Creativity and Innovation Key to Tackling Global School Attendance Crisis

For budding young Brisbane composer, Ethan Waller, United Nations World Creativity and Innovation Day, is an annual reminder of a pivotal, problem-solving moment in his life that kept his “dream of a future alive”.

“We often joke that Ethan could be a poster boy for the international day,” says his mum, Shelley Waller.

In 2018, the UN declared April 21 a day of observance to raise awareness about the role of creativity and innovation in all aspects of human development, with a focus on advancing 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Good health and education are listed third and fourth on the SDGs.

The same year, Ethan’s life changed.

As Shelley explains, Ethan, who lives with the debilitating and little understood neuro-immune condition, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), had all but lost hope of living a purposeful, happy life.

That is, until not-for-profit MissingSchool joined forces with Ethan’s school, The Lakes College, to help him stay connected to learning via innovative use of a telepresence robot – and, then, the school’s own videoconferencing – which beamed him into the classroom when he couldn’t be physically present.

Ethan, now 21, became unwell in Year 8, but wasn’t diagnosed with ME/CFS until the beginning of Year 10 (in 2016). He completed senior study (Years 11 and 12) over four years, between 2018 and 2021, through telepresence support. In the process, overcoming social isolation from months to years of missing school.

“When Ethan was very, very sick, he was unable to leave the house,” Shelley said. “It was MissingSchool’s telepresence robot that kept him connected to his education – keeping his dream of a future alive by allowing him to stay in touch with friends, and graduate with an ATAR… which was way beyond our expectation given how little he was able to physically make it into school.”

Prior to the onset of ME/CFS, Ethan dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. While this is no longer possible, as he is unable to sit up for long periods due to the condition, Ethan is now pursuing his dreams via a Creative Music Tech degree at Queensland Conservatorium (Griffith University).

“Music is the thing that always switched Ethan on… it’s in his DNA,” Shelley said. “So, to think that he’s got a shot at a career in the music industry is beyond our wildest dreams. His dream now is to write music for film scores or release a chart-topper. Every week, he writes something new.”

Teaming Up

Ahead of UN World Creativity and Innovation Day, Ethan teamed up with MissingSchool, putting his creativity to good use by composing the soundtrack behind educational animations to support siblings and peers of students impacted by complex health challenges, minimising stigma and acknowledging their role in making positive connections.



Released today (April 21, 2024), the peer animations – complemented by telepresence discovery kits (accessible upon request) – will be shared in primary and secondary schools across Australia. They form part of a suite of digital services in MissingSchool’s groundbreaking initiative, Seen&Heard, which is commencing rollout after completion of a one-year pilot made possible through a Commonwealth grant and seed funding from TPG Telecom Foundation.

View primary and secondary school versions of the peer animations.

MissingSchool CEO and Co-Founder, Megan Gilmour said: “We approached Ethan to compose a unique and meaningful soundtrack for the educational animations because his lived experience of maintaining connection to school during a health crisis not only offers hope to others, but is cause for great celebration on UN World Creativity and Innovation Day.



“These are the stories that fuel MissingSchool’s innovations to end school isolation for more than 100,000 vulnerable students across Australia who are currently experiencing chronic absence in the face of rising medical and mental illness, with the trend of school refusal underlining the urgency of this national priority.”

Waiting isn’t an option

Since its 2012 formation, MissingSchool set out to solve school isolation by getting the learning and social needs of students with complex medical and mental challenges met through business as usual practices in their schools. In November 2023, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a global Commission on Social Connection to “address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority and accelerate the scaling up of solutions in countries of all incomes”.

“Waiting isn’t an option. The COVID pandemic emphasised the essential role of technology during health crises and created a world in which ‘work from anywhere’ has become a mainstay,” Megan said.

Telepresence technology also lets teachers teach lessons once, easing already stretched workloads and classroom complexity.

“The question is will schools turn ‘teach once’ telepresence back on and follow workplaces into the 21st century by championing ‘learn from anywhere’ as part of flexible learning arrangements suitable to all students?  This change is not only necessary, it’s immediately achievable at scale.”

“Every day, we see the courage and dedication of teachers, and celebrate their creativity and capacity to innovate and adapt in challenging conditions. By necessity, teachers implement ‘best on ground’ solutions decades faster than education administrators can think of them.

Shelley Waller agrees teachers play a key role in reimagining education, and should also be celebrated on UN World Creativity and Innovation Day.

“When Ethan was at school, the most innovative use of the MissingSchool telepresence robot was doggedly pursued by his music teacher, who innovated ways for him to workshop music activities across time and space,” Shelley said.

“She was single minded in keeping him inspired and provided socio-emotional support through encouragement and flexibility to ensure he didn’t fall behind.”

Since 2018, MissingSchool has helped an estimated 6,480 classmates reconnect through deployment of over 216 telepresence robots across Australia and trained 648 teachers in their use, with a further 2,160 teachers observing.

In addition to today’s release of peer animations, ongoing rollout of MissingSchool’s Seen&Heard initiative also includes delivery of:

Did you know? World leaders will gather to accelerate progress towards the SDGs at the UN Summit of the Future in New York on 22-23 September, 2024. Last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released a ‘Transforming Education’ policy brief ahead of the summit, including a call to ‘harness digital tools and resources to expand access, improve learning and increase capacities to navigate the future’. MissingSchool CEO and Co-Founder Megan Gilmour was recently invited to add her voice to the UN SDG Action Campaign. Find out more here

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