12 Apr 2024

School attendance figures welcomed by principals, Seymour not pleased

5:51 pm on 12 April 2024

Principals say the latest school attendance figures signal a turning point - but a complete U-turn is a long way off, and the associate education minister is still not smiling.

Ministry of Education figures, released on Friday, showed 53.6 percent of students regularly attended school in term four last year - that is, they were present at least 90 percent of the time.

That was 3.5 percentage points higher than term 4 in 2022, but still 12.5 percentage points lower than the same term in 2019.

Secondary Principals' Association president Vaughan Couillault said it was a welcome step in the right direction.

"At the end of last year, it felt to us on the ground like we'd sort of bottomed out ... and anecdotally, it certainly felt like things were on the improve," he said.

"It certainly also feels like that in term one of this year, so it is encouraging to see attendance heading north, rather than absenteeism heading north."

Sickness was the biggest reason for non-attendance, and Couillault said that was his experience - but other cases were trickier to deal with.

"When you get to the chronic case of either condoned parental absence, or truancy ... that's a little bit of a smaller number," he said.

"Harder to put a dent in, because there's all sorts of contributing factors."

Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault

Secondary Principals' Association president Vaughan Couillault. Photo: RNZ

The figures showed truancy - unjustified absenteeism - decreased by half, from 3.4 percent to 1.7 percent.

Continuing that trajectory would be a team effort because schools could not do it alone, Couillault said.

"What I am encouraged by is the minister and prime minister both acknowledged that the attendance issue that we're facing is a societal one, it's not just a school and student one, it is one that all parts of the community need to get in behind."

Waikato took the cake for the biggest increase in term four attendance, jumping 6.6 percentage points - almost double the nationwide average.

Waikato Principals' Association president Lesley Lomas said schools in Kāhui Ako - communities of learning - had been putting their heads together to get children back to class, and it was working.

"If they're a member of a Kāhui Ako, then they can share their knowledge and strategies, to support each other in order to raise student attendance."

The most effective strategy was schools having a close association with whānau who struggled with attendance, and helping remove hurdles in their way, Lomas said.

ACT leader David Seymour

Associate Education Minister David Seymour. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

'A Mount Everest to climb' - Seymour

However, Associate Education Minister David Seymour was not overly happy with the figures.

"It was not even close to where New Zealand needs to be," he said.

On the other hand, he acknowledged it was promising, saying it was now his job, with the help of school boards, principals, teachers and parents, to ensure it really was a turning point.

This week, the government revealed its grand plan to get students back to class.

It is aiming to have 80 percent of children attending regularly by 2030.

"When you're starting at 53, that's a Mount Everest to climb, but I think we can do it," he said.

Parents-condoned truancy a problem, principal says

Otago Boys High School rector Richard Hall said parent-endorsed truancy was a problem, including students skipping out of school to take advantage of cheap airfares for family holidays.

He believed getting children into good habits young was part of the solution.

"Truancy is a complex issue and even the word truancy is emotive in itself," Hall told Checkpoint.

"When you start to dig into the reasons why they're not here, there are examples of parent-condoned truancy, for instance taking overseas trips or holidays during term time."

The school's term one figures showed 62 instances of students being away during term time for holidays.

"Some of them might be one day, so they might be taking a Friday off or a Monday. So they may not be for that long away. But we have had boys away for up to two-to-three weeks and that is a significant amount of learning time that can be cut through for those instances," Hall said.

He acknowledged some of his students were away on a European tour with staff, but they were mostly gone during the school holiday and the move was approved by the board as a learning experience.

"So that's a completely different idea in my head, apart from 'we wanna leave on Friday cause the airfare is cheaper'."

Parents did understand the importance of school, but some still chose to go on holiday with their child because they believed it did not significantly affect their grades or learning, he said.

"They [those going overseas during term time] may be kids that are achieving really well. But I would ask them to consider how well or how much better their children could actually achieve if they stayed in school all the time? Because the really clear evidence is the more often a child is in school, the better off they will achieve."

Such absences were recorded as 'unjustified', and highlighting in the three-week reports to parents, but the effect of that was minimal, he said.

"We do have discussions. It's really hard though to break through in some of the conversations because parents are trying to justify why they're doing."

For some, it may be due to ingrained habits from childhood, he said.

"Our worst truants, shall we say, or our worst non-attenders, the 11 percent of our school that don't attend regularly will have one day off per week - those habits have started pretty early and I'd ask parents to consider that, if you had one day off a week ... that's 40 days a year, that's eight weeks of schooling that they miss.

"So it adds up really quickly and our message to parents is we've gotta have school attendance as the number one life lesson or the number one thing that parents can do to assist their child to learn and to have a bright future is to have them here at school regularly."

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