21 Feb 2023

Minister announces $74m for new school attendance officers

11:03 am on 21 February 2023
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Education Minister Jan Tinetti Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The government has confirmed it will establish 82 new attendance officer roles, plus additional further investment, for a total $74 million.

Education Minister Jan Tinetti said it would include a commitment to improved and standardised attendance data.

"We are going back to basics on attendance," she said. "This $74 million package puts resources on the ground to support schools and students."

She said the Attendance Service already worked with students with low or declining rates of attendance, and the funding would allow it to support another 3000 young people.

"The decline in school attendance began in 2015, but the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. We need to be doing more to help schools and kura support students who are not attending or engaged in education.

"We know that there are many reasons why a child might not show up to school, which is why we're also continuing our initiatives that are focused on removing barriers to education such as free period products, free healthy school lunches, school donations, preventing bullying and redesigning our curriculum."

Education Minister Jan Tinetti told Morning Report that on any given day an average of 17 percent of students will be absent from school. Most would be due to illness - however there was a worrying level of unjustified absence

That might be because a parent had taken the child out of school for a holiday, or the student might have issues that the school doesn't know about.

The main focus of the new attendance officers would be on students who are absent only occasionally from school, Tinetti said.

"They will be working with the young people who are at risk of chronic attendance - so those who have moderate attendance rates at the moment. We want [attendance officers] to stop that falling attendance in that group of young people."

Truancy was a problem across all parts of society, she said.

Research from the Education Review Office found 40 percent of parents were comfortable with their child missing a week or more of school in a term.

ERO Education Evaluation Centre head Ruth Shinoda said that attitude can be harmful for children.

"Parents who are comfortable with their child missing school are more than twice as likely to have a child who misses school regularly".

Allowing students to skip school occasionally to avoid a particular activity could reinforce a negative attitude towards school, resulting in progressively lower attendance.

"It is clear that we need to shift parents' attitudes towards attending school and also help learners to enjoy school more and see how important it is for their futures," Shinoda said.

The PPTA/Te Wehengarua is welcoming the additional attendance officers but acting president Chris Abercrombie said they were only part of the solution.

"We desperately need more pastoral and guidance staff in our schools to help identify the students who are struggling, for a variety of reasons, and work with these rangatahi and their families through the problems and issues and keep them engaged at school - before we lose them."

Complex cases among challenges

There are a variety of Attendance Services, with some run directly by "lead" schools, others run by iwi Māori and other non-government organisations, or a mix of the two depending on the kind of absence.

Total funding for the services was increased to more than $15 million in Budget 2021/22 - a 21.8 percent increase on the previous year - plus an additional one-off $600,000 support package for Auckland in recognition of regional lockdowns.

This followed smaller yearly increases in the previous two years, after funding was frozen between 2013 and 2019.

The government also carried out a review and redesign of attendance services from May last year. In a survey as part of the review, attendance service providers said the work was getting harder with large volumes and complex cases.

They said Covid-19 had brought additional challenges, increasing hostility towards the officers and making it more difficult to connect with whānau.

Newer providers also complained of a lack of resources and materials for setting up the service, calling for things like template job descriptions.

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