1 Oct 2018

Principals dubious about student truancy report

12:45 pm on 1 October 2018

School principals are dubious about research suggesting initiatives from other countries can help New Zealand fight rising truancy.

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A report says New Zealand has one of the highest absence rates in the OECD and truancy is rising. Photo: 123RF

The report for the Education Ministry by British company Behavioural Insights said schools could improve attendance by scheduling fun lessons in the morning, teaching children skills such as resilience, and appealing to Māori and Pasifika values of reciprocity.

The report, Using behavioural insights to reduce unjustified school absences, says New Zealand has one of the highest absence rates in the OECD and truancy is rising.

The report was based on interviews with 13 staff at three schools in Wellington, a "rapid review" of New Zealand and international research.

Secondary Principals' Association president Mike Williams said the report was light, but it would be useful to trial some of its ideas.

However, he dismissed the suggestion of running fun courses in the morning and after lunch to make students more likely to come to school and stay there.

"What's fun for one person might not be fun for the next person," he said.

"It's really trying to suggest that we'll turn school into play time to get people to come."

Mike Williams, Pakuranga College Principal and President of the Secondary Principals Association

Secondary Principals' Association president Mike Williams says school should not be turned into play time to ensure students attend. Photo: SUPPLIED

Mr Williams said schools already talked to families "at length" to encourage better attendance.

Truancy was probably not the biggest problem facing schools, but for individual students it could be a major issue, he said.

"Because of lack of attendance, lack of achievement, lack of engagement, life outcomes are destroyed. For individuals it becomes a real problem," he said.

Factors such as family poverty and shift-work were causing truancy and schools needed more resources so they could work with families.

Truancy rates were highest in Tai Tokerau.

Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman said a lot of truancy was driven by people moving from one town to another for employment.

The idea of using a feeling of reciprocity to encourage families to ensure their children attended school was inappropriate, Mr Newman said.

"Owing the school because they've done their job and therefore they should attend, it sort of brings you back to the lord and laird of the manor doing good things so the people that work on his farm will work harder," he said.

"I don't think parents owe any school for doing their job."

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Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman says truancy is often caused by families moving towns for employment. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

The report said United States' research showed parents under-estimated the number of days their child was absent from school and how those absences compared to their peers.

Schools could reduce the number of absences by a day a year if they wrote to parents or caregivers telling them how many days their child had missed and comparing that figure to the average for their class, the report said.

Another option was to send regular messages about what students were learning to a family member or mentor.

The report said the messages increased school attendance and exam pass rates in a trial in the United Kingdom.

Schools could improve attendance by making families feel obliged to ensure regular attendance in return for the work teachers were doing with their children.

The report said reciprocity could be particularly effective for Māori and Pasifika people, because it was an important part of their cultures.

"Using reciprocity and social framing - for example by emphasising what teachers are doing for a particular child, or even offering food at a hui (meeting) - may help foster a sense of togetherness with families."

Teaching children "character skills" had increased student test scores and happiness in Bhutan, Mexico and Peru.

"Across all three countries, the most important skills were perseverance, resilience, and fostering good relationships. Evidence suggests the impact even lasted 12 months after the intervention ended."

Schools could teach students to come up with strategies to ensure they did not let obstacles, such as nervousness about being late, prevent their attendance.

The report said schools could help students set regular attendance as a goal, or compromise with them.

"For example, a student might wish to play on the soccer team even though his attendance is below the school's requirement for sports events, and compromise on this issue. This approach can help build a student's sense of agency and self-efficacy," the report said.

New Zealand had relatively high rates of absenteeism compared to other countries and the rate of unjustified absence had been rising since 2012.

An international survey in 2015 found about 25 percent of New Zealand 15-year-olds admitted skipping at least a day of school in a two-week period, the ninth highest figure in the OECD and similar to figures in the United Kingdom and Australia.

New Zealand fared worse regarding the number of students who failed to attend school at least 90 percent of the time.

The Education Ministry's deputy secretary of evidence, data and knowledge, Craig Jones, said the report was an "initial scoping study" aimed at providing a better understanding of truancy, and identifying ways of tackling it.

Some schools already used strategies identified in the report, Mr Jones said.

"For example, many schools use text messaging services to let parents know if students have been absent."

Mr Jones said the ministry encouraged more schools to try those approaches, evaluate them and share their experience with other schools.

"We're still considering how we might be able to partner with schools to implement the strategies identified in the report. As the report suggests, a key part of this would be to rigorously test if and how the strategies impact attendance and engagement in New Zealand's schools."

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