How can remote schools boost student attendance?

How can remote schools boost student attendance?

Recent research reveals that school attendance in our First Nations communities is declining despite the continuation of the remote schools’ attendance strategy.

This year's NAIDOC theme, For Our Elders, emphasises the importance of students harnessing First Nations culture and generational perspectives to strengthen learning and education in remote locations. 

MCERA recently reached out to First Nations education experts to invite solutions towards a responsive education system that strengthens First Nations culture and student engagement in remote Australia.

Associate Professor John Guenther is currently an adjunct Associate Professor with Flinders University and is the Research Leader for Education and Training, employed by Batchelor Institute, based in Darwin. He works collaboratively with researchers around Australia and is recognised for his work on 'red dirt thinking' as an alternative to deficit understandings of First Nations education in remote communities.

"There are a few simple strategies that schools and educational systems can do to improve the learning experiences of remote First Nations students,” Associate Professor Guenther told MCERA.

"Firstly, schools need to be adequately resourced to enable rich teaching and learning opportunities. Funding models based on attendance (as is the case in the NT) have undoubtedly led to reduced educational outcomes and opportunities.”

Secondly, says Associate Professor Guenther, attendance should not be treated as an outcome.

“Years of funding the remote school attendance strategy have failed to achieve improved attendance and failed to engage students in learning. Resources currently directed at school attendance would be better directed to local First Nations workforce development,” he said.

“Thirdly, learning that engages student on Country, builds local language skills, draws from elders’ knowledge, and connects with culture can only be beneficial. If we get these three things right, we can be confident of better learning engagement, improved experiences and more meaningful educational outcomes.”

Stronger support programs needed

According to Associate Professor Kevin Lowe from UNSW, there needs to be stronger support programs for beginner teachers in small towns.

Associate Professor Lowe, a Gubbi Gubbi man from southeast Queensland, is a Scientia Indigenous Fellow at UNSW who is working on a community and school focused research project on developing a model of sustainable improvement in Aboriginal education.

“We need strategies during initial teacher education to ensure students are provided with opportunities to have placements in regional and remote schools,” Associate Professor Lowe said.

“We need really strong support programs for beginner teachers in small towns - in particular, making sure they are introduced to community members and make connections, rather than feeling isolated. They need a strong, wrap-around, mentoring program.”

Associate Professor Lowe also highlighted the importance of providing appropriate pedagogical training that supports them to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

“They need to understand how students are living and their parents' aspirations for them. They need to build those relationships first, because people come and go so often in regional and remote communities that often students do not get the opportunity to build up trust with teachers.”

What does voice look like in remote classrooms?

Sam Osborne has worked in Aboriginal Education since 1995, including as a Principal at Ernabella Anangu School in the remote northwest of South Australia and a Senior Research Fellow within the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP). He is currently the Associate Director, Regional Engagement (APY Lands) coordinating UniSA's APY Hub and Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Language and Culture programs.

"The expertise and vital connections local/remote educators bring to schools must be valued and centred in the framing of schooling in these schools,” Osborne said.

“In a policy era of Voice, we must be asking the question, ‘What does voice look like in remote school classrooms, curriculum, pedagogies and decision-making bodies?’”

Osborne said “forward-thinking, long-term planning and investment” is necessary “to address the fact that first language educators are not adequately supported through accredited workforce development opportunities.”

“There are pockets of these types of initiatives across remote Australia, but, as a collective, there has been 30 years or more of gradual retreat. That needs to be reversed,” he said.

“Success in remote schools continues to be measured against the narrow strands of attendance, basic skills in English Language and Maths, and year 12 completion. We need a shift towards structuring schools to meet the aspirations and success goals that families, communities and young people determine.”

Osborne noted that is well known that local employment in remote schools strengthens both attendance and performance and builds young peoples’ confidence.

“Strengthening first language and culture, local workforce development and employment in remote schools is essential if they are to move beyond a cloudy mirror of mainstream metropolitan schools,” he said.

“Universities and training organisations can offer more-flexible entry and exit points within courses to encourage remote student participation.”

Osborne said while recognising first language expertise and cultural expertise is possible through flexible teacher registration accreditation, there needs to be a national conversation that values these attributes in remote schooling.

“If education systems are caught in reactive cycle of constantly scrambling for teachers – any teachers – to fill classes, it is likely the experience will be hard wearing on both students and teachers,” he said.

"Rather than incentivising teachers to go bush, it would be worth incentivising teachers who demonstrate excellence to continue as mentors on their return to cities and regional centres. Investment is needed to allow this to happen.”

“Universities are increasingly pressed by reduced government funding and increased costs and competition.”

Osborne said remotely located teacher education requires intensive supports on Country in an environment where student numbers are low.

“The bottom line is, no university is going bush to make money.”

The original version of this article appeared as a media release from MCERA.