This column was published in the NT Sun on February 5 2019 under the heading We need to fix our school attendance.


A recent NT News story (Darwin schools divided 23/1/2019) reported on the disparity of student success between schools. Jason Wells wrote that Darwin’s schools “ … are sharply divided along race and class lines, revealing a family’s relative disadvantage as the single biggest determinant of student outcomes.”

The editorial ‘School data is an outrage’ published the same day suggested “It’s no secret that our family backgrounds bond plays a role in what we’re likely to achieve in life, regardless of our innate abilities.” Both column and editorial infer that the problem of disparity between schools on the basis of NAPLAN success is somehow due to the NT Education Department not ensuring equalisation of income between schools.

The issue of parental contributions (we are not allowed to say fees) is a matter which is the responsibility of individual Government Schools. ‘Reputation’ cannot be conferred by Government or the Education Department: The reputation of individual schools builds from within those schools.

There are issues with NAPLAN that challenge students and their schools that sit outside the scope of Mr Wall’s column. However, the one issue that impacts in universal terms is that of school attendance. Unless children attend school, poor academic performance will be an issue.

Truancy is a long term problem. There have been issues surrounding school attendance in both rural and urban areas in the NT dating back to the 1970’s.

Both Territory and Federal Governments have seized upon non-attendance as an issue that needs to be corrected in our schools. Big dollars have been and are spent on attendance officers.

School attendance officers are employed to monitor attendance. It is their job to encourage reluctant students and non-supportive families toward being more positive in their attitudes about school. They work with students and visit families who find the issue of attendance problematic.

Unless children establish regular habits of school attendance, there will be substantial gaps in what they learn. Yet, when these students perform poorly in tests and assessment, the onus of responsibility is placed back on teachers, schools, the system and government.

School attendance was identified as a key issue in the 2014 Wilson Report on Indigenous Education. However, the report intimated that children attending for 60% of the school week (three days out of five) were satisfying attendance requirements. Part time attendance will not help overcome learning deficits. Quality education depends on full time school attendance.

If truancy is overcome and the attendance issue fixed, perceptions about ‘good and not so good’ schools will largely be overcome.

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