Partnering with the community to lift Indigenous school attendance in Cape York

blackboard with drawings on it
  • Published Date: 30 March 2021

Government-led initiatives to increase school attendance by Indigenous girls in remote areas, often by emphasising punitive approaches, have been largely unsuccessful. A new case in ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library - From the ground up: developing the Cape York Girl Academy school by Dr Zoe Staines - outlines how women in Indigenous communities in Cape York worked to develop a new schooling model for girls based on addressing the structural barriers to their engagement with school.

The response moved beyond the individual behaviours of students and their families (e.g. choosing whether to attend school or not) and identified issues, such as the suitability of educational environments for Indigenous students, and the non-educational supports needed for students to maintain engagement with school.

This involved the accreditation establishment of the Cape York Girls Academy in 2016,  after conversations with Indigenous leaders and community members from across Cape York, which raised the need for Indigenous-led responses to low school attendance which focused on girls wanting to re-attend school.

After significant local input into its structure and design, the school opened in early 2016 under the name ‘The Cape York Girl Academy’ with a deliberately small intake of 20 students. It incorporated academic and health/wellbeing programs as well support for students with babies or young children.

So far, the school has seen excellent outcomes for its students, including dramatic improvements in school attendance. In Semester 1 2020, the 22 students who were enrolled had an average attendance rate of 86 per cent and multiples students have graduated their Year 12 studies.

The case finds that there is a continued need for additional comprehensive solutions for young parents to (re)engage with their schooling; for Indigenous students, these options also need to be culturally appropriate and respond to community wishes and desires.

It concludes that: ‘experience of designing and implementing this response re-emphasised the necessity for greater empowerment of Indigenous peoples and communities to design policies in ways that are strengths-based, and which value and are responsive to their own needs and aspirations. It also demonstrated the specific challenges of ground-up policy design, particularly where there are conflicts between grassroots-level solutions and top-down frameworks’.

The full case is available here.

ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library contains almost 300 examples of public policy challenges, to be used in the development of public managers. This article highlights a case on how one determined advocate shifted government policy on Indigenous health and helped save thousands from blindness.