Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion never liked school as a kid, but he’s given parents at a remote indigenous Northern Territory community a wake up call about the importance of education.
The senator has spent the morning rounding up sleepy children for their school day playing truancy officer by knocking on doors and speaking to parents at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land.
“I’m here to make sure your kid gets to school. He doesn’t like it does he? Nor did I. I used to be a bit of a runner,” Minister Scullion said.
Every morning youngsters in 75 indigenous communities across the nation are encouraged out of bed and into their classrooms as part of the government’s truancy program.
A group of remote school attendance officers – all indigenous members of their local community – stroll the streets before a bus follows the same route and picks them up.
Yirrkala School co principal Katrina Hudson praised the scheme, stating attendance rates have recently risen from 50 per cent to 70 per cent.
“Some weeks last term we were getting 75 per cent, which in mainstream schools sounds low but for this school it’s a huge improvement,” she said.
The strategy started in 2014, employing officers to support parents by helping with lunches, uniforms, homework and after-school care.
“They’re spending time with families to create those relationships and trust,” Ms Hudson said.
Co-principal Meookiyawuy Ganambarr says the respected officers represent different clans to ensure the children will respond.
“We need to work together as a community,” she said.
“We’re all connected with each other in everyday life – people talk and share stories.”
Canberra hopes to close the gap in school attendance by the end of 2018, but none of the targets around indigenous early education enrolments or truancy are on track.
Ms Ganambarr said one of the biggest problems dropping attendance numbers is ceremonies, which take children away from their homes for long periods.
“There’s lots of cultural obligations in the communities, there’s funerals happening weekly,” she said.
But Senator Scullion says that’s no longer an excuse for non-attendance and kids should be finding other schools temporarily.
Since 2013 the federal government has also rolled out a program to dock the welfare payments of NT parents who don’t oversee their kids’ attendance.
Ms Hudson called for a holistic interagency approach, stating many kids with learning difficulties still face barriers to education even if they get through the classroom door.