Experts warn COVID-19 could send Closing the Gap targets backwards with data on Indigenous boarding school attendance 'unclear'

© Provided by ABC Health

For 11-year-old Nadine Kenny, who comes from Indulkana in South Australia’s remote Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, going to boarding school is a chance to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

“It was good for her, and it’s probably going to be good for me too … like, mother, daughter going to the same school is pretty cool,” Nadine said.

She’s enrolled at Wiltja Anangu College, in Adelaide’s north, which has been operated by the Anangu community for more than three decades.

“At Indulkana it’s just the one school and definitely not as many opportunities we’ve got here at Wiltja,” Nadine said.

Wiltja’s director, Anthony Bennett, describes the program as a “home away from home” for children from remote communities.

“It’s an opportunity, from an Anangu perspective, to equip the kids with skills to operate outside their communities, two navigate both worlds, and thrive,” Mr Bennett said.

Current Wiltja student, Connie Ryder, 13, said even though she missed her family and community, leaving home has so far been worth it.

“It’s been really good for my education,” she said.

However, COVID-19 lockdowns and a sluggish vaccine rollout across the APY Lands have severely impacted enrolment rates, with most students not returning.

“The APY Lands was in lockdown for three months and in a great state of fear, understandably, so we were shut,” Mr Bennett said.

According to the Australian Boarding School Association, the number of Indigenous students attending boarding schools in South Australia has almost halved in 2021 compared to 2020.

The number of Indigenous children enrolled in boarding schools across Australia has also dropped off since the pandemic began.

Indigenous Education and Boarding Australia chief executive Greg Franks said he is worried that will dent the progress made so far in closing the gap in Indigenous education.

“If we’re going to achieve that Closing the Gap target, that’s not going to happen unless we have kids from remote communities going to boarding school,” he said.

Calls for greater support for students

For Indulkana teenager and potential Wiltja student Sydney Roberts, school can be “a little bit of hard work”.

It was his uncle Tremayne, who also attended Wiltja, and his grandmother who encouraged him to finish his education in Adelaide.

“Tremayne told me to listen to the nice ones at Wiltja, and to not run away, to be good, and go to school and finish school here,” Sydney said.

Mr Franks credits the rise in Indigenous high school graduation – from 39 per cent in 2001 to 67 per cent in 2019 – to a surge in the number of students attending boarding schools.

“If a child isn’t attending school in the city for their secondary education, are they attending their local school in the bush?” Mr Franks said.

It is a good question, but the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), which monitors remote school attendance, told the ABC that it could not release that data.

“Attendance data since the beginning of the pandemic is not publicly available,” an NIAA spokesperson said.

“Attendance data was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic because of different schooling arrangements put in place across the country.”

Wiradjuri woman and Queensland University of Technology academic Jessa Rogers said the lack of clear data around student enrolments — and attendance — made monitoring targets almost impossible.

“The impact of the COVID pandemic on Indigenous borders is really hard to even imagine when we don’t have a clear picture of what’s actually happening at the moment,” Dr Rogers said.

“The flaws in the federal government’s reliance on boarding schools are in stark focus, now that travel is difficult and unsafe.”

Dr Rogers called for greater scrutiny of how boarding schools were supporting students from remote communities, who were still enrolled but not in attendance physically.

“When continual funding is provided to boarding schools when students are actually at home, how is that money being used to support students in this new environment?” she said.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing those supports are not in place and many students are dropping off the radar.”

COVID exposes ‘shaky model’

The Federal Government has announced $16 million of funding, which boarding schools with majority Indigenous enrolment can apply for at the end of 2021.

It is a one-year-only funding injection intended to help the sector with the impacts of COVID-19.

Mr Bennett said the money would not have the desired effect of returning students to school unless it was coupled with strong community engagement.

“$16m is a pittance. If it’s about travel, fine, but that’s not the issue,” he said.

“The issue is convincing families that vaccination is safe, that going to school, education, boarding, is not a dangerous place to go.”

Dr Rogers said she would like to see the money invested closer to home.

“For a long time we’ve been calling for on-country learning and local schooling options for Indigenous families,” she said.

“The words choice and opportunity are used in the context of boarding schools a lot, but there really is little choice for students that don’t have a local high school to attend.

“The model of boarding school has always been a shaky model for our remote and very remote students, and this pandemic has just uncovered some of those weaknesses.”

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