school attendance makes no difference

School attendance in remote indigenous schools is only very loosely related to reading outcomes. It’s an irrelevant factor.

That was according to John Guenther from Flinders university who I heard speak today. He’s the principal researcher in the Remote Education Systems Project through The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation.

He’s looked at the stats, done the maths and there’s no correlation, barely any relationship at all. Attendance does not equal educational outcomes.

This means that strategies used to increase school attendance won’t improve kids’ NAPLAN scores. It’s just ‘flogging a dead horse’, as he said. So while a community bus which gets kids to school is great, it’s not the answer.

Even worse, current punitive measures to get kids in school like the SEAM (where the government threatens to cut off families’ centrelink payments if their kids wag school) are a waste of time.

The SEAM disrupts already disadvantaged families – cutting off the family income for a teenager’s bad behaviour is hardly going to improve the teenager’s relationship with relatives. It alienates parents from schools – what parent is going to trust teachers if they’re they ones reporting them to centrelink? Not only this, but the objective (school attendance) is useless. If kids don’t want to be there, they’re not going to learn. The kid who’s been rounded up by the police and sent to school is hardly going to be receptive to learning that day.

Guenther suggested that governments start considering learning that goes on outside school, learning which is connected with what kids need to survive in their own community. If kids aren’t attending school, it doesn’t mean they’re not learning; they’re learning something different. As long as we’re equating attendance with performance we’ll ignore what kids learn outside the classroom and neglect to improve what goes on inside the classroom.

He reckons we need to re-think the whole rhetoric around remote indigenous disadvantage. We need to celebrate things that NAPLAN doesn’t test – art, music, initiative, ability to cooperate (us Westerners are obsessed with testing the individual), traditional knowledge, practical skills (he actually met the bush mechanics fixing their Toyota by the side of the road during his research, you can’t learn that stuff at school).

So what can we change so that showing up to school does make a difference? And how can we celebrate learning outside the classroom? Those are the next questions.


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