Program boosts Indigenous school attendance

23 November 2015

It has had enormous success in engaging communities and in getting kids to school in a context that is notoriously challenging and where engagement in education has been historically quite poor at times.

A pilot program in remote Aboriginal communities has made great progress to improve school attendance by involving community leaders and Indigenous rangers to teach students about customary knowledge, culture and literacy and numeracy.

The Learning on Country program, launched in 2013, has been rolled out across five Arnhem Land sites - Maningrida, Yirrkala, Laynhapuy Homelands (Yirrkala), Groote Island and Galiwin'ku (Elcho Island).

A review of the program led by Dr William Fogarty from The Australian National University (ANU) found the Learning on Country pilot program had improved school attendance and engagement from both students and communities.

"Over the first two years of the trial, we've seen remarkable enthusiasm from all sectors including governments, teachers, educators, students and the community, which is not usual," said Dr Fogarty, from the ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies (NCIS).

"It has had enormous success in engaging communities and in getting kids to school in a context that is notoriously challenging and where engagement in education has been historically quite poor at times."

The program, which aims to make school more relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in remote areas, uses a local Indigenous knowledge base to engage students with their own culture, identity and place, and then uses that as a platform for wider education.

Dr Fogarty said clearer data and ways to track student progress was still needed from schools and education departments.

But he said the research, which was conducted by the NCIS in partnership with the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, found an emerging trend on improved attendance rates, especially with those students who are highly engaged in the program.

"When Learning on Country programs are run, attendance spikes," he said.

"So there is obvious enthusiasm with students in terms of engagement. This is in places where at times attendance is around 50 per cent. So at any given day half the student cohort is not at school. Programs like this are critical in bridging community and school divides," he said.

Dr Fogarty said the learning that underpins the program is highly valued in Indigenous communities and attributes its success to a group of exceptionally committed people on the ground.

"This is a truly grassroots educational development, based on place and local strengths," he said.

"It's great that it is being supported by government.

"It's different to a teacher flying in from Melbourne or Sydney, with grand ideas about saving the world, and finding out that it's all a bit different to what they thought.

"So it shifts the power base from the teacher to the community. One of the most common comments from the teachers involved in the program was they thought they were becoming the learner."

Dr Fogarty says he hopes the program's model can be rolled out to other communities across Australia.