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Thursday, 19 June 2014
Page: 6814

Mr TUDGE (AstonParliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) (12:10): I thank the member for Durack for this question on what is a critical area. I commend her for her commitments to her constituency and her electorate, but more broadly to Aboriginal people across Australia. I know she has a very passionate commitment in wanting to see the advancement of Aboriginal people and wanting to see the gap closed in this country. I commend her for that.

The question she raises is a critically important one. It concerns school attendance and education attainment. As I said at the outset, this is our top priority in the Indigenous affairs portfolio and, therefore, one of the top priorities for the government is to lift the school attendance rate. If children are not at school then, by definition, they are not going to be learning. If they are not learning at school, it is so much harder to get employment afterwards and it is likely to lead to a life of welfare. It starts with school attendance. At the moment the school attendance rates, particularly in remote areas, as the member for Durack outlined, are sometimes at catastrophic levels. In some schools, the attendance rate is as low as 37 per cent. If you actually looked at what I think is the most important measure in this area, that of how many kids are attending at least 80 per cent of the time, that figure is even smaller. It is a very significant problem. We do not underestimate the challenge which we have to support schools, to support the Indigenous leaders and to support children to be able to go to school and to learn.

To date, the most important measure that we have introduced to tackle school attendance, particularly in remote areas, is the Remote School Attendance Strategy. In simple terms, that means providing employment opportunities for local, quality people to act as attendance officers. In the mornings they go around, knock on the doors, encourage the families to get their young son or daughter onto the minibus to take them to school, ensure that they are at school during the day and encourage those children to get home safely at the end of the day. This has been rolled out now in 73 schools, 12 of which are in Western Australia. Most of these are in the member for Durack's electorate.

Forty of those schools have had these school student attendance officers introduced in term 1. A further 33 were introduced in term 2. I can report that so far it has had some substantial results and substantial improvements. For example, in some places in the Northern Territory, the number of children in these schools where we have the attendance officers in place is now up 17 per cent on last year. A quarter of all schools in the stage 1 phase have had student attendance rate increases of between 15 and 25 percentage points. It is extraordinary that any school can have that type of increase at all, but it actually shows that in a quarter of the schools we are having tremendous results from these student attendance officers working with the local communities and working with families to get their children to school. Three quarters of the schools have had improvements in their student attendance rates.

This is not easy. A quarter of the schools still have not seen much improvement and there are a number of reasons for that. We constantly get advice from the student attendance officers as to what is going on in those schools and what can be done next to try to improve the student attendance rates. The member for Durack identified some of the issues which they have to tackle—whether it is parties going on at night or alcohol or substance abuse, including by the students themselves and that makes it so much more difficult. There are mobility issues, in that the students are more mobile than non-Indigenous students and may be in a different community at a particular time. All these create challenges, but we are determined to continue the roll-out of the Remote Students Attendance Strategy to monitor it closely, to work with the local leaders in those communities—because, at the end of the day, it has to be done with those local leaders—and to ensure that student attendance rates lift. If we cannot get student attendance rates higher, students will not be learning and if they are not learning then their prospects for employment are so much more difficult.