Tuesday, 28th January, 2014
By Andrew Robertson
Getting more students to the school gate won’t solve the issues behind high truancy rates among indigenous students, according to the teachers’ union.
Six new truancy officer positions are to be created at Wilcannia Central School where the attendance rate of its predominantly aboriginal population is among the lowest in the country.
According to the federal government, the school’s average attendance rate between 2008 and 2012 was 65 per cent, well below the state average of 92 per cent.
The government is employing around 400 school attendance officers at 40 schools in NSW, SA, WA, Queensland and the Northern Territory in an attempt to get more indigenous students in remote areas back in the classroom.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said a recent COAG report showed there had been no improvement in attendance of indigenous students over the past five years, and some areas had gone backwards.
This has been the case at Wilcannia Central, where the attendance rate dropped from 68 per cent in 2010 to 62 per cent in 2012, despite the school’s efforts through its Attendance Action Plan.
In 2012 the school, which had 95 students enrolled last year, employed a head teacher for student wellbeing “to improve student attendance and engagement”.
Two Aboriginal Community Engagement Officers were also hired along with a teacher who runs a transition class for chronic non-attending students.
Mr Scullion said the $28.4 million plan would improve school attendance by “engaging local people” in each community to get kids to school.
“A child attending school 70 per cent of the time is not receiving a proper education,” said Mr Scullion in announcing the two-year strategy last month.
But Barrier Teachers’ Association president Maureen Clark said the truancy problem among aboriginal children was complex and not confined to remote communities.
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“This is also a problem here in our Broken Hill schools. Our Aboriginal Education Officers and School Liaison Officers do a wonderful job of getting the students to school, and many schools provide breakfast programs, but creating a consistent pattern of attendance is more difficult.”
Ms Clark said creating more attendance officer positions could prove to be a good thing “but the problem goes further than just getting the kids to the school gate”.
Remote communities had limited job opportunities for children after they left school, she said, so there wasn’t the incentive to work towards a career.
“School therefore doesn’t seem to be relevant to a lot of these kids. Unless the government is going to put some industries or government offices out in the Far West, this situation won’t change.”
The attitude children had towards school also often reflects that of their parents, who may have been disengaged at school and who may lack a solid education themselves, according to Ms Clark.
“Education is the key to breaking the cycle of disadvantage, strengthening social values and making people more independent.
“Unfortunately, this sort of change is not always embraced and, in fact, is sometimes feared.”
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said two student attendant supervisors and four student attendant officers would be employed locally for Wilcannia Central.
“The Department is still working with the Wilcannia community, school and providers before the school term begins and these numbers may vary slightly before school resumes,” a spokesman said.
He said the government did not have a specific target attendance rate in mind for the school.