WA government accused of failing at-risk Kimberley students over plans to address school truancy

The bureaucrat came with a piece of paper, and told Beverley Malay it was a plan to get her teenage son back into school. 

For the first time in a long time, the Kija woman was hopeful for change.

“We were all looking forward to the plan because maybe it would have helped our children,” said Ms Malay, who lives on the spinifex-dotted fringe of Halls Creek, in the remote Kimberley.

The Kimberley was in crisis.

Twelve children and young people, including one who was just 10 years old, had taken their own lives.

A 2019 coronial inquest had found poor school attendance to be a common factor in the deaths of the children, who died between 2012 and 2016.

Two of the deaths were in Halls Creek, where truancy is chronic.

The Education Department was under pressure to get Aboriginal kids back to school and agreed to an Ombudsman’s recommendation to draw up individual school attendance plans for students at “severe” risk.

“It has to be targeted”, the department staff on the ground warned in internal emails seen by the ABC.

The department pushed on and despite some setbacks due to COVID restrictions, the school drew up the majority of Halls Creek’s 225 student attendance plans in four days.

Aerial view of school buildings and grounds in remote town
The attendance rate at Halls Creek District High School is about half the state average for public schools.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

Two years on, Ms Malay said she had not heard back from the department about her son’s attendance plan.

William is still not attending school.

“It is frustrating not knowing what he was supposed to be participating in when we signed up all these papers,” Ms Malay said.

“We need to do something with these children. And get them out of that circle that they [are] in.”

Minister claims ‘amazing’ attendance win

Halls Creek District High School’s attendance rate is about half the state average for public schools.

It sits at 57 per cent for primary students, 38 per cent for secondary students, and 30 per cent for year 12 students.

In the wake of the suicide cluster, the WA Ombudsman found there had been “missed opportunities to identify child wellbeing concerns associated with poor school attendance”.

Government departments had not included enough “cultural consideration” in addressing school attendance.

A sign that reads "Halls Creek District High school" in front of barbed wire
Halls Creek District High School in the Kimberley is facing a truancy crisis.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

The Ombudsman made a range of recommendations to address the dire situation – including tasking the WA government with delivering comprehensive school attendance plans for the children in Halls Creek by the end of July of 2020.

In an email seen by the ABC, Education Minister Sue Ellery noted the need for action.

“We need to do better,” Ms Ellery wrote in the wake of the inquest in 2019.

By October 2020, the minister had claimed a victory in Parliament.

“Out of something as terrible as the coroner’s report into suicides some amazing work has been done in Halls Creek,”  Ms Ellery told Parliament.

She also visited the school to present plaques recognising efforts to boost attendance.

A woman surrounded by children with blurred faces
Sue Ellery visited Halls Creek District High School in September 2020 to praise staff for efforts to boost attendance.(Facebook)

Families claim plans are ‘a joke’

But families in Halls Creek were left bewildered.

“They tend to write up a big, glowing report,” said Millie Hills, a Bunuba-Kija woman, former Nationals candidate, and grandmother of a 10-year-old boy.

“It looks good on paper. But in actual fact, on the ground, it’s not even being delivered.”

An Indigenous woman looks at Indigenous art painted on a car bonnet
Millie Hills says her grandson should have an attendance plan.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

Ms Hills said she had never seen an attendance plan for her grandson, who often gets sent home from school for behavioural issues.

She said the department’s efforts were rushed.

“It’s a joke,” Ms Hills said.

The ABC has seen almost 150 of the attendance plans drawn up in 2020, many of which appear incomplete and lacking in detail.

About a dozen parents in Halls Creek who did sign the plans said they were never followed up.

Minister launches investigation 

Aerial image of outback town's main street
Leaders fear already rife social problems will only worsen in Halls Creek if education is not improved.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

The Wunan Foundation runs a Commonwealth-funded initiative helping Indigenous families get their kids to attend school in Halls Creek.

No-one from Wunan was available for an interview, but the organisation told the ABC it had not been actively involved in the development or rollout of the attendance plans.

The WA Education Minister has now launched an investigation into the Halls Creek plans, after questions from the ABC.

“These are serious allegations that raise concerns for me,” Ms Ellery said in a statement.

“Particularly in light of the vulnerability of some of the students involved.

The WA government’s Department of Communities has already moved to increase intensive support for as many as 20 at-risk families in Halls Creek, costing about $850,000 a year.

Department urged to sit down with residents

An Indigenous woman sits at her desk in an office
Brenda Garstone says attendance plans for at-risk students need to be followed up regularly and led by families involved.(ABC Kimberley: Ted O’Connor)

Jaru woman Brenda Garstone runs Halls Creek’s Indigenous medical service Yura Yungi.

A decade ago she was tasked with getting kids back to school under an initiative known as ‘Strong Families’.

She said it was intensive work that required close collaboration.

“It’s about sitting down, building that trust, and really understanding where the family is at,” she said.

“They want people to understand them. They don’t want to be judged. And they want to make sure that people have the right interest, and are going to bring something to the table to be able to support them.”

Ms Garstone said the department’s approach to Halls Creek has been a box-ticking exercise.

“So they want to try and use something to try and give themselves a pat on the back. But you know, it’s not about them. It’s about people’s lives.”

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