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New school attendance targets a hit and miss

By 'Alapasita Teu June 21, 2022

Education Minister Chris Hipkins recently announced a $88m package for school absenteeism issues alongside a new national attendance and engagement strategy. Our woes with declining regular school attendance existed pre-pandemic across all schools, decile levels, ethnic groups, and communities.

We’re not too concerned with one-third of learners absent from compulsory education so long as the majority are doing okay.

In 2015, regular school attendance (attending an average of 9 out of 10 school days a fortnight) was at 69.5%, dropping to 59.7% in 2021. To add to the mix, chronic absenteeism (missing more than three days of school a fortnight) has increased between 2015-2021 from 5% to 7.3%. Unfortunately, our nation’s truancy crisis has been bubbling away for years, so our alarming statistics are no surprise.

A more significant concern is the new aspirational targets of getting 70% of tamariki back into schools by 2024 and 75% by 2026. Government officials said targets had to be “aspirational but also realistic.” Translation: We’re not too concerned with one-third of learners absent from compulsory education so long as the majority are doing okay. Have we as a country come to be satisfied with mediocre school attendance rates and their impact on our children’s future? Are we as a society content with “realistic” targets that are negligent, far from ambitious, and failing our tamariki?

For low decile schools like mine, addressing truancy went beyond simply getting a learner back into school.

The interplay of family, home, economic, cultural and school factors adds to the complexity of school absenteeism. It’s difficult not to sympathise with schools that continue to face truancy issues and are dealing with post-COVID-19 impacts on learners. Throughout my schooling in South Auckland, truancy issues were recurrent and complex. However, I saw a school leadership and staff dissatisfied with national targets like 70% regular school attendance and aimed for 90% school attendance. I saw my teachers, school deans, truancy officers, social workers, and our principal actively work with parents and families to get their young people into school.

I witnessed the impacts of good policy decisions balancing equipping and enabling schools to address absenteeism alongside accountability measures. For low decile schools like mine, addressing truancy went beyond simply getting a learner back into school. Teachers and the school leadership would face the reality that compulsory schooling isn’t for some learners. Instead, supporting them in alternative learning environments or employment opportunities where they can flourish was the best option.

Perhaps it’s also time for an honest stocktake of the child-centred pedagogy rife throughout our national school curriculum.

Our truancy crisis raises many questions about the role and purpose of education for all learners. Compulsory schooling is increasingly less than fit-for-purpose for some learners. It’s time for the education sector to consider amplifying alternative options such as pathways into sectors with workforce shortages and diverse employment pathways. Other opportunities include addressing truancy earlier in years 1-8 and redesigning the national attendance service to factor in local communities and solutions.

Perhaps it’s also time for an honest stocktake of whether the child-centred pedagogy rife throughout our national school curriculum is potentially part of the problem. Issues like school truancy are complex, but that isn’t a license to undercut the education and futures of our children.

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