Lifting attendance rates is often viewed as the key to improving education outcomes for Indigenous students and their peers, but new research by La Trobe University researchers suggests this link may be misleading.
In two recent papers, La Trobe University researchers examined the causes and effects of attendance rates at a Victorian urban primary school over an 11-year-period (2005–2015).
About 20 per cent of students enrolled in the school were Indigenous in this period, and the school serves a population in the lowest 13 per cent of income earners in Australia.
Lindy Baxter and Professor Noel Meyers analysed NAPLAN results in Years 3 and 5 from 2008–2015 together with attendance and enrolment data, and found no significant relationship between attendance rates and NAPLAN literacy and numeracy scores for Indigenous or non-Indigenous students.
The research reflects similar findings for remote schools with large proportions of Indigenous students.
However, there is little research on Indigenous students’ attendance in urban settings, even though most Indigenous Australians live in urban areas.
Ms Baxter said that improving attendance rates of Indigenous students was one of the Indigenous education policy’s key strategies.
“However, this research and recent remote region research inform us that at some schools Indigenous (and other) students’ educational achievement bears no relationship to their attendance rate, as we might have predicted,” she said.
Ms Baxter added that though there are students whose educational achievement reflects their attendance regularity, as other studies have shown, “There is no guarantee that a student will have excellent NAPLAN scores because they attend school every day, just as students with low attendance rates can produce unexpectedly high NAPLAN scores.
“A universal attendance and achievement relationship does not hold true.
“While that finding seems counterintuitive, we need only reflect on the number of factors required for students’ optimal learning.”
The authors emphasise that their study does not show attendance never has an influence, since attendance also provides opportunities for learning and personal development, engagement with the curriculum, and the social learning environments featuring friends and peers. “We didn’t look at these factors and their role in achievement,” Ms Baxter said.
“Learning opportunities do not automatically translate to better learning. So simply encouraging Indigenous students to attend school more often may remain insufficient to yield academic success. The question remains, what factors, singly or in combination, create higher achievement?”
At the school involved in this study, students who had repeated their prep year also achieved higher NAPLAN results, though the authors explain that the first year of prep likely represented a substitute for preschool. These cases occurred before universal access to preschool became the norm.
While Indigenous students at the school had lower attendance rates and NAPLAN scores than non-Indigenous students, the majority of participants attended at least 80 per cent of classes and scored above NAPLAN minimum benchmarks.
Ms Baxter said school programs tailored to Indigenous students and other financially vulnerable students helped raise attendance, achievement, and students’ sense of inclusion.
Examples included providing breakfast, uniforms, and financial support for everyday and extra-curricular activities.
“The school also takes steps to culturally include Indigenous students and form community partnerships, making it a school of choice for Indigenous families in the area,” she said.
To view the full research paper, ‘What counts? The influence of school attendance on Australia’s urban Indigenous students’ educational achievement’, please click here.