9 Apr 2024

Truancy: Why it matters, what the law says and what is being done about it

2:31 pm on 9 April 2024
The cloakroom of a Rotorua school.

Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Explainer - By law, Kiwi kids aged from 6 to 16 are required to go to school every day.

Whānau, parents and caregivers have the responsibility of ensuring it happens or letting the school know on the day if students will be absent. Family holidays or taking time off for extracurricular activities (not organised by school) are not acceptable reasons for being absent.

Schools and kura are expected to record and report on attendance and let parents or carers know if they haven't received any notification of an absence.

Regular attendance is defined as going to class more than 90 percent of the time.

However, the pandemic has badly affected attendance figures with an all-time low of 40 percent recorded in term two of 2022.

During the election campaign, ACT leader David Seymour said the country had "a truancy crisis" claiming 10,000 children weren't even enrolled. Since becoming Associate Health Minister he has complained about the spike in health-related school absences, saying the number of children kept home for illness had doubled since the pandemic began.

"I think we're going to have to start being a bit clearer about what exactly is a valid reason to stay home," he told Checkpoint.

Only 46 percent of school pupils attended classes regularly in term three last year, with Māori and Pacific students worst affected, Education Ministry figures show.

They also show a record number of students took holidays during the 10 weeks from mid-July to mid-September.

The attendance data for term four of last year will be published at the end of this week.

Seymour has put the Ministry of Education on notice over allowing around 20 percent of schools not to supply data as well as other ideas to reduce truancy.

"Attendance is a major problem for us here in New Zealand, the numbers are shameful - there's no other way to describe it," he said when outlining how it will be improved.

David Seymour

David Seymour believes clamping down on truancy is long overdue. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Firstly let's look at the definition of truancy, why it's considered harmful and what parents or carers can do once they realise their children are wagging school.

What is a truant?

  • A student who is frequently late, misses a class or misses entire days or weeks of their schooling
  • A pattern such as being regularly missing on Mondays or Fridays
  • However, illness or attending a tangi or funeral are acceptable reasons for not attending - but the school must be told.

Why is 'wagging' school so bad?

  • It's against the law
  • It could be a sign something is bothering a child eg bullying, an issue with a teacher, drug and / or alcohol use, a mental health issue
  • Missing their schoolwork on a regular basis could lead to leaving school early without the education and qualifications to find a good job
  • It increases the risk of a child getting into trouble with the law.

Will I get into trouble if my child is truant?

If a child is continually truant from school and it is decided the parent / caregiver is condoning the truancy they can be prosecuted.

The maximum fine is $30 per day for every school day the student is truant. Parents can be fined up to $300 for a first offence and $3000 for a second or subsequent offence.

Until now prosecutions have been rare but that might change.

When Seymour was asked if he would alter the system so parents could be given on-the-spot fines, he said he had not yet made any firm decisions.

What's the first move for parents / carers?

Talk to the school as early as possible and try and work with the child's teacher on some strategies and steps that can be adopted if the problem isn't resolved.

Some children just need some extra help to keep them engaged with their schoolwork.

If problems persist, ask for a referral to the Attendance Service which has providers around the country who work with schools and families to help get students back in the classroom.

Attendance officers can:

  • Visit a parent at home to talk about any reason a child might be playing truant
  • Arrange attend family group conferences
  • Go out and find your child during school time and return them to school
  • Offer referrals to other services that can help

If a child is truant for more than 20 days in a row without a good reason, and the caregiver hasn't been in touch with the school, it can remove the child from the roll.

After that the Attendance Service will suggest options such as: Correspondence School, finding an alternative education provider that might better suit a child who doesn't fit into a mainstream or an exemption from the Ministry of Education to leave school earlier than 16.

Government plans to lower truancy rates

The government has drawn up an Attendance Action Plan which Seymour is overseeing.

A weekly look at how many students are attending school will be published from next month, ramping up to daily reporting at the start of next year - in contrast to the reporting over the course of a term as happens at present.

The Ministry of Education will begin publishing the weekly snapshots from the second week of term two.

A traffic light system will set out requirements and expectations for parents, schools, and the Ministry of Education at different stages of a student's attendance, with clear obligations for when a student is not attending.

A public communications campaign, public health guidance about when a student is well enough to attend schools, and setting attendance as a strategic priority for school boards are all on the drawing board.

In the meantime, where can parents get help?

- Information for this article was sourced from the Ministry of Education.

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