21 May 2024

The scariest driver of school non-attendance: more parents who just don’t care

10:37 am on 21 May 2024
Children at Arakura School line up for free lunch

New Zealand has a problem with school attendance rates. But so do many other countries. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Far from existing in a vacuum, New Zealand's falling school attendance rates are part of a global trend - and researchers and educators say turning the ship around will take a monumental effort.

Pop quiz: which country has plummeting school attendance rates, against a backdrop of long months of online learning during lockdown, rolling teacher strikes, a youth mental health crisis, and a cost of living crisis?

Is it A) New Zealand, B) Australia, C) England, or D) all of the above?

Listening to politicians, it's easy to believe that the answer is A, and that New Zealand's falling attendance marks it out as the global class dunce.

The proportion of students who go to school regularly was a near-record low of 46 percent in Term 3 last year, rising to 54 percent in Term 4 (which tends to have better attendance).

Launching the government's new attendance strategy in April, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon called the numbers "shameful".

Associate education minister David Seymour, standing next to him, said: "New Zealand's attendance is not only bad compared with where we were just a few years ago, it's bad compared with just about any country we'd like to compare ourselves with."

The rates have dropped precipitously in the years since Covid-19, following years of a much gentler, but still steady, decline.

But although New Zealand's overall rates are worse than countries with similar education systems, they fit a universal pattern of falling attendance in classrooms around the world.

Data reveals almost identical trends in England and Australia. All three countries have moved downwards in lockstep for a decade now, and this is repeated elsewhere, regardless of the schooling system.

Japan - a country known for its adherence to societal norms - reported record student absence rates in 2023, as did the US.

The standard that many countries, including New Zealand, use for 'regular attendance' is high. To meet it, a student needs to be present more than 90 percent of the time.

The chronic absence rate - attending less than 70 percent of the time - is much lower, though this, too, has steadily risen from about five percent in 2011 to 12 percent last year.

Even among chronically absent students, many of their absences are recorded as "justified" - that is, they fit within school policy (for instance, illness). Others might have "unjustified" absences that include family holidays during term-time.

The rate of New Zealand students who are actually truant, or simply absent without explanation, is about 3 percent.

During Covid, a week of isolating at home, unwell, was enough to shift students out of the regular attendance bracket. A regular attendance rate of just 40 percent was recorded in Term 2 of 2022, when the Omicron variant of Covid ripped through New Zealand's population.

But declining attendance rates pre-date Covid, and have outlasted its most acute impacts both here and overseas.

When parents 'stopped believing' every day counts

In England, politicians and educators speak of an attendance "crisis", Sally Burtonshaw, an associate director at UK public policy agency Public First, says.

"Both the current Conservative government and the [British] Labour Party have talked a lot about wanting to address it. But we're really struggling to identify the interventions that have a significant impact."

Wanting to understand more, Burtonshaw conducted research last year with parents, who she says "have a large degree of agency and control" over attendance, especially for primary school children.

In both England and New Zealand, schools and educators have suggested some parents are simply unaware of how a day off here and there may add up to non-regular attendance over a school term or year.

But focus groups with parents from a vast range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds across England led Burtonshaw to a far more disturbing conclusion.

Awareness was not the issue - parents knew attendance rates had gone down. The problem was: they didn't care.

In parents' eyes, the months of school closures and rolling waves of illness during the acute stage of the pandemic, followed by protracted teacher strikes, gave the lie to the mantra that 'every day matters', Burtonshaw found.

"Parents simply didn't believe you could close schools for months and then go back to insisting that every day of school was essential."

That sentiment was repeated again and again, across the different focus groups.

"Before Covid, I was all about getting the kids into school. Education was a major thing," one parent said. "After Covid, I'm not going to lie to you, my take on attendance now is like, I don't really care anymore. Life's too short."

In short, the relationship between schools and families in her country was now "profoundly broken", Burtonshaw wrote.

"It will take a colossal, multi-agency effort to rebuild it."

David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

Launching the New Zealand government's attendance strategy, Seymour seemed to acknowledge a similar breakdown here.

"I don't think any [New Zealand] government has taken the time to properly understand … why education is not being valued as much