Experts warn COVID-19 could throw Closing the Gap targets back with ‘unclear’ Indigenous boarding school attendance data



For 11-year-old Nadine Kenny, from Indulkana in the remote lands of Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) in South Australia, going to boarding school is a chance to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

“It was good for her, and it’s probably going to be good for me too… like, mother, daughter going to the same school, that’s pretty cool,†Nadine said.

She is enrolled in Wiltja Anangu College in northern Adelaide, which has been run by the Anangu community for over three decades.

Wiltja director Anthony Bennett describes the program as a “home away from home†for children in remote communities.

“This is an opportunity, from Anangu’s perspective, to equip children with the skills to operate outside their communities, navigate both worlds and thrive,” Bennett said.

Connie Ryder and Tasma Pollard are students at Wiltja Anangu College. (

ABC News: Brant Cumming


Current Wiltja student Connie Ryder, 13, said that while she misses her family and community, leaving home has been worth it so far.

“It was really good for my education,†she said.

However, COVID-19 lockdowns and a slow rollout of vaccines on APY lands have severely affected enrollment rates, with most students not returning.

According to the Australian Boarding School Association, the number of indigenous students attending boarding schools in South Australia almost halved in 2021 compared to 2020.

The number of indigenous children enrolled in boarding schools across Australia has also declined since the start of the pandemic.

Indigenous Education and Boarding Australia chief executive Greg Franks said he feared progress so far in closing the gap in indigenous education was being hampered.

“If we are to achieve this goal of closing the gap, it will not happen unless children from remote communities go to residential school,” he said.

A young native boy smiling
Sydney Roberts’ family members encouraged him to attend Wiltja Anangu College in Adelaide. (

ABC News: Brant Cumming


Asks for greater support from students

For Sydney Roberts, an Indulkana teenager and potential student in Wiltja, school can be “a bit of hard work.”

It was his uncle Tremayne, who also dated Wiltja, and his grandmother who encouraged him to complete his studies in Adelaide.

“Tremayne told me to listen to the good guys in Wiltja and don’t run away, be nice, go to school and finish school here,†Sydney said.

Franks attributes the increase in the Indigenous high school graduation rate – from 39% in 2001 to 67% in 2019 – to an increase in the number of students attending boarding schools.

That’s a good question, but the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), which monitors distance school attendance, told the ABC it couldn’t release the data.

“Attendance data since the start of the pandemic is not publicly available,” said a spokesperson for the NIAA.

“Attendance data has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the different schooling modalities implemented across the country. “

A man in a suit seated.
Greg Franks is the Managing Director of Indigenous Education and Boarding Australia. (

ABC News


Wiradjuri’s wife and Queensland University of Technology scholar Jessa Rogers said the lack of clear data on student enrollment – and attendance – made tracking goals nearly impossible.

“The impact of the COVID pandemic on Indigenous borders is really hard to imagine when we don’t have a clear picture of what’s really going on right now,†Dr Rogers said.

“The loopholes in the federal government’s dependence on residential schools are clearly evident now that travel is difficult and dangerous.”

Dr Rogers called for a more in-depth look at how boarding schools supported students in remote communities, who were still enrolled but not physically present.

“When ongoing funding is provided to residential schools when the students are actually at home, how is that money being used to support the students in this new environment? ” she said.

A woman standing in front of the university buildings
Wiradjuri wife Jessa Rogers is an academic at Queensland University of Technology. (

ABC News: Mark Leonardi


COVID exposes a “fragile model”

The federal government has announced $ 16 million in funding, which Indigenous-majority residential schools can apply for at the end of 2021.

This is an injection of funding for just one year intended to help the sector cope with the impacts of COVID-19.

Mr Bennett said the money would not have the desired effect of returning students to school unless it is paired with strong community involvement.

“$ 16 million is a pittance. If it’s travel, okay, but that’s not the problem,” he said.

Dr Rogers said she would like to see the money invested closer to home.

“We have long called for in-country learning options and local schooling for indigenous families,†she said.

“The words choice and opportunity are used a lot in the context of boarding schools, but there really is little choice for students who don’t have a local high school to attend.

“The boarding school model has always been a fragile model for our distant and very distant students, and this pandemic has just exposed some of those weaknesses.”



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