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A “war on truancy”? Why Nigel Scullion’s stunt is doomed to fail.

In Kununurra for example, 14 teacher support positions are to be lost in 2014 across the two schools. Now, rather than aspiring to be teachers, maybe they can look forward to careers as truancy officers.

This is a guest post by the Keep River Kite. Earlier this week the ABC reported that Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion’s truancy prevention trial had kicked off in Gunbalanya, in western Arnhem Land. Here is a view from the west.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Senator Nigel Scullion was, in this article in The Australian in late December, very much on the front foot. “This is not a pilot. We don’t need pilots – we know what we need to do.” he said of the recently announced plan to recruit 400 truancy officers to work with Aboriginal families to attempt to get more Aboriginal kids to school.

The press have dubbed it a “truancy army”.

With respect Senator, you desperately need a pilot to guide you through these troubled waters. You need to take some informed guidance.

Of course plans like this are all action and any sign of hesitation or tentativeness is to be avoided.

A pilot would have helped the Federal Government back in 2007 when it launched The NT Intervention, when the real army was called into action along with platoons of doctors and bureaucrats amongst others.

Back then skirmishes were often quick and nasty, the media circus was raucous and the outcome, predictably, just another chapter in the failure of government to contribute to real and lasting positive change for disadvantaged Aboriginal people.

Senator, for this coming battle pilots abound. Might I suggest a few?

Department of Child Protection workers. Police officers. Mental Health workers. Juvenile Justice workers. Nurses. Health workers. Of course, grandparents.

It wouldn’t take much.

Just hook up a Skype conference with an on-the-ground worker from each of these groups and have a listen. Perhaps get some of your staffers to compile a folio of appropriately redacted reports – a handful of pre-sentence reports, health records, child protection reports, psychological reports, psychiatric reports – that set out the circumstances of many Aboriginal children.

Read the reports before you sit down with your maps to plot your strategy.

The relevant workers and their reports will quickly shape the battle ahead.

Some of the detail will include the tragically high proportion of Aboriginal children who suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome or its associated disorders, the high rate of severe hearing loss, the number of kids suffering post-traumatic stress, the children who have lost one or both of their parents to road accidents or murders / manslaughters / suicide, the children who temporarily lose one or both parents to prison terms, the youngsters with significant substance abuse problems of their own by age 14, the children abandoned by parents who drink and drug in preference to raising their children, the children who are survivors of suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm and the children who have been sexually and physically abused.

It is a sad picture. By now you will have heard all of it. But have you had it painted for you as a complete picture?

One you can try and comprehend in one go? One that you can have right there as you contemplate the wisdom of the truancy officers program?

Because if you do, you will see how paltry, how futile, how insulting this scheme is.

Of course you say that the truancy officers will be working with the families to address underlying problems. This is part of the “persuasion” phase you speak of.

I’m afraid the problems are too deep for well-meaning truancy officers to address. The parents will often not be around to “persuade”. In many cases, hugely overburdened grandmothers who give their hearts and souls to just keeping grandchildren off the drugs, out of detention and fed will be around.

These women do not need persuasion. They are trying, magnificently and grandly, to get kids to school. If they can’t do it, armed with love and family ties, a truancy officer won’t succeed.

Senator, you then speak of “compliance”, of making it easier to prosecute people for refusing to take their kids to school.

Such a suggestion simply confirms the lack of understanding you have of the issue.

Aboriginal people are constantly prosecuted. Are you going to give the green light to prosecute the very family carers that are in fact trying to get their kids to school but failing? Or do you hunt down the absent biological parent or parents? Those who might already be in gaol or very likely to be shouldering a mountain of fines for traffic offences, public disorder offences, breaches of move on notices or vagrancy / drinking offences?

The fact is people are not refusing to take kids to school. People who should be insisting on their offspring going to school are not where they should be in many cases.

The people taking on responsibility are often heroes. Do you prosecute heroes? Many Aboriginal people shrug off gaol terms. Fines will be seen as a bad joke.

Senator, you further reveal your naivety with your comments regarding suspension of kids pressed into school.

You think it is “silly”.

The Keep River Kite flies near Kununurra in northern WA.

Kununurra is home to two schools (one a Catholic Primary, the other a state run Primary / Secondary) that service town kids, town camp kids and kids from nearby communities and stations.

A large chunk of the kids attending these schools are Aboriginal. Attendance levels of the Aboriginal kids are woeful.

At the start of 2013, the local WA Police decided to have a crack at the problem. An officer was designated as a school-based constable and he made it his gig to effectively act as a truancy officer. Enthusiasm is his second name and he tackled the job with gusto. With a background in dealing with Aboriginal kids on the streets of Kununurra, he knew who to target and before long he was delivering child after child to the schools. Many of them had not graced these institutions (perhaps others) in a long time. The “pushback” from the schools was immediate.

The bulk of the children being reintroduced to school by the upbeat, positive and persuasive officer were deemed “not school ready” and barred. The schools had to make a call. These “not school ready” kids were bringing street and camp grievances into the playgrounds. Some were violent, most were disruptive. The mainly white kids and the few school savvy black kids were having their school days ruptured. The effort was an unmitigated disaster.

The suspensions you decry were absolutely necessary to preserve the educations of the majority of school children. This wasn’t fragility and racism in action, this was reality.

Senator, you have recalled your school days as part motivation for this plan. Forgive me if I suggest that the truancy officers you saw perform good works were dealing with children and family groups less beleaguered than those that will confront this new army.

The apparently strong backing the Senator’s plan has from Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton (see this piece in The Australian) is perplexing.

Both must know how hopeless this plan is but they must have an eye on some bigger picture to support it.

Pearson lays out a three staged approach. He says “school attendance is the foundation”, backs the truancy officers and then says “education departments have to be ready to move with compliance mechanisms including prosecution under relevant education legislation” if the officers fail.

Stage three is “school improvement”. Pearson says “These schools need to be worthy of attendance, and have the ability to engage the children and make it worth everyone’s while for the kids to be there”.

Obviously this third stage is the foundation. This must be achieved before the truancy officers get a gig and before the battle lines are formed.

As the Kununurra example shows, the schools have to be equipped for “non-school ready” kids.

What really needs to happen is to have the schools attract the kids by word of mouth and through persuasion rather than coercion. No truancy officers are needed.

Professor Langton, like Pearson, mixes in her support for the truancy program with some realistic analysis when she says “Failure to attend school, racism in schools and poor teacher effectiveness in indigenous classrooms are the three significant contributing factors to poor indigenous education outcomes”.

Of course there are greater “contributing factors” than those set out by the Professor, but at least she makes an effort to fracture the illusion of success merely being a question of forcing kids into the existing school structure.

In Kununurra and other places throughout WA, cuts to school funding means that the hopes of Pearson and Langton of better equipped schools is increasingly forlorn.

In Kununurra for example, 14 teacher support positions are to be lost in 2014 across the two schools.

Many of these teacher’s aides are young Aboriginal people getting a first foothold on the education career ladder.

Now, rather than aspiring to be teachers, maybe they can look forward to careers as truancy officers. 

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  • 1
    The Pedanticist
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    You can’t deliver a positive social outcome through punitive measures!

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