A better engagement strategy is needed to tackle truancy

Education Minister Chris Hipkins recently announced an $88 million package for truancy issues alongside a new national attendance and engagement strategy.

Our woes with declining regular school attendance existed before the pandemic in all schools, all decile levels, all ethnic groups and all communities.

In 2015, regular school attendance (average attendance of 9 out of 10 school days per fortnight) was 69.5%, falling to 59.7% in 2021. Added to this is chronic absenteeism (missing more three school days per fortnight) increased between 2015-2021 from 5% to 7.3%. Unfortunately, our country’s truancy crisis has been boiling over for years, so our alarming statistics come as no surprise.

Significant Concern

Of greater concern are ambitious new targets to get 70% of children back to school by 2024 and 75% by 2026. Government officials said the goals had to be “ambitious but also realistic”. Translation: We are not too concerned about a third of learners absent from compulsory education as long as the majority are well. Are we, as a country, happy with the poor school attendance rates and their impact on the future of our children? Are we, as a society, satisfied with “realistic” goals, neglectful, less than ambitious and disappointing for our children?

The interplay of family, household, economic, cultural and school factors adds to the complexity of school absenteeism. It’s hard not to sympathize with schools that continue to face issues of absenteeism and deal with post-Covid-19 impacts on learners.

Throughout my schooling in South Auckland, the problems of school absenteeism were recurrent and complex. However, I have seen school management and staff dissatisfied with national targets such as 70% regular school attendance and aiming for 90% school attendance. I have seen my teachers, school deans, truancy officers, social workers and our principal actively working with parents and families to get their youngsters into school.

Impact of decisions

I have witnessed the impacts of good policy decisions balancing equipment and enabling schools to tackle absenteeism alongside accountability measures. For low-decile schools like mine, addressing absenteeism went beyond simply getting a learner back to school.

Teachers and school management would be faced with the reality that compulsory schooling is not for some learners. Instead, supporting them in alternative learning environments or employment opportunities where they can thrive was the best option.

Our school truancy crisis raises many questions about the role and purpose of education for all learners. Compulsory education is less and less adapted to the needs of certain learners.

It is time for the education sector to consider amplifying alternative options such as pathways to sectors with labor shortages and diversified employment pathways.

Other opportunities include tackling truancy earlier in Years 1-8 and redesigning the National Attendance Service to reflect local communities and solutions.

It may also be time for an honest assessment to determine whether the child-centered pedagogy that is prevalent in our national curriculum is potentially part of the problem.

Issues like truancy are complex, but that’s no license to undermine our children’s education and future.

‘Alapasita Teu is a researcher at the Auckland-based Maxim Institute.

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