18 Dec 2018

Auckland principals want action over 'poor' truancy services

5:59 am on 18 December 2018

Auckland secondary schools are calling for urgent action over the "poor" performance of most of the city's Attendance Services, which were set up to get students back in school.

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Photo: 123RF

They say only one of the city's four services was good at getting truants and non-enrolled children back to school.

Since 2013, the Education Ministry has contracted organisations to provide Attendance Services in 24 regions, with 16 organisations currently contracted to do the work.

Auckland Secondary Principals Association president Richard Dykes said last month it told the Education Ministry the system was not working in Auckland and change was urgently needed.

"We had a meeting with the Secretary for Education about three weeks ago to say that we are appalled at the service.

"This is not across the board, but we would say about three out of the four are doing a very poor job.

"Schools talk about not knowing who their attendance officers are, there is high turnover of staff. It is not working and it needs urgent attention."

Mr Dykes said attendance officers needed close, long-term relationships with local schools and families, and most Auckland Attendance Services did not have that connection.

He said schools were facing a chronic problem and more funding for the Attendance Services would not be enough to fix it.

"Schools are also pretty clear up here in Auckland that we want it to be school-based. The service that is working, it is based in a school and it is very effective, the ones that are not working, they're not based in schools," he said.

"You've got schools actually saying 'since these services are not doing what they're supposed to be doing we're going to fund it ourselves', so why don't we just acknowledge what the truth is and say let's actually fund the schools to do this properly."

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Helen Varney said many of its members would like to see a return to school-based attendance officers.

She said one of the Attendance Services was doing a good job, but the remaining three organisations did not have the local relationships they needed to be effective.

Few services achieve key benchmark

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said she had already asked the Education Ministry for advice about reforming the Attendance Service system right across the country.

She said the previous system of school-based truancy officers ensured a quick response when children were absent and she understood the switch to regional Attendance Services had slowed things down.

"It would take pages of documents to actually file a referral when a child didn't show up and we were starting to get concerned about their attendance at school and it could take three days from somebody to come across. So we lost what we had, which was a relationship with the family, we knew our kids, you know we lost our capacity to serve our community," Ms Martin said.

Last year, few of the 16 services achieved a key performance measure of closing unjustified absence cases within 22 days and Ms Martin said she doubted many would reach the benchmark this year.

In written reports, some services said they fell short because schools had asked them to keep cases open longer just to be sure, while others said the target was unreasonable because of the complexity of the problems they were working with.

Vaughan Couillault from the Secondary Principals' Association said many principals in other parts of the country would also support a return to school-based attendance services.

"The outsourcing, contracting model doesn't seem to have consistently served everyone across the country. I'm sure there are pockets of good practice, but on the whole I don't think it's achieving what it should be," he said.

Attendance Services contacted by RNZ News either did not respond or refused to comment.

However, services' reports said they had received no funding increase since they were set up, some struggled with high staff turnover, and some said schools could be difficult to work with.

Some services said schools waited too long to refer students which increased the risk that children would be completely disengaged from education and less willing to return to class.

One said schools were failing to refer students with attendance rates as low as 48 percent and that some schools did not have a process for tracking individual students' attendance problems.

The Education Ministry said it was aware of complaints about the Auckland services and would meet with the city's principals in the new year.

"We also intend to arrange regular, ongoing meetings with schools to discuss the service they are receiving from attendance service providers and work through any concerns. This will be done in all parts of the country for all attendance service providers and reflects a change to involve principals more in both assessing performance and setting standards," it said.

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