John Guenther

Evidence on what doesn’t work for very remote schools (attendance strategies) and what does

The Australian school information website My School was launched in January 2010. In the initial press release of the website, the Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which runs the site, stated

We expect the data will benefit parents, schools, governments and the wider community to better understand school performance.

Now, with more than 10 years of data what can we say about school performance? In this blog post I want to share some of the understandings that emerge from my analysis of My School data about remote First Nations education. These understandings would have been very difficult to make without the information provided on the site.

The value of My School to researchers like me

My School has been criticised for its inability to improve performance, its inability to show the quality of teaching, and the use of NAPLAN scores as a vehicle for comparing schools. These are all valid criticisms, but as a researcher I look at My School differently. My School provides detailed information about almost every school in Australia. There is data on enrolments, teachers and school staff, school finances, attendance, NAPLAN performance, socio-educational advantage, school type, remoteness, year ranges, First Nations enrolments, gender, year 12 completion, and students speaking languages other than English.

Early on in the life of My School my colleagues and I, working in the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation’s Remote Education Systems project, developed a simple database for capturing information about the approximately 290 very remote Australian schools. Every year I have added the latest data about very remote schools. I now have 11 years of data. The analysis of this data has yielded some astonishing findings, some of which I will briefly outline.

Here are five of my findings that may be of interest to you.

1. Disadvantage does not affect attendance rates for First Nations students

Using ICSEA data we have been able to show that within the group of very remote schools, the level of socio educational advantage makes almost no difference to attendance. Figure 1 maps school attendance rates against ICSEA scores for very remote schools with greater than 80 per cent First Nations students for the period 2008 to 2018. The R2 value of 0.0196 indicates an insignificant association between the two variables. The commonly held views about disadvantage is that as disadvantage increases, attendance rates should go down. But in this analysis this assumption does not hold true.

Figure 1. ICSEA score vs school attendance rate for Very Remote schools with >80% First Nations students (2008-2018)

ICSEA score vs school attendance rate for Very Remote schools

2. Attendance makes very little difference to NAPLAN outcomes

As with disadvantage, the commonly held assumption is that low attendance causes ‘poor’ outcomes. Figure 2, based on My School data, shows that this logic is questionable. The R2 value of .1083 suggests that attendance explains about 10 per cent of the difference in NAPLAN scores (in this case Year 3 Numeracy).

Figure 2. NAPLAN score (Year 3 Numeracy) vs school attendance rate for Very Remote schools with >80% First Nations students (2008-2018)

NAPLAN score (Year 3 Numeracy) vs school attendance rate for Very Remote schools

3. Attendance strategies don’t work

Attendance strategies are intended to improve school attendance. Two federally funded programs, the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM), and the Remote School Attendance Strategy (RSAS), have targeted schools with low attendance rates. SEAM, which begin in 2009, was abandoned at the end of 2017. Then Indigenous Affairs minister Scullion labelled it as a ‘badly designed and woefully implemented program’. According to the Minister, it was ‘ineffective in getting kids to school’.

My School data (Table 1, below) confirms this assessment, with attendance rates for SEAM schools down 9.2 per cent since the program began. My School shows us that the downward trend was evident by 2012. RSAS is also designed to improve attendance. However since it began in 2014, attendance rates in RSAS schools have dropped 6.0 per cent. Meanwhile schools without SEAM or RSAS have also reported a decline in attendance rates, down 3.7 per cent in the same period. RSAS continues to be funded, but like SEAM it appears to be ineffective.

It is worth asking why there is even a need for an attendance strategy when as we saw earlier, attendance makes so little difference to academic performance.

Table 1. Attendance rates for Very Remote schools with >80% First Nations students

4. Three things that DO make a positive difference

If attendance and disadvantage don’t make a difference what then does? My School gives us some important evidence. Figure 3 (below) summarises nine years of data, where school finances are reported. While we should be careful about not attributing causality, what we can say is that schools that have higher levels of funding per student, and schools with lower staff to student ratios, have higher attendance rates.

Interestingly, the biggest effect on attendance is not the teacher student ratio, but the non-teacher student ratio. In very remote schools with mostly First Nations students non-teaching staff are mostly local staff. They could be classroom assistants, administration workers, grounds staff or bus drivers—regardless, it seems they make a difference.

