Indigenous school attendance improved when there was a threat that the Federal Government would cut welfare payments if children didn’t go to school, University of Melbourne researchers have found.

However, when it became apparent that ceasing welfare payments would not occur, school attendance rates dropped again for these Indigenous children.

The research, co-authored by Professor Moshe Justman and Kyle Peyton at the University’s Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, examined the impact of Australia’s Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) on the NT Indigenous participation in NAPLAN tests and test scores.

“The data showed that the threat of welfare loss alone doesn’t work to get Indigenous students to school. We need a suite of programs if educational engagement is the goal,” said Professor Justman.

“The SEAM pilot programme, which threatened to stop welfare payments, was not sustainable and did not lead parents to place greater value on education and encourage their children to study,” he said.

The NAPLAN participation rates rose, on average, from a pre-SEAM level of 68% in 2008, to over 85% in 2009, the first year SEAM was implemented.

The share of children meeting minimum national standards rose from 27% to 34%, on average in that year.

However, the following year, when it became apparent that welfare payments were not being cut, attendance fell to 75%, and later years saw further declines.

By 2012 all the gains in achieving both minimum national standards and attendance had evaporated. “This was a missed opportunity to get truant children interested in school.

The decline in participation indicates that they and their parents did not find it worthwhile to keep attending,” said Professor Justman.

“Poor employment prospects for the Indigenous community make it difficult for parents and children to see much economic benefit in staying in school; improving employment prospects can raise school attendance.

“Other approaches may work better to get children and the families enthusiastic about participating in schooling. A curriculum that includes Indigenous languages and culture can help draw families nearer to their schools,” he said.