You have no customers in your Cafe? Do you blame them for not coming or do work harder to make your Cafe better?

This is the analogy that Ian Mackie from the Department of Education in Queensland raised today at the Dare to Lead’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Conference. His paper raised a number of questions: Can we continue to blame parents and communities who are unable to support our industrial education system? Is that the best solution? Or is it just the simplest?

The theme for the conference was ‘2025 Building Strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students for their Future‘ and for me Ian Mackiés presentation best summed up my concerns about the direction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and how we need to come up with new solutions that really do listen to community.

The conference began with a Welcome to Country by Aunty Agnes Shea accompanied by Mr Duncan Smith and his two sons who entertained participants with three songs. The sound of language, Didj, boomerangs and clapsticks echoed through the large meeting room. It was then followed by an award ceremony with awards for Excellence in Leadership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education for 2011 presented by the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, the Honourable Peter Garrett.

I was able to attend a number of sessions. The first keynote “Yes you do make a difference!”, Associate Professor Robert Somerville from Western Australia, outlined a practical research-based approach of the work of Vic Zbar (2009). His work, “Punching above their weight”, presented a very useful discussion about the preconditions for success which he argued are:

  1. Strong Leadership – stable, skilled at resource allocation and can draw out staff expertise
  2. High Expectations – of students and high efficacy between teachers and students
  3. Orderly Environment – consistent message not petty rules but consequences
  4. Focus on core priorities – no more than 5

He also argues that there should not be a focus on achieving regular attendance rates above 90 per cent, rather about increasing “average” attendance.

As I mentioned above, I also attended the keynote “From Attendance Crisis to Participation Crisis:  Reframing the Indigenous Attendance Problem” by Ian Mackie, the Assistant Director-General Indigenous Education and Training Futures – Education Queensland and it really got me thinking.

He argued that poor attendance at schools can be attributed to three reasons:

  1. Poor or hostile parental and carer attitudes towards school. From his experience, we continue to blame the victim. But taking the cafe analogy, parents and students are our customers. If we were running a cafe for example and people were not coming would we blame the customers or the chef for serving bad food.  Do we go to those customers and say you should eat this food because it is good for you?  Of course, it sounds ridiculous, but we continue to do this to our students.
  2. Poor societal support or insufficient valuing of education. Here he argued that we need to be careful that we don’t continue to say “attend school, do well and you will get a good job”. Because this is not an accurate picture of how various job markets work in the new century.
  3. Poor teaching and inconsistent attitudes and policies towards attendance. He proposed that instead of saying to a child that is late “why are you late? get to the office”, why not say “we’re glad to see you at school today”. Most schools will send students who arrived late to the office where they are confronted with an old cranky (usually) lady, stand around for 10 minutes fill in a form why late, then walk to class, making them even later, missed instruction, struggle, and sit through stuff it didn’t want to be here anyway.

I also listened to Rory O’Connor’s presentation. I’m afraid I took very few notes at his session, as I was too busy watching the slideshow of Rory’s images. He and I are from the same country – Yugambeh – and his images featured many of my family. Oops. I’ll have to make a point of getting along to another of his sessions so that I can stay on the key messages.

Overall, an excellent day in Canberra, and I look forward to attending more in the future.

Yours in Unity, Lisa M Buxton.