Figure 3. Relationship between attendance rate, student to staff ratios and recurrent income per student, Very Remote Schools with >80% First Nations students, 2009-2017

Relationship between attendance rate, student to staff ratios and recurrent income per student

5. The failure of programmatic solutions

The One criticism of using My School for research purposes is that it does not tell us about individual students. However, when programs like RSAS are designed to lift school attendance, then it is reasonable to use school level data. One program that was designed to improve literacy in remote schools was the Literacy for Remote Primary School Program (LFRPSP) which was introduced as a trial in 2014 employing Direct Instruction (DI) and Explicit Direct Instruction methods. The trial received $30 million of public funding including extensions in 2017 and 2018 following an evaluation.

Did it work? My School tells us that it did not, and that based on the findings to 2017, an extension of the trial was not warranted. NAPLAN scores in DI schools fell by an average of 23 points while non-intervention school scores increased by 4 points.

Figure 4. Year 3 reading scores for Very Remote Direct Instruction (LFRPSP) and non-intervention schools, pre-intervention compared with post-intervention period

Summing Up

Are we any the wiser from 10 years of My School? From a research perspective the answer is an emphatic yes.

In Very Remote schools with First Nations students, My School has given us evidence we need to show what does and doesn’t make a difference to issues considered important for policy makers and advisers. What My School has shown us is that a focus on attendance in remote schools is ineffectual. It also tells us that deficit discourses of disadvantage are fundamentally flawed and what we are currently measuring as ‘advantage’ fails to explain the dynamics of success and achievement in remote schools. It also allows us to draw our own evidence based conclusions on whether programs are working or not.

My School data tells us that financial investment in remote schools works, particularly where it is directed at teachers and local support staff, and apart from any other benefits, that investment is reflected in higher levels of engagement and better academic performance.

With all the evidence, is anyone taking any notice?

The answer to this question is a qualified yes. There is increasing recognition that the deficit discourses of remote education are inappropriate and don’t reflect the lived reality of those who live there. It is also clear that stakeholders in remote education use this data and analysis for their own purposes. From personal experience I know that policy advisors in government departments seek out our analysis and are very interested in what it says. But how that translates into policy is unclear.

Beyond the evidence, government policy and programs are inherently political. Nevertheless, the value of My School as a data source is that it allows researchers (and the general public) to test the claims of governments and schools using their own data.

Image is by John Guenther taken at Muludja Remote Community School

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

John will be presenting on 10 Years of My School. Are we any the wiser? Implications for remote First Nations education at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

He will also be presenting on Supporting teachers with Professional Learning for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cross-curriculum priority: A case study of two schools at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

And, with Andrew Lloyd, John will be presenting on Interschool Partnerships: A study into effective partnership practices between an interstate boarding school community and a very remote Aboriginal Community at the AARE 2019 Conference. #AARE2019

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5Th Dec. #AARE2019 Check out the full program here

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

Boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can have very damaging effects: new evidence-based research

For many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students living in remote communities across Australia, ‘choice’ in secondary education is limited to either not going to school or going away to a boarding school far away from home.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of choice, the ‘good’ of the decision to go to boarding school is seldom questioned, it is taken as a given. Indeed, the ‘good’ is reflected in significant investments in scholarship programs, hostel infrastructure, transition support services and Abstudy to encourage the ‘choice’ to go away. Governments are reluctant to invest in local secondary schooling options

But why is this so? Surely there is a good theoretical foundation and an evidence base that shows how much better off individuals and communities are from the improved education that students will receive from a boarding school experience.

Evidence of the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

Until about 2012 there was almost no research conducted which showed the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Since then an emerging body of work is being generated that mostly raises questions about the ‘good’ of boarding, and indeed points to some major concerns.

At the 2017 AARE conference a number of researchers presented a synthesis of their findings and proposed a ‘theory of change’ which shows the complexity of the boarding context and possibility of unintended and undesirable outcomes of boarding. These outcomes, based on findings from the authors point to the possibility of social distress, mental ill-health, substance abuse, loss or confusion of identity, culture and human capital, among other outcomes.

Two other government inquiries/reports, “From surviving to thriving Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Study Away Review, highlight concerns in relation to preparation, travel, funding for accommodation, health and wellbeing, growing expulsions, loss of culture, and poor parent and community engagement. The Study Away from Home report points to a 40% increase in demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding places in the 4 years to 2016. Another report, the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, will also likely address some of these issues when it is released. How could the ‘good’ have been so badly misread?

Apart from the lack of evidence-based policy, the failure of boarding to realise its hopes can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the theoretical foundations of boarding school initiatives.

Our research on boarding outcomes remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We have been working on this very issue and presented our initial findings at the 2017 AARE conference in Canberra at the end of last year. Here’s what we found, based on our analysis of boarding outcomes viewed through the lenses of social, human and identity capital. Very briefly, the three capitals can be explained as follows.

