Truancy the Roadblock to Closing the Indigenous Achievement Gap

July 8, 2021 Updated: July 8, 2021


The decision to remove attendance targets for Indigenous students shows how policymakers have the wrong priorities for addressing the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Closing the attendance gap is the single greatest lever in closing the achievement gap. Yet school attendance is a glaring omission from newly released data from the government-backed Closing the Gap initiative.

New research from the Centre of Independent Studies (CIS) shows the achievement gap by Year 3 would close by 15 percent if the attendance gap alone were closed. But since national records were first tallied, student attendance has worsened year-on-year.

Only around 36 percent of Indigenous students attend high school every 9 in 10 class days—a measure of school attendance. This is compared to the 66 percent of non-Indigenous students who attend every 9 in 10 days. The disparity is widest in remote schools but is sizeable in cities too.

The issue routinely falls victim to ideological resistance that prevents sustained efforts to turn attendance around, and is too often dismissed as an overly simplistic remedy for education outcomes.

Instead, critics charge that absenteeism is symptomatic of wider structural causes and can’t be readily “fixed.”

The waters are further muddied by spurious claims that absenteeism allegedly has little or no impact on Indigenous students’ learning. Others deride expectations of regular school attendance entirely, insisting it represents a vestige of oppressive colonialism.

But the truth is there can be no closing of the education gap without addressing the attendance gap. Sure, turning up alone is no guarantee of learning. But, by the same token, there simply can’t be any learning if students don’t make it to school.

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School students arrive for the first day of face-to-face schooling in Brisbane, Australia, on May 11, 2020. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Research clearly demonstrates the link between regular attendance and academic achievement, especially for disadvantaged students. Those who miss more than a day per fortnight are at heightened risk of falling—and permanently remaining—behind. This is most keenly felt in developing the early literacy skills needed to advance into later schooling.

Regular absenteeism has a domino effect on other students too. Additional interruptions and accommodations place hefty demands on time-poor teachers—with spillover effects on the regularly attending students. The burden of keeping pace with a class of students with patchy attendance and highly varied learning progress can be a herculean challenge.

It’s true many of the compounding factors come from beyond the school gate. Disproportionately, Indigenous children suffer disruption related to overcrowded housing conditions, frequently changing schools and cultural obligations.

But schools all over Australia combat disadvantage, in many shapes and sizes, from beyond the school gate every day.

Previous CIS research identified common practices and policies of high-performing disadvantaged schools that are overcoming the educational odds. At the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy, attendance has consistently exceeded that of similar schools for years.

Arresting attendance afflictions is no easy feat, but the fact that some schools are making the mark puts to bed the conventional wisdom of it being a structural and intractable problem.

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Students play at recess at Lysterfield Primary School on May 26, 2020, in Melbourne, Australia. (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Accommodating context—irrespective of the scale and scope presented—is an expectation of all Australian schools. No school or student should be relegated to the too-hard basket.

Lifting the lid on successful strategies and best practices is needed so that more students have every chance of reaching their potential. That requires shifting focus to what schools can do, rather than be fixated on what they can’t control.

As with any educationally disadvantaged school, priorities should include a proactive approach to case management, keeping pace with learning early and engaging parents.

For us to make ground in truly closing the gap, the high rhetoric must be married with policy.

In the 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, all Australian education ministers committed to close education gaps and empower all Indigenous students to reach their potential.

The average Indigenous student is around two and a half years behind their non-Indigenous peers by school-leaving age.

There’s no doubt Indigenous educational disadvantage is among Australia’s most pressing and persistent public policy challenges. Finally, remedying that gap must start with the sophisticatedly simple goal of raising the bar on student attendance.

Glenn Fahey is an education research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia and author of “Mind the Gap: Understanding the Indigenous education gap and how to close it.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Glenn Fahey
Glenn Fahey
Glenn Fahey is a research fellow in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. Fahey has a focus on education, finance, and accountability and has held positions at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD and the Australian Treasury.