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Back to school: why attendance is up in the Top End

School attendance is on the rise across the Northern Territory, thanks to a more co-ordinated bureaucratic effort and the award-winning dedication of teachers in the public system.

Compared to last year, attendance is up by about 15%, averaged over the government schools targeted in the first half of 2014. The handful of schools where it declined — three in term one — are reportedly receiving greater scrutiny from federal bureaucrats.

About 280 locals have been employed as school attendance officers and supervisors to encourage over 7000 kids across the territory to get to class more often. The Remote School Attendance Strategy was recently recognised by the NT Chief Minister’s Awards for Excellence in the Public Sector, with the Department of Education honoured for “strengthening government and public administration”.

NT schools and their departmental administrators work with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which has absorbed indigenous affairs, and service providers under the Remote Jobs and Communities Program, which employ the local staff. Eddie Gacitua, the department’s assistant director, enrolment and attendance, told The Mandarin that much of the strategy’s success hinged on the “interplay” between the three stakeholders.

“At a local level, myself and my team are the advocate for the schools and the principals, to ensure that the focus for the schools is always going to be teaching and learning,” he explained.

Gacitua says previous schemes aimed at increasing attendance focused on punitive measures, whereas the RSAS is “the first real positive attendance measure that’s focused around employing local community members to actually drive school attendance within their community”.

“The feedback I get when I’m in community is the local people really like the program …”

“The feedback I get when I’m in community is the local people really like the program, because it employs local people and it has local people driving a key issue in their community: education, which leads to better employment outcomes, better social outcomes and better health outcomes,” he said.

There are unique challenges with trying to achieve federal targets for school attendance in the NT, where the various indigenous language groups live life to their own nomadic rhythms. Gacitua says kids miss school for days or weeks at a time when their families travel long distances to big events like community sporting carnivals, show days and meetings about the distribution of mining royalty payments, which all draw people into the larger centres. Then when the mining money is shared around, families can suddenly get anywhere from about $2000 to $20,000, he adds, so it’s common to go back to town and stay for a while.

“So there’s two aspects to royalty payments that have an impact on attendance,” Gacitua explained. “One is the royalty meetings and the other is the actual payments and it’s quite difficult to have that discussion with the land councils and communities about royalty meetings and distribution, because it’s out of the scope of the Department of Education, and it’s almost out of the scope of the Northern Territory government, so they’re hard conversations to have.”

The RSAS, he says, is facilitating conversations between the Commonwealth, the NT government and remote communities about the impact of the way mining money is distributed.

“Because of the level of data reporting, now the federal government’s actually seeing the great impact that royalty payment meetings have in various communities,” said Gacitua. “Discussions have started at NT and federal levels, and with different land councils, to look at changing royalty payment dates to holiday periods, so they have a minimal impact on attendance.”

The discussions around what is stopping kids going to school all year long also link back to the scourge of petrol sniffing. “Through this program, volatile substance abuse in some of the Katherine schools was noted and fed back at a federal level, which drove a lot of installations of Opal fuel pumps,” said Gacitua.

NT Chief Minister Terry Mills presents a public sector medal to Stuart Dwyer
NT Chief Minister Adam Giles presents a public sector medal to Stuart Dwyer

Maningrida’s medal-winning principal

Out on the coast of Arnhem Land, Maningrida School principal Stuart Dwyer — one of three Chief Minister’s Public Sector Medal winners from Education — has played a strong role in making the RSAS work. Maningrida’s growing attendance rate — up 13% from last year — is “a testament to the amount of work that he’s putting in with the community, the RJCD provider and the Commonwealth operator”, according to Gacitua.

Looking back through the school’s records, Dwyer can’t find attendance figures better than this year’s. Last week it was 57%, compared to 36% exactly one year before.

“We’ve got a great team of indigenous attendance officers and they’re proactive with everything,” the passionate educator told The Mandarin, describing how locals employed by the RSAS invited students and families around for a barbecue just last Sunday. “It was purely a community barbecue that was just about talking about student attendance and making sure the kids were ready for school this week.

“There’s a whole lot of things that team do that are extremely relevant to the community and I think they’ve done a really outstanding job, and have been a really outstanding support for the students and the families as well, so it’s worked very well so far.”

He says the RSAS works together with the NT Education Department’s other efforts to maintain and increase attendance in the challenging jurisdiction.

“They’ve got this fantastic linguistic ability, so our teachers really need to be able to understand ESL pedagogy …”

“We’ve got our Every Child, Every Day policy, and I think that’s linked in with the Remote School Attendance Strategy, and these two programs … are mutually supportive of each other,” Dwyer said.

Maningrida’s medal-winning principal taught in the United States, England and Nepal after graduating in 1989 due to a shortage of teaching jobs in Melbourne, before moving to the NT. He’s been at his current post for four-and-a-half years, and was principal at Katherine for six years, travelling around to look after 13 schoolhouses. He says working in remote schools is both rewarding and challenging.

“A number of our students are ESL learners, so they’ll come to school with proficiency in two, potentially three indigenous languages, and that’s their strength,” he said. “They’ve got this fantastic linguistic ability, so our teachers really need to be able to understand ESL pedagogy and to provide a solid base for students to learn English as a second language. We do put a considerable amount of effort into raising our teachers’ skills and expertise in ESL teaching.”

Of course, it’s not easy, and teachers have to be up for the challenge. “Before they actually come to a remote school, we ask a series of questions,” explained Dywer. “We always seek the best fit for the school, so I’ll let teachers know about the environment we’ll potentially be working in, and just check whether they’ve got the skills sets which would be successful in this type of environment. And, whether they’d be prepared to learn ways of teaching that may be different to the ways of teaching in [a larger school], and how they can embrace that.”

The school has teachers of “really outstanding quality” and a strong staff retention rate, according to its proud principal. “On top of that, I think the most important factor is developing strong relationships with the students and with their parents and families,” he added.

Since coming to Maningrida, Dwyer has put in place a whole-school literacy program so that year to year, students learn basics like the alphabet in a consistent methodology, and a “social and emotional program” that is also consistent from pre-school to Year 12. The changes focus on three elements of any good school: student well-being, numeracy and literacy.

The best way to support those three aims in a remote community, according to Dwyer, is “working with all the agencies in the community and also the agencies that fly in and out of the communities”, and to make sure that happens in a co-ordinated fashion.

“If there’s some children experiencing some difficulty, we don’t have four or five different agencies supporting that family and that child and having competing conversations,” he said. “What we do at a school and at a community level is we have these different bodies meet together and they’ll discuss different families and children and … identify the factors here in this child’s life and how we’re going to best support that person, and then they’ll brainstorm that plan and then there’ll be one agency that will support that family and that child, rather than four or five different agencies trying to do different, non-connecting activities.

“And that, I think, definitely delivers a really lovely supportive message to the family and also makes for successful transitions as well.”

More at The Mandarin: Queensland’s education revolution: letting principals run the show

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.