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Labor accused of throwing school refusal in ‘too-hard basket’ after response to inquiry | Australian education

The federal government has come under fire for refusing to implement recommendations to front a national action plan or offer peer support funding to reverse the national trend of school refusal.

On Thursday evening, the federal government provided its response to a Senate inquiry into the issue, agreeing or supporting in principle just two of its 14 proposals.

They included tasking the Australian Education Research Organisation (Aero) with analysing the drivers of school refusal and effectiveness of interventions, and working with governments to embed school refusal training in teaching courses.

The education minister, Jason Clare, said school refusal was “complex” and there was “a lot more to do” to reverse a decade of decline in attendance across all demographics.

But the Greens, who initiated the inquiry last October, said Labor had squibbed its response to the crisis, urging education ministers to put action at the top of the agenda at the next national meeting.

The report tabled eight months ago recommended a string of measures, including granting school students improved access to mental health care and providing more funding to parent support groups to address the “alarming rate” of low school attendance.

It also recommended improving child health screening for early intervention and improving trauma-informed practices in schools.

The Greens spokesperson on primary and secondary education, senator Penny Allman-Payne, said parents, carers and advocates had been “crying out for help” for years.

“This is a national issue that requires a national response and Labor has thrown it in the too-hard basket,” she said.

“Families experiencing ‘school can’t’ [school refusal] aren’t able to access appropriate support … and their physical health, mental health and financial wellbeing suffer as a result.

“The inquiry’s report recommended a range of very basic measures to begin to address this issue … but Labor’s response will leave those families without much hope.”

Founding board member of School Can’t Australia Tiffany Westphal said the commonwealth’s failure to prioritise immediate funding for peer support left families unsupported and “children at risk”.

Acara data released last year found about 40% of young people were deemed “chronically absent” according to benchmarks on attendance.

“Instead of taking the lead on what is a significant issue nationally, the government has hand-balled most of the responsibility back to the states,” Westphal said.

“We’ve just waited eight months for a response and will now have to wait longer.”

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School Can’t Australia currently has more than 11,000 members, receiving about 20 applications a day from distressed parents and carers, and is using crowdfunding to cover basic expenses.

“There is not a single parent or carer in our group who doesn’t wish their child was able to attend school,” Westphal said.

“Research efforts need to be directed towards identifying stressors and barriers to attendance.”

An associate professor in learning interventions at the University of Melbourne, Prof Lisa McKay-Brown, said she was “disappointed” by the commonwealth’s response. The inquiry received almost 200 submissions, many of them from parents.

“I understand education is the purview of states and territories but this response is a lost opportunity,” she said.

“I hoped I would see leadership from the federal government … particularly the recommendation around a national action plan.

“Traditional models of schooling aren’t working for everybody, and devolving to home schooling or distance education is not going to solve the problem either. But we need to understand what the problems are – we don’t at the moment.”

The president and executive director of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (Aspa), Andy Milson, said the report’s recommendations were “sensible” but may place additional pressure on an already under-resourced sector.

“Baseline data on the scale of the issue would be useful – but what jumps out at me is the overwhelming burden carried by schools responding to these issues,” he said.

“There’s the expectation schools will make more room to come up with flexible models for schooling – and this expectation is one of reasons we have a teacher shortage and really high levels of burnout and stress.”

Milson said “schools couldn’t take on more and do it alone”, backing additional collaboration with the health sector in favour of developing additional professional learning resources for teachers.

“We can’t keep overburdening schools,” he said. “Resource us properly and we’ll be happy to lead.”

Clare said the next National School Reform Agreement (NSRA), due at the end of 2024, would look at funding measures such as catchup tutoring to boost enrolments.

“The next NSRA is about making sure we properly fund our schools and tie that funding to the sort of reforms that will improve student outcomes,” he said.

“If you understand what’s happening in class, you are more likely to want to be in class.”

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