Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Remote school attendance: a gap worth closing



Minister Scullion visited Gunbalanya a week or so ago to launch the school year with the local remote school attendance strategy staff. The Remote School Attendance Strategy (RSAS) has been one of the Minister’s signature or headline initiatives.

I have been drawn to look again at the program as a result of the Minister’s rationale for justifying likely cuts to remote housing programs, namely that it is a state responsibility and the Commonwealth has no role. While I don’t agree with that rationale in relation to remote housing, it is an argument with the Minister has ignored entirely in relation to school attendance.

Traditionally the delivery of education services has been a state responsibility. In 2014 however, the Minister broke new ground when he initiated RSAS with funding of $46.5m, and extended it in 2015 with added funding of $80m. It now involves dedicated staff in some 77 communities across WA, Qld, SA and the NT. I previously posted on the RSAS in April 2016 (link here).

I don’t propose to undertake a detailed assessment of the program here. For those interested, key documents include the two evaluations of the program (link here and here) and the chapters in the two most recent Closing the Gap reports, each of which deal briefly with the RSAS.

What is clear is that progress nationally on school attendance has been falling (albeit only marginally) in recent years whereas the Government introduced a five year Closing the Gap target in 2013 which aimed to reach parity by 2018. Overall school attendance for Indigenous students nationally is sitting just above 80 percent.

The hardest nut to crack however is in remote regions where RSAS selectively operates. Here there is little current information on progress, consistent with the Government’s parsimonious approach to real and timely transparency. As an aside, rhetoric about making data available to communities for better local decision making, mentioned in the Discussion Paper on the Closing the Gap refresh (link here) and in Martin Parkinson’s Wentworth Lecture (link here), and moves for more evaluation as the driver of better performance (link here) ring hollow while important performance information on progress on issues as important as school attendance is withheld or not compiled.

Given the paucity of current information on the Department’s website, I thought I would undertake a mini-research project of my own, which I don’t claim to amount to a comprehensive assessment of the RSAS program, but are enlightening in opening a window into the reality of school attendance in particular locations and as a means of assessing the Government’s rhetoric against some objective data.

In the Minister’s media release, he states:

“The Gumbalanya RSAS team does a wonderful job encouraging kids to go to school and stay in school every day and I have no doubt that the team is making a real difference to the lives and futures of the children.
“By the end of 2017, the Gunbalanya RSAS team supported a 13 per cent increase in school attendance over the past 12 months demonstrating the success of our Government’s commitment to working in partnership with Indigenous communities.

The My School website (link here) allows citizens to access key data on virtually every school in the nation, including attendance data. So I decided to have a quick look at Gunbalanya and then a few other random schools in the RSAS program. I emphasise that these are random selections, and may not reflect the average for all 77 RSAS schools, however in the absence of a continuously updated data base on the Department’s website ( a useful transparency and accountability initiative for a program the Minister claims is addressing one of his headline priorities) there is little alternative.

The 2015 Interim Progress Report on RSAS had found that on average, there had been a 13 percent improvement in term three attendance levels over the first year of the program.

The following table lists attendance data for four schools: Gunbalanya (NT), Papunya (NT), Indulkana (SA) and Roebourne District High School (WA). The attendance rate is the average percentage of students attending each day over the course of the semester or term. The attendance level refers to the percentage of students who attend 90% or more of the time.



Attendance Rate Sem.1
Attendance Rate Term 3
Attendance Level Sem. 1
Attendance Level* Term 3
Gunbalanya




2014
57



2015
56
45
14
8
2016
53
50
8
10
2017
49
43
4
5





Papunya




2014
63



2015
65
59
7
4
2016
69
46
11
4
2017
54
52
1
2





Indulkana




2014
82



2015
77
69
27
27
2016
73
68
19
17
2017
72
64
27
16





Roebourne




2014
51



2015
61
48
15
9
2016
62
51
10
12
2017
55
51
14
11







So what do these random data tell us? First, notwithstanding the Commonwealth program intervention, there appears to be since 2014 a generalised downward trend in school attendance in these schools, with Roebourne perhaps the exception. Second, the data suggest that at best, only around two thirds of students are attending on average, and in three of the four schools the term three figures are around a half of all students. These figures are well below the national attendance rates of 80 percent mentioned above. Third, of most concern to my mind are the extremely low figures for attendance levels as they indicate virtually all students (around 85 percent) experience gaps in attendance which have the potential to disrupt their learning and once students fall behind the risk of early exit entirely from the education system increases dramatically.

None of these data give me any cause to change the conclusions I drew in my 2016 post (link here). I encourage readers to re-read it. I will repeat the key paragraphs:

The Commonwealth’s current policy on remote school attendance appears to be fundamentally flawed. It bears all the hallmarks of a policy initiative designed to be seen to be doing something, yet runs the risk that it will actually allow the states and territories off the hook … RSAS operates in a limited number of remote locations, and thus will only ever have a partial impact. A more effective alternative would have been to allocate the funds to the relevant education departments utilising an incentive structure which rewards not merely improved attendance (an output), but ideally improved NAPLAN scores (an outcome), leaving the methods to be employed to the education experts….

…There would be merit in developing and publishing a strategic plan (or mini white paper) on the overall Commonwealth’s strategy for achieving improved educational outcomes in remote Australia. Such a plan would ensure that a comprehensive and coherent program logic would be devised, and would canvass how best to harness the resources and expertise of the states and territories, and thus lay out a comprehensive rationale for the Commonwealth’s involvement.

If the states and NT were not prepared to cooperate, the Commonwealth should then canvass options for the Commonwealth to take over the whole school education system in remote Australia from start to finish rather than inject random interference as at present.

In the absence of such a strategic rationale for the Commonwealth’s involvement in remote education, interested citizens can be forgiven for seeing RSAS as merely another instance of politics subverting good policy. It will most likely end up on the scrap heap of failed policies in Indigenous affairs, with Indigenous citizens wearing the reputational damage of yet another policy fiasco, taxpayers being $125m worse off, and yet another generation of remote citizens reaching adulthood without the literacy and numeracy skills which will allow them to fully participate in our nation’s future.

Finally I want to return to the Minister’s recent press release on Gunbalanya. He claims that the local team have ‘supported a 13 per cent increase in school attendance over the past 12 months’. Yet the My School data suggest that attendance rates fell in Semester One by 4 percentage points and in Term Three by 7 percentage points.

On his ministerial webpage (link here) the Minister states:
My priorities as Minister are to ensure that Indigenous children attend school every day and receive a quality education; ….


I am left wondering about the vast gap between rhetoric and reality. That would be a gap worth closing.