How to improve Aboriginal literacy & school attendance

School attendance rates and literacy of Aboriginal students can be improved if schools involve parents and role models. Programs stimulating the senses and offering incentives make students perform.

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Selected statistics

Number of full-time Aboriginal students in NSW in 2012.
Attendance rate for Aboriginal students in Western Australia in 2011. Same rate for non-Aboriginal students: 91%.
Percentage of Australian students in Years 1 to 10 who were at school for at least 90% of all school days in 2017. Same rate for Aboriginal students: 49%.
Attendance rate of a school that combines Aboriginal cultural elements with Western methods.
Percentage of Aboriginal children in Year 10 going to school in the Northern Territory in 2013. Same percentage for Victoria: 80%.
Percentage of all Australian students in Years 9 and 10 missing at least one day a fortnight in 2017; figure for Aboriginal students: 70% (Year 10) and 66% (Year 9).
Percentage of Aboriginal schools with an attendance rate of 90% or more.

Improving literacy

While many Aboriginal students' education is a far cry from that of their non-Aboriginal peers, a success story from the East Kenwick Primary School in Perth tells us that good literacy is achievable—if the teaching conditions are right .

The school took the following approach:

  • Participation of Aboriginal parents and elders: Parents are encouraged to participate in day-to-day aspects of their children's education.
  • Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers: They act as role models for the students and take small groups under directions.
  • Involve all senses: The school uses a tactile, visual and auditory learning program called Jolly Phonics from pre-primary to Year 2. It aids students to hear, touch and see what they learn, covering individual learning styles.
  • Small groups: Teaching small groups with Indigenous tutors enables focusing on specific students and their needs.

Schools also have a greater chance to succeed when they engage mobile teachers to take into account that Aboriginal parents might have to leave for extended periods for sorry business (when a relative has died), ceremony or to get itinerant, seasonal work.

A research study into Aboriginal access to pre-schools found that in order to be more inclusive of Aboriginal culture a school should do the following:

  • Have staff be welcoming and supportive.
  • Display and use Aboriginal resources, such as musical instruments, artwork, maps, flags or books. Aboriginal professor Mick Dodson says: "These things say to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the school: ‘your cultures, history, past experiences and identity are recognised and valued here. You are valued here.’ Equally importantly, they say to the non-Indigenous students that Indigenous history, cultures, experiences and peoples are worth valuing and learning about."
  • Invite Aboriginal elders to visit the centre and talk to the children.
  • Build relationships with local Aboriginal communities.

We know for sure from examples right across the country, where school leaders go out of their way to engage with parents and children and build positive relationships, attendance improves.

— Dr Chris Sarra, Aboriginal educator

Indigenous Literacy Day is celebrated on the first Wednesday in September each year. It is a national event aiming to address the literacy crisis in remote communities by raising money for books and much-needed resources. Contact the Indigenous Literacy Foundation for details.

How to increase school attendance

Skipping school directly affects grades. An analysis of attendance records and National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results of more than 400,000 students from Western Australia found any absence from school leads to a decline in academic performance. An analysis of school performance found that 20% of the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students is a result of poor school attendance.

While a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) report released in 2013 showed there was no improvement in Aboriginal school attendance rates across Australia since 2008, in the decade to 2018, Year 12 attainment rates for Aboriginal students improved from 45% to 66% across Australia.

To entice more students to go to school one has to get creative.

As an Aboriginal mother, I have never been asked what I think would help school attendance rates. I have also never been asked what would be the absolute worst way to raise attendance rates. I will therefore say it here: when it comes to programs that affect Aboriginal mothers, I can be 95% sure that the government will go with the most invasive, detrimental and shaming plan.

— Kelly Briggs, Aboriginal woman

A remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, has introduced a range of measures to increase attendance which won it the Northern Territory Smart Schools Award for Excellence in improving school attendance . Other communities have started similar measures.

The community uses a school vehicle to travel around the small community each morning, ringing a bell and picking up students. The bus also drops off and picks up children from ceremony sites, for example during funerals.

