10 Nov 2022

Low school attendance further proof of decline of NZ education system - critic

11:02 am on 10 November 2022
School classroom

The report found four in ten parents were comfortable with their child missing a week or more of school per term. Photo: 123RF

Low attendance at school is another sign the country's education system is slipping with children from lower socio-economic areas the worst affected, the executive director of the New Zealand Initiative says.

The New Zealand Initiative is a think tank which carries out research to help New Zealand plan for the future.

It has commented on new research by the Education Review Office that shows children are missing school more in New Zealand than other English-speaking countries.

The office found four in ten parents were comfortable with their child missing a week or more of school per term and a third of students did not see going to school every day as that important.

The report, Missing Out: Why Aren't Our Children Going to School?, said even missing two days of class per term was linked to lower achievement.

It found families were keeping children home due to illness, but also because they were tired, in poor mental health, or being bullied.

The report surveyed Year 4 to 13 learners across Aotearoa and their parents.

New Zealand Initiative executive director Oliver Hartwich said that should not come as a surprise, with achievement among students also dropping year-on-year.

Hartwich said the system was in crisis.

The education system had been declining for 25 years and data backed up his view, such as the Pisa study carried out by the OECD. As an example, in maths the knowledge of a 15-year-old New Zealand student equated to a student aged 13 and a half 20 years ago.

There were similar problems with writing and literacy, Hartwich said.

"So the system has been in decline. It is a national scandal. I would say it's a national disgrace."

Hartwich told Morning Report several studies had produced similar figures to those revealed in ERO's report which also showed a massive discrepancy between the upper and lower deciles.

"So attendance is far worse in our bottom decile communities. We have to do something about that. We have to get attendance up because otherwise we will not have a chance to actually convey the kind of education that our children need."

He welcomed Education Minister Chris Hipkins's admission yesterday that the education system needed to be turned around but said he had heard similar assurances from other Education ministers in the last few years.

It will take a long time to turn things around, and what was most upsetting was the social injustice with students from poorer backgrounds being worst affected.

"If you are poor in New Zealand you have a much worse chance of getting a decent education from school."

Test results were unevenly distributed, depending on family income with more affluent parents stepping in to pay for tuition and providing more experiences outside school such as visiting a museum or overseas travel.

"For all the other kids, where the means are not there, school is the only chance they have to gain a decent education and get forward in life."

There were some exceptions among decile one schools that had produced "stellar" results, Hartwich said.

The instutute had developed a model which the Ministry of Education should be sharing so that other schools in less well off socio-economic areas could learn from it.

"They need to share the stories from these well-performing decile one schools across the system to make every school better and they also have to identify the schools that are cruising because they need our attention as well."

School not the priority it should be - ERO

Head of the office's Education Evaluation Centre Ruth Shinoda told Morning Report even before the pandemic only three in five children were regularly going to school.

"We're just not prioritising school enough and we're not seeing how going to school is really important."

With four in 10 parents comfortable with their child missing a week or more of school per term that added up to missing a year of school by the time a child was 16, Shinoda said.

Attendance was falling faster in primary schools despite the early years laying the foundations for a child's education.

Attendance was lower in poorer areas and the rates had fallen faster.

"What we found is kids in poorer areas were more motivated actually by seeing how education helped their future but they do encounter more barriers. Things like transport or not having the things they need and a few have caring responsibilities."

Māori and Pacific children have lower attendance rates, however, the latter showed the highest motivation rate to attend school because they wanted to make their families proud, Shinoda said.

Attendance patterns set early - principal

Schools say there's no easy fix for low attendance rates across the country but they know what's needed.

Principal of Greenmeadows Intermediate Cathy Chalmers said her school was among those surveyed for the report and the report's findings reflected the school's attendance record.

PPTA aanounced today that they will take strike action next year. PPTA president Jack Boyle and vice president Melanie Webber.

Melanie Webber. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

She said attendance was a complex issue, but she had observed parents and students did not consider the odd day here and there away from school mattered.

"However, those days add up and parents don't seem to track how many days their children are having off. That is something that we've been asked to highlight."

The other important factor was attendance patterns were set early and tended to last throughout students' schooling.

Schools were putting in place strategies to try and improve attendance, she said.

They wanted to work alongside families to come up with ways to get their children back to school, especially if they have been absent for some time.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Melanie Webber said attendance had deteriorated since the pandemic started.

The effects were cumulative and could be seen in much lower rates of literacy and numeracy for year nines starting high school.

"I don't think punitive measures are a way to go," Webber said.

"I think we need to have much more understanding of what's going on; we need to encourage parents to realise what the impact is of it and we need to make sure that we've got those supports in schools so that schools can be working with parents and whānau and with students to work out what's going on."

Any barriers such as difficulty getting to school needed to be explored as well as the appointment of more learning support coordinators and guidance counsellors to work with families.

"These are all things we've been asking for," Webber said.

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