Human capital

The concept of human capital can be traced back to the 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, who described ‘acquired abilities’ as an investment that costs the individual but which ‘repays that expense with a profit’. This idea was applied to economics in the early 1960s through scholars such as Schultz and Becker. These economists argued that individuals make decisions about education based on the economic return from their investment in knowledge. Becker put forward models that calculated the likely return of staying in school.

In short, the longer an individual stays in education the greater the return on investment. The push to see more young people go to boarding schools can be seen as an attempt to increase economic productivity through education.

Social capital

The idea that people gain value from their network of social relationships is not new. However, theorisation of ‘social capital’ is relatively new and certainly post-dates theorisation of human capital. Pierre Bourdieu was the first to theorise social capital. Bourdieu brought together concepts of economic, social and cultural capital. His theory suggests that social and cultural capital can be bought. That is, an economic investment may allow individuals to access the wealth associated with social structures, which would otherwise not be accessible. However, while arguing for the convertibility of various forms of capital, Bourdieu asserts that the group acts to protect its accumulation of the capital.

We see these apparently opposing dynamics working in the context of boarding scholarships. Scholarships are an attempt to buy the cultural and social capital inherent in the institutions of boarding schools, particularly elite schools. However, the social groups of home community and boarding school will act to protect their accumulated capitals, which inhibit the exchange which would otherwise allow the student from the community to ‘walk in two worlds’.

For young people—particularly those from remote communities—the challenges associated with building social relationships (part of social capital) in a foreign environment, and the challenges associated with investing to build knowledge (part of human capital) in a boarding school would undoubtedly be enough to break them.

Identity capital

But on top of that, like all young people, at this very point adolescent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will be experiencing (as Erik Erikson suggests) ‘identity confusion’.

The theory of identity capital was developed by James E. Côté and Charles G Levine. Their short definition is as follows:

In sum, the term “identity capital” denotes “investments” individuals make, and have, in “who they are.” These investments potentially reap future dividends in the “identity markets” of late modern communities. (Côté & Levine, 2002, p. 147)

How these theories work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We wanted to know how the assumptions of capital theories actually work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We examined the literature from policy and research documents and compared the two. The results of that comparison are shown in the table below.


Capital How it should work for remote students attending boarding schools How it can work (based on the evidence)
Human Capital Theory

•Individuals make a choice to invest in their education because of the perceived and actual return on the investment

•Communities benefit through increased productivity

•Education leads to improved employment pathways and higher income

•Individuals may perceive a net cost to education and therefore choose not to invest

•Communities may lose human capital if students choose not to return to communities

•Pathways from education and training to work may be avoided in favour of alternative livelihood options

•Income benefit may not materialise

Social Capital Theory

•Investment in social capital gives access to wealth through social structures

•Communities strengthen through links to external sources of power


•Identification with powerful social structures may lead to exclusion from community power structures

•External sources of power act to protect and control resources to the exclusion of communities

•Lost opportunities to engage in the local cultural economy

Identity Capital Theory

•Investment in identity capital affirms role development consistent with ontologies associated with schooling

•Agency/choice/self-investment leads to improved health and wellbeing outcomes


•Conformance to educational identity expectations/aspirations may lead to identity confusion/crisis

•Conflicting identities may lead to ill-health and loss of cultural identity



Our research is a red flag for policy makers and service providers of boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We are not suggesting that these are the only theories we could apply to this issue, but offer this analysis as a starting point to critically examine assumptions of those involved in policy and service delivery for boarders. What our analysis suggests is that the theoretical assumptions applied to boarding provision are often incorrect.

For some, the assumptions may work, but our concern is for those where the ‘good’ of boarding turns into a ‘bad’ for students, communities and families. To that end, along with the evidence and the recent reviews cited above, the analysis serves as something of a red flag and should cause all involved in what is akin to an experiment, to beware of the negative consequences of pursuing a policy that limits choice for remote families and may have profoundly dire results.


John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.



Bill Fogarty is currently the A/C Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU in Canberra. He has a long history of research and work in Indigenous Education and is currently a Chief Investigator on a number of large research projects including the Australian Research Council funded ‘Deficit Discourse and Indigenous Education’ project.


Note: The blog post image is Yirara College in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, a Lutheran boarding school for Aboriginal students. Students from remote communities go all over Australia to boarding schools.

In the Northern Territory about 700 Aboriginal students would go to boarding schools within the NT and another 1000 or so would go to interstate boarding schools.


This is Ampilawatja school, a remote school in the NT. This is typical of schools (where they are available) in remote regions.


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