I was asked to facilitate in a process in the Northern Territory about improving the attendance of Aboriginal students at a large Aboriginal community school. My research before a series of meetings between community people and leaders of the Department of Education showed very different views on the issue as to the causes of low attendance.

So I worked with each group of representatives prior to the first meeting to get each very clear on what they saw as the issues and how those issues could be rectified to improve attendance.

At the first meeting, the Department people’s message strongly and definitively stressed parental and family responsibility was essential for school attendance, including a healthy lifestyle at home, rigorous rules to enforce attendance, assistance with school work at home. Into this theme was woven a message of support for families using local salaried community officers if children refused to attend or their presence was spasmodic.

The community response, led by a very quietly spoken Council Chair, focussed on an issue he said the Department had overlooked and he described it in this way.

“Every year for about 10 weeks over December, January and February, all our teachers leave the community and go to their homes for holidays. That’s our raining time, when we can’t get into or out of the community expect by air which costs too much money, so all the kids are in the community. Then in May, June, July when it’s the dry season, and all the teachers are in the community, most kids go to their homeland places and aren’t in town or at school.  Sometimes there are more teachers at school than kids .”

Those two perspectives set the scene for a fascinating series of meetings around systemic change – what could be altered to increase attendance, not only through families accepting responsibility for kids attending school, but the Department accepting responsibility for improving the opportunities for teacher-student contact by altering how the school year was constructed in that community.