School attendance – particularly in remote Aboriginal communities – has been a much-discussed topic in recent months.

No one questions the importance of school attendance. 

School attendance is one of the crucial building blocks when it comes to a child’s education and development and their capacity to fully participate in our society as an adult – and particularly so if they come from a disadvantaged background.

A recent ground-breaking study by the University of Western Australia examined school attendance rates in government schools in the state between 2008 and 2012. 

It confirmed that as absences add up over several years there can be a cumulative effect on achievement. They found there is no ‘safe threshold’ for absenteeism – every day of attendance counts toward a child’s educational outcomes.

The study found the state’s most disadvantaged students – many of them young Aboriginal people – missed more than a day of school each week. The equivalent of one term of school each year or 1.7 years of missed school by the end of primary.

Attendance has a much greater influence on the achievement of students from disadvantaged backgrounds: as their absence rates increase, their decline in achievement is more rapid.

But where disagreement can occur is around the methods by which attendance can be improved.
The Smith Family is Australia’s largest children’s education charity. 

We help more than 110,000 children and young people from low income backgrounds each year succeed in their education – 7500 who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Our close vantage point tells us that recent efforts to close the gap in educational performance between Aboriginal and other Australian young people have leaned too heavily on sport as a tool to attract and encourage school attendance among Aboriginal children.

Available evidence suggests sport has been successful in engaging Aboriginal boys and young men in their schooling. 

However, it also suggests that it’s less effective in attracting and retaining Aboriginal girls.

As a result, we’re at risk of neglecting the educational needs of Aboriginal young women.

Broad improvements in educational performance and school attendance among Aboriginal girls will only occur with support programs tailored to their variety of needs and interests.

Our analysis is based on an independent evaluation of our Alice Springs program, Girls at the Centre, which has been successful in boosting school attendance among Aboriginal girls in their early teens through a variety of methods.

The Smith Family has operated Girls at the Centre in partnership with Centralian Middle School since 2008. 

The program motivates and supports girls from Years 7 to 9 to stay at school and contributes to educational achievement by providing participants with dedicated ‘coaches’ and other supports, such as after-school activities, access to mentors, and regular excursions to broaden life experiences.

As a result, the average attendance rates for Girls at the Centre participants between 2008 and 2013 were consistently higher than their peers.

It’s clear that after completing first semester in 2013, the average attendance rate for Girls at the Centre’s Aboriginal participants was 75 per cent, 12 percentage points higher than the average attendance rate for all Aboriginal girls at the school (63 per cent). 

There’s also clear evidence of Girls at the Centre improving self-confidence and school engagement. For example, in 2012, the positions of Centralian’s Captain and Vice-Captain were filled by Girls at the Centre participants as was Dux and 22 other recipients of academic achievement awards.

Girls at the Centre’s success comes down to a range of factors. The coaches are based at the school and provide a mix of support and positive guidance, and have high expectations of the girls, particularly in relation to school attendance. 

The program also offers weekly after school activities that appeal to different interests – one week it could be gymnastics, the next it could be jewellery making or rock climbing.

Each fortnight a community mentor visits the school for breakfast with the participants. After a short presentation the girls are encouraged to ask questions about the person’s achievements.

The girls also have their own space at the school – the Girls’ Room. It’s the location for many of the program’s activities but also offers a safe transition space between home and school.

Another major part of the program’s success is the involvement of parents and carers – an effort which the independent evaluation described as an ‘extraordinary achievement’. It’s had the effect of improving child-parent relationships and boosting parental engagement in school and in their child’s academic achievements.

Aboriginal young women are at significant risk of poor school attendance or dropping out prematurely because of the need to care for siblings, parents and other family members. Aboriginal young women are also more likely than other Australian females to start a family early.

And when it comes to post-school options, because of a range of responsibilities, young Aboriginal women may be less inclined to pursue tertiary study and a career. The lack of culturally appropriate and affordable childcare also makes things difficult. 

All of which helps explain why only 28 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young women have completed Year 12 or its equivalent compared with 60 per cent of other Australian young women. 

Girls at the Centre gives us a model for improving school attendance and educational outcomes among Aboriginal young women Australia-wide.