Last week I met with the Minister for School Education, The Hon Peter Garrett, to follow up a letter I had written him weeks before. In the letter I expressed the concern of the Uniting Church in Australia at his announcement on 18 October that social security payments will be suspended if parents are assessed to be “not doing their part to get their child to school.”
While sharing concerns for improving educational engagement by Indigenous children, we are aware that such punitive approaches to school attendance have not worked elsewhere. In the report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) “What works to overcome Indigenous disadvantage”, published this year, the authors note (p.3) “a review of evidence from seven rigorously evaluated programs that linked school attendance with welfare payments in the United States found that sanction-only programs have a negligible effect on attendance, but that case management was the most critical factor.”
The Report identified from a review of the literature, respect for culture and different learning style were considered to be important for engaging Indigenous families in school readiness programs.
The Minister's speech acknowledged that what works in favour of school attendance are the following factors:
• a strong relationship between school and community;
• well prepared and well supported teachers;
• following students through with Personalised Learning Plans; and
• what’s been referred to as a “culture of high expectations”.
We are concerned that the additional punitive measure he announced of cutting social security payments may actually retard the impact of the above measures and increase financial hardship for families penalised, with financial hardship being identified in the AIHW and AIFS report as one of the factors that serves as a barrier to school attendance (p. 2).
I attended this meeting with my colleague Peter Jones, General Secretary of the UCA's Northern Synod. Peter was not only a teacher in a previous life, but worked in senior positions in the Northern Territory Education Department and has deep connections on the ground with Indigenous communities in the Territory.
The Minister listened respectfully to our position but wouldn't move on the basic policy direction. We left him with a well researched 13 page paper prepared by UnitingJustice supporting our call for a reconsideration of a policy we consider to be discriminatory and very likely to be ineffective in achieving its aims.
What is more difficult to measure is the long term impact on Indigenous communities of once again being on the end of paternalistic and punitive approaches to achieve desired outcomes.