Prime minister Tony Abbott has set a new goal of closing the gap for Indigenous school attendance within five years, saying a failure to properly educate children is “one of the worst forms of neglect”.
Abbott says the literacy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, especially for those in rural Australia, will not be reduced unless children go to school. He has a point. But more to the point is how this might be addressed. Issues of school attendance need a systemic analysis, not a blunt carrot and stick approach.
The way schools conceptualise behavioural issues determines the actions they take. A useful way of thinking about attendance is a “Push and Pull Framework” that explores what pushes children and young people out of school and what pulls them away toward other things.
While elements of these become intertwined, they begin as different motivations and therefore require differentiated responses. It is usually vulnerable students whose attendance is at risk - this includes Aboriginal children, but also many others - and although the specifics of intervention will be different the same framework applies.
Push factors come from what is happening, or not happening, in school that makes students not want to be there. Feelings are critical. No-one learns well when they are scared, anxious or overwhelmingly miserable.
Being bullied is now being taken seriously and the national Safe Schools Framework provides guidance on this. But the NSSF is not mandatory. In some schools bullying continues to flourish - much of it covert and not all of it by students.
Being a “low achiever” can also make coming to school scary. Multiple failures, comparison with more able peers and fear of ridicule can be threatening. Being asked a question they can’t answer or to read aloud when they struggle with literacy can have the same effect for some students.
Sometimes being confused pushes students away. This may occur where their culture is not valued, when the language used is unfamiliar, or when they do not see the curriculum as meaningful. It can take effort to try to “fit in” and sometimes this becomes too much. In a recent interview with students who had negative school experiences it became clear that feeling “comfortable” in school was important.
Students who feel a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, know people believe in them and see themselves as learners are more likely to be motivated to come to school. Positive emotions also open up neurological pathways to learning so students are able make the best of what is on offer.
If we take a punitive approach to these students it just deepens the desire to stay away. Excluding students demonstrates they are not wanted and does nothing to boost motivation or healthy relationships.
Restorative approaches are more effective, especially when the school has built a sense of community. When students have been out of school for some time a plan for re-integration, which takes account of students’ perspectives and needs, may be helpful.
Sometimes things are happening, or not happening, at home or in the community to keep school from being a priority. In my experience, family loss or violence often keeps young people at home. They want to keep an eye on things and may feel responsible for keeping members of the family safe. School becomes unimportant by comparison.
Poor attendance in young children may be the outcome of family health issues. A child can’t get to school if no-one gets them up and dressed. When children (and sometimes parents) get into trouble for being late it might be easier to not go at all. Often mental health issues are at play, and this requires community support, not blame.
Parents who had negative experiences themselves at school are unlikely to give their children positive messages about the value of education. Schools need to work constructively with families from the outset, positioning them as experts on their child and seeking ways to respectfully engage them in the school community.
What to do?
Schools need to be places where everyone feels they belong and what happens is relevant. In order to be aspirational students need confidence. This requires strengths-based language and a way for students to develop their personal and interpersonal qualities as well as academic abilities.
It means it’s okay to make mistakes. Not everyone is an A-grade student - and we don’t need them to be. Schools need to be seen by all students as helping them reach their own potential, whatever this is.
A Push/Pull Framework provides a useful way of analysing school attendance and planning what to do about it. This is not just about individual students or even Indigenous students but how schools promote strong school attendance for everyone. Relationships, feelings, culture, pedagogy, home-school interactions and valuing diverse strengths all matter.