Facing our truancy epidemic

By Rowan Light December 08, 2020

Move over COVID-19, New Zealand is facing a different kind of epidemic. New data released by the Ministry of Education points to a freefall in attendance in our schools. Regular attendance – when students attend 90% of term time – has massively declined since 2016, across every age, level, decile, and ethnic groups. This truancy crisis raises massive questions about how we motivate students to engage in learning and community and, equally, the importance of the relationships and stories we provide to our young people – inside and outside the classroom.

We can discuss the different social and economic consequences of truancy, but consider this simple truth: life is only going to get harder for our young people as they take on more adult responsibilities. If they can’t face school, then what does that say about their (and our) future?

Life is only going to get harder for our young people as they take on more adult responsibilities

PhD research by Victoria University’s Delia Baskerville points to myriad reasons as to why young people skip school: family violence, frustration with teachers, bullying or anti-social experiences from other students. One young person told Baskerville that facing difficulties with learning and a lack of support from the adults in her life “kind of made me give up hope.”

The future can seem bleak, and lonely. The recurring theme of the truancy crisis is a breakdown in relationships (in whānau, schools, and communities) and with this, a loss of motivation. Relationships communicate the purpose and narrative of our lives. Confronted with life’s vagaries, we ultimately face either “fight or flight.” To fight, we need to be equipped: “I can meet this challenge, because the people who define my life, past and present, have faced similar difficulties – and won. They support me, no matter what.”

The past plays a vital role here. Ka mua, ka muri; we walk backwards into the future. It’s important that we see ourselves as part of a history, not just of conflict and collision, but also of solidarity and recovery. Crucially, we’re not just victims; the past gives us definition, but it does not imprison us.

Relationships communicate the purpose and narrative of our lives

The importance of life-affirming relationships suggests that current anti-truancy strategies which emphasise more compulsion in our compulsory school system—the threat of prosecution for parents that fail to keep their kids in schools or more report cards to track student attendance—are not going to solve this crisis.

Rather, it’s relationships that provide understanding, encouragement, and, above all, love that are going to be necessary heading into the future. Such a solution requires two responses: individually, we need to take care to connect, listen, and journey with young people in our communities. And collectively, we need to be careful about the stories we tell about our politics as a society. We need to tell our young people they are not just the victims of impersonal historic or economic forces, but also the artisans of society, economy, and culture. And yes, life is going to get harder, but we‘re going to be here with you.

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