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Revisiting the research: Indigenous student absenteeism

Reasons for student absenteeism are complex and contextual but are generally a combination of individual, family, community and school factors, according to a 2010 report.

The report, School attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian students, written by ACER researchers the late Dr Nola Purdie and Dr Sarah Buckley, was the first Issues Paper for the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.

The paper explored and reviewed key national and international studies to highlight the issues in analysing Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance and retention.

Dr Purdie and Dr Buckley found there was a scarcity of literature backed by credible evidence about attendance and retention strategies that work for Indigenous students.

The report found there was some consensus among the literature. The literature does agree that a significant gap exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance rates. However, due to the different ways that student attendance and retention are recorded in the different states and territories, there is insufficient information to show if these gaps have increased or decreased over time.

There is also consensus that non- attendance and non-completion of school causes harm, and that it is important to implement policy and practice to minimise this harm.

According to the paper, most harm is to the non-attenders themselves; however, there can also be an adverse effect on:

  • teachers who become demoralised;
  • attending students who receive less attention when non-attendees re-enter the classroom and require extra help;
  • jurisdiction personnel who face the increased costs and time related to dealing with the consequences of non-attendance, and;
  • families and communities that are stigmatised when their children do not attend school.

The reasons for non-attendance and non-completion of school are complex and contextual, the paper found. National and international literature commonly cites four contributing factors to non-attendance:

  1. the individual;
  2. the family;
  3. the community, and;
  4. the school.

These factors apply to the non-attendance of all students – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and address the underlying causes of student absenteeism.

‘For instance, students are unlikely to be able to fully participate and engage in education if they face a complex set of circumstances that result in disadvantage across a range of life experiences,’ the paper states.

A positive school environment plays a significant role in determining the extent to which students participate and engage in schooling.

‘Researchers have emphasised the link between students’ perceptions of school and their motivation, achievement and behaviour,’ the paper states.

‘Students who feel connected with school are more motivated to attend and engage. This enables learning and academic accomplishment to occur.’

A particular school-based issue of importance is teacher quality. According to the paper, good teacher–student relationships are fundamental to a positive learning experience and teachers must be aware of and respect the cultural heritage of their Indigenous students. The curriculum must also reflect a valuing of Indigenous history and the communicative styles that are part of Indigenous cultures.

The paper found that some programs and strategies that have been implemented take account of the full range of factors implicated in the participation and engagement of Indigenous students in school. However, other programs focus on just one or a small number of the factors.

Ultimately, School attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian students recommends:

  • more large-scale research be undertaken;
  • future research must adequately reflect the experiences, cultures and history of Indigenous peoples and communities;
  • interagency partnerships must go beyond the educational arena, and;
  • programs and strategies must incorporate longitudinal monitoring and evaluation to track progress and confirm that programs are working. ■


Read the full report:
School attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian students, by Nola Purdie and Sarah Buckley, for the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (2010).

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