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  What Works - The Work Program

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Participation and engagement

Woody Allen once said: ‘90 per cent of success comes from turning up’. Or perhaps he said it was 80 per cent. Nobody is exactly sure. And he might have been joking anyway.

While we can’t give you a precise figure we certainly agree with this masterpiece of understatement from a South Australian teacher, who said that ‘it’s difficult to teach someone to read and write when they are not there’.

All teachers know that consistent attendance and engaged participation are powerfully linked to success in education. We also know that attendance is a matter only really resolved through schools and parents or carers working in partnership.

There are three focal points for work to engage Indigenous students and encourage high levels of attendance.

Preschool and school entry

Getting used to ‘doing school’ is harder for some students than others. A good start may not lead to a good finish, but it’s much better than a bad start.

At this level, the presence of Indigenous staff and a climate which is 'culture-friendly' are vital, as are opportunities for parent involvement in ways parents find useful and enjoyable

Current work to expand provision of preschool in Indigenous settings is a most positive development and should lead to smoother transition to school for Indigenous children.

Transition to secondary school and adolescence

It is in the early years of secondary school that many Indigenous students are ‘lost’ to formal education. This is where engagement and a valued purpose for continuing are vital. Several factors appear to be at work:

  • the loss of the pastoral intimacy which is characteristic of primary schooling;
  • skill levels stretched past coping and hence an ever-growing record of academic failure;
  • an increasing incidence of confrontations about behaviour;
  • impatience with the passive nature of much schooling coupled with influence from peers who have already left school;
  • encounters with more aggravated forms of racism; and
  • a curriculum which becomes more abstract and less obviously relevant to the lives of students.

The Stronger Smarter Institute has two short public service videos that show Indigenous students Michaela and Billy with a 'Learn, Earn, Legend!' theme. (Find them through 'Related Links', to the right of this page.) You could use the videos in discussions with students and parents. 

The upper secondary years

Clear pathways are required to ongoing education, training or employment. When other contemporaries have already left school, it can be difficult to retain focus.

Some suggested strategies

  • Investigate the causes of absence.
  • Work with key members of the local Indigenous community to discuss possible strategies that might improve the situation.
  • Make efforts to

— establish closer and less formal personal relationships between teachers and students (especially secondary settings)

— provide a more informal and less regimented climate

— provide students with opportunities to negotiate work

— teach so that success can be regularly and obviously achieved.

  • Increase the level of contact between students and Indigenous peers, mentors or members of staff in order to support individual students.
  • ‘Manage’ students on a case-by-case basis through

— home visits and other forms of community liaison

— personal contact and consistent follow-up where absence occurs

— personal planning and goal-setting

— some work-related studies and experiences for older (age 14/15 plus) students

— support with academic work

— links (actual and/or electronic) with other students in similar situations

— counselling and mediation where problems are occurring

— developing a Personalised Learning Plan (PLP) with the student(s) concerned connecting the role of education with any longer term aspirations they may have and laying out clearly what is required to get to their goals.

It is clear that schools must get direction and help on these issues from respected members of Indigenous communities. Encouragement and support from those people is vital.


© Commonwealth of Australia 2020