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Boosting Indigenous school attendance creatively

A unique pilot program implemented in remote Aboriginal communities has overcome many challenges surrounding school attendance that have been a part of the Indigenous education landscape since its inception in Australia.

The Learning on Country program, launched in 2013, involves community leaders and Indigenous rangers that teach students about customary knowledge, culture and literacy and numeracy. It has so far has been rolled out across five Arnhem Land sites – Maningrida, Yirrkala, Laynhapuy Homelands (Yirrkala), Groote Island and Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island).

A review of the program, led by Dr William Fogarty from The Australian National University’s National Centre for Indigenous Studies (NCIS), found the Learning on Country pilot program had improved school attendance and engagement from both students and communities.

He said the first two years of the trial has seen remarkable enthusiasm from all sectors including governments, teachers, educators, students and the community.

“We kind of lost our way around some of the school attendance issues in Indigenous communities and increasingly the policy approach has been much more stick than carrot, particularly in remote Australia where we saw things like SEAM trials which linked attendance to welfare payments – and we’ve seen the Northern Territory introduce some reasonably draconian approaches to getting students to school by punishing parents.

“Where the Learning on Country program differs is that it actually begins by going, ‘Well, what are the types of learning that are local place value and with that as a starting point how do we think about the rest of the learning?’ and then the attendance becomes an outcome of good pedagogy rather than draconian policy.”

The program, which aims to make school more relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in remote areas, uses a local Indigenous knowledge base to engage students with their own culture, identity and place, and then uses that as a platform for wider education.

“The Learning on Country program grows out of a fairly long tradition of Indigenous land and sea management programs that have been really successful right across the top end, from the Kimberley through to the Cape,” Fogarty said. “In places where engaging Indigenous students is difficult or where it hasn’t had a good track record, good teachers look around for what’s working locally and they partner up with it. So schools and Indigenous ranger groups have been working together in places for the last 15 years or so in a very ad hoc way.

“The Learning on Country project is a grass roots community-based approach to generating an education program where four communities got together and decided they wanted to put something far more structured, sustainable and permanent around this notion of Learning on Country, and so they got together, formed a steering committee, engaged with government to get some funding, and that was the genesis of the four pilot trials that I’ve been working with recently.”

Fogarty says the program is a model of learning that’s engaging part of the whole community in teaching and also changes the dynamic between teachers and students because it positions the conversation more about what learning is being selected, who’s doing the selecting and how to balance that knowledge.

“Learning on Country begins with the idea that local Indigenous custodians and landowners have a wealth of knowledge about place, and of course the community value that knowledge greatly, so we begin with them as the teacher,” Fogarty said. “It changes the power relationship between teacher and student as well, because the students actually know quite a bit and the teachers often, particularly if they’re non-Indigenous teachers, don’t know very much at all about that place.

“Then the Indigenous rangers themselves become the next element in the pedagogy cycle; they become the next teachers, if you like. And then you’ve got scientists that come in and do some western science with the students, and he teachers bring it all together in the classrooms.”

While the program’s educational outcomes are paramount, Fogarty says it’s not only the curriculum outcomes but also about community wellbeing, individual student’s growth and setting up pathways for their future.

“The curriculum outcomes are at the core, but there’s a whole host of other more socio-cultural outcomes that are just as important that come out of the program,” he said. “The communities understand the need for curriculum outcomes, but they also want to make sure that some of their own knowledge and approaches are valued in the education that their school students are getting.”

Fogarty says he hopes the program’s model can be rolled out to other communities across Australia.


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