Anti-truancy programme caned by welfare organisations

By Greg Ansley

The federal Government is facing a growing rebellion against its anti truancy programme. Photo / Thinkstock.
The federal Government is facing a growing rebellion against its anti truancy programme. Photo / Thinkstock.

The Australian federal Government is facing a growing rebellion against its scheme to force wayward pupils back to school by stripping their parents of welfare and other benefits.

The four-year-old A$28 million ($36 million) anti-truancy programme, still being trialled in the Northern Territory and Queensland, is linked to the controversial income management scheme, launched under the intervention in indigenous communities across the north of the continent.

Queensland has pulled out of the programme, after a federal review that showed only limited success.

State Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek said it had failed to produce any significant change in student attendance rates.

The decision has been applauded by welfare organisations, which say the average A$200,000 the programme costs for each school involved could be far better spent elsewhere.

They have further urged Queensland's new conservative Government to also abandon new income management trials in the state, joining increasing opposition from Aboriginal groups.

The income management scheme, designed to take over ailing household budgets to ensure enough money is set aside for housing, food and other essentials, was this month criticised by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

The federal move to tackle high rates of truancy, known by the cumbersome title of Improving School Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (Seam), was launched in the 2008-09 budget.

It aimed to "encourage" parents of children of compulsory school age to ensure enrolment and regular attendance at trial schools in the remote NT towns of Katherine, Hermanssburg, Wallace Rockhole, Wadeye and the Tiwi Islands.

Seam was also being tested in four areas of Logan - on Brisbane's southern fringe - Doomadgee in Queensland's far northwest, and Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpenteria.

Parents receiving welfare and other income support payments must show their children are enrolled and attending school, or lose their benefits.

Payments are resumed, with back-pay, if children return to school regularly within 13 weeks. But a federal review found serious flaws in the programme.

It said parents' awareness of Seam was low - 40 per cent had not heard of it - and most of those who knew about the programme had learned of it through the media.

Parents were unclear about the programme's aims and saw it as a "big-stick" approach, less than half had thought more about the importance of their child's education since learning about Seam, and school principals did not have a clear idea of their role.

There had been improvements in school attendance but relapses into truancy were common.

Only about one-quarter of parents notified under the programme took reasonable steps to improve their child's attendance - and even this "was not always reflected in an actual improvement in attendance".

Langbroek said that extending the trial beyond the present cutoff at the end of the month would further burden state schools without gain.

"This big stick approach just basically doesn't work, and at the end of the day ends up impacting on the kids."

The state will instead focus on other measures such as school buses, providing breakfasts and before-school programmes, guidance and attendance officers, and chaplains and community liaison officers.

- NZ Herald

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