If school-aged children turn up at the community shops during school hours they don't get served unless they have a note or pass. During the football and basketball seasons, students who haven't attended school during the week are not allowed to play.

If students attend school 5 out of 5 days they can win shop vouchers. If they attend every day for 5 weeks they receive a sports bag.

Another remote community in Kakadu National Park, NT, found that attendance peaked in the wet season, when heavy rain limited travel out of the community . In the dry season attendance dropped significantly as students travelled with their families for cultural ceremonies and traditional activities.

Now school starts early in the wet season, and students are compensated with longer holidays during the dry season.

“More kids would go, and parents would be encouraging them to go to school, if the lessons were more relevant, taught in both languages with a strong focus on our culture,” says teenager Amelia Kunoth-Monks from the Utopia homelands north of Alice Springs . “Having both ways and the two cultures there, is absolutely amazing – rather than being at school and feeling like you’re not really wanted in society,” she adds.

Curricula can include music, art, dance and stories told by members of a local Aboriginal community.

The Clontarf Football Foundation managed to increase Indigenous student attendance to 85% by also offering their students incentives. If students can prove their academic results are improving over a period of time they qualify for trips to Melbourne to watch Australian Football League games .

Similarly, children from the Alice Springs town camps in the NT were only allowed to participate in a drumming group if they regularly attended school and were active in education. School attendance of members of the drumming group is now "way ahead of average" .

Some communities set up a 'no school, no pool' policy where children are only allowed to enjoy a pool if they attend school. Attendance rates in such communities goes up.

Another measure involves introducing night school for teenagers who have been through initiation and don't want to be seen as children any more. Lowering fees allows more families to afford sending their kids to preschool and school. Health seriously affects a child's ability to perform at school. Conditions like otitis media affect Aboriginal children at an earlier age and to a significantly more severe degree than non-Aboriginal students. Aboriginal staff help children connect to their culture and can also improve cultural awareness among other staff. If possible, staff should be trained and mentored in an Aboriginal community.

A school in Djarragun, Northern Territory, succeeded in raising school attendance by closing school doors at 9am. Although the measure caused an uproar and people insisted on "Murri time" (allowing people to be late), student numbers increased from 60 to 180 a day.

Wiluna Remote Community School won an award at the National Indigenous STEM Awards with an approach that combines Aboriginal culture with Western methods. Classes go 'on country' with an Elder or ranger and learn traditional culture which is then brought back into the classroom. A seasonal calendar, created with Elders and families, informs teachers what to look for on these excursions. Back in the classroom students process their observations through conversations and stories in the local Aboriginal language.

The power of this program comes from working with the community and the Martu calendar.

— Adriano Truscott, principal, Wiluna Remote Community School

Think before you judge

A "major survey" conducted by the OECD in 2012 found that almost a third of Australian students (32%) said they had skipped at least one day of school in the previous two week .

This means that Australian students skip school more often than any other developed country (except Turkey and Italy). In high-performing countries such as Japan and Korea, that figure was less than 2%. The OECD average is 14%.

Year 1 sets the pattern for what school attendance will look like in the future. You're learning more than reading and writing. You're learning to show up.

— Prof Stephen Zubrick, University of Western Australia

Portrait: Clontarf Foundation

The Clontarf Foundation has worked with an awareness that to effectively engage with young First Nations men there has to be an acknowledgement of, and respect for, what they are interested in: footy.

From its foundation in 2000 to 2022 the number of boys involved in the foundation has grown from 25 to 10,450. The program is based on a mix of football, mentorship, guiding principles and academic encouragement.

Students receive individual support and employment. 80% of the foundation's graduates have gone on to work or training.

Clontarf Foundation academies are based where the kids are and not in capital cities which helps retain students and keep them close to their families. Many places where academies have been set up are among Australia's most disadvantaged places.

The Clontarf Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation based in Western Australia and operating academies in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. More on


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[21] 'The school of tough love', SMH Good Weekend 5/7/2008 pp.26

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, How to improve Aboriginal literacy & school attendance, <>, retrieved 14 June 2024

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