. Conversation can help build mutuality and respect from which change can be launched.
It is important to deal with Indigenous Australians on a personal level, not as ‘persons apart’ and separated from their communities. It is for this reason I believe that teachers (and other government workers) who work within communities but live elsewhere face credibility and commitment challenges. “Why don’t they want to be in their communities” is thought and asked.
Urban School Characteristics
We are increasingly a multicultural society with a significant number of indigenous children enrolled in urban schools. This personal approach works in all contexts. I know about and respect the efforts of a number of current and past principals who, through engagement with their indigenous community cohorts, lifted attitude and attendance within town and city schools. The system would do well to contact and talk with these leaders who built outcomes through care.
We need to have high expectations for Indigenous students. Countenancing the development of separate programs for Aboriginal children in schools is distasteful because expectations for all students need to be set at a high level. Watered down expectations and modified programs set a low bar. Awareness of ‘double standards’ can discourage indigenous children from attending school.
More than slogans needed
Slogans and pieces of legislation being touted to solve attendance problems can be pretentious. The only thing that solves problems are solutions derived from action. Planning change without follow-up implementative practice is a waste of time. It simply perpetuates existing problems.
In the Territory we have moved in slogan terms from ‘catch the school buzz’ to ‘every child, every day’. In some local areas there are ‘no school, no pool’ programs. We have had truancy officers in the past. There were authorised school attendance officers as far back as the 1980’s. They have been employed, albeit under varying titles, on and off ever since. The Scullion initiative is a new take on a program more than thirty years old. ‘What will make it work this time’ is a burning question.
There needs to be follow up for all students on issues of school attendance regardless of whether they are Indigenous, non-indigenous, in remote, rural, town or urban schools. That has been an issue of the past, with very few programs leading to behaviour changing outcomes.
Plans need to follow through and be fully implemented. If that does not happen this ‘new’ initiative, essentially a re-run of past approaches, will be no more than a huge waste of time and money.