Schooling is a no-brainer

Truancy isn’t a stubborn problem because we don’t know how to address it. Truancy is a stubborn problem when governments lack courage and determination

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

Australia has had compulsory education since the late 1800s. It’s the law that children attend school between 5 & 15 to 17 years of age. Yet there are still communities where schooling resembles the education system of centuries ago – voluntary, piecemeal and ineffective. It’s a particularly stubborn problem in Indigenous communities.

Children must attend school and parents must send them. If parents don’t then governments must ensure children attend. Now, governments can do this any way the law allows – with coercion or persuasion, with a carrot or a stick. They can make schools so appealing children are banging on the doors to get in or go house to house taking kids to school one by one. They can engage with parents and communities or punish breaches of law. They can pay parents to send children to school or fine them for not.

Governments can design the “how” any way they like and people can debate it. But whether children attend isn’t up for debate. It’s been the law for nearly 150 years.

I support employing School Attendance Officers from communities. SAOs work with children and families, collect children who don’t arrive in the morning and monitor attendance during the day.

Schools should also be appealing and effective for Indigenous children. This includes teaching traditional languages as well as English in communities where traditional languages are still spoken; and giving students the opportunity to study a traditional Indigenous language as an optional subject in communities where they aren’t. Governments must also tackle adult illiteracy. Truancy is lower in literate communities. If community and family literacy improves, so will school attendance.

It’s a no-brainer that schools must be fit for purpose. Often they aren’t. We need comprehensive audits of infrastructure, equipment, finances and records and staffing. The results won’t be pretty. They’ll identify wasted money and failed programs. They’ll make many people feel uncomfortable and mortally injure some sacred cows. So what. We draw a line in the sand and move on.

Laws aren’t magically enforced. A punitive framework is also required for compulsory education and always has been.

Commonwealth punitive action should be directed at state and territory governments. If schools aren’t attended or not resourced to teach effectively, relevant state and territory governments should be fined via a reduction in Commonwealth funding. This is radical but overdue. States and territories are responsible for education and receive substantial Commonwealth funding for it. They are supposed to enforce the law. Yet generations of Indigenous children fail to attend school. States and territories have large departments full of educational experts. What are those experts doing to get Indigenous children to school?

Enforcement action towards families and children should first be remedial, such as compulsory holiday schooling. If you don’t go to school during term you have to spend your holidays catching up. In communities where children miss school due to ceremony or funerals, school should be run on extended hours, with time allocated to catching up school missed.

Penalising parents should be a last resort. Welfare quarantining is a blunt instrument that relies on people on the ground. Teachers are trained to teach not enforce benefits. Teachers face enormous pressure if marking an absence causes a family to lose income.

But if governments do make the threat they need to follow through. Aboriginal people think white people tell lies. The whitefella says they’ll be evicted if they don’t pay rent – but they never get evicted. The whitefella says they’ll lose the dole if they don’t do community work – but they get paid even if they don’t turn up.

Welfare conditions are set by governments but administered by people at the coalface who exercise discretion and give people multiple chances, whether from pity or concern for children or worry about the public reaction or whatever. The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) program in the Northern Territory is a case in point. SEAM had substantial impact when first introduced because the threat to withhold welfare was credible. But payments were rarely withheld and school participation rates fell again.

Whatever the approach on welfare quarantining, it must be across the board. If it’s suitable for Indigenous families it’s suitable for non-Indigenous families too.

Truancy isn’t a stubborn problem because we don’t know how to address it. Governments figured that out long ago. Compulsory education wasn’t immediately embraced. It took effort before it became a given.

Truancy is a stubborn problem when governments lack courage and determination. Courage to do what is necessary in the face of criticism and political opportunism. Determination to stay the course as long as it takes.

People like me who sit outside government can advise on the “how”. But I can’t bestow my courage determination. Only those who make decisions and enforce policy can deliver this.


An edited version of this article was published in the Daily Telegraph on 25 September 2014 under the heading “No ifs or buts: all children must attend school.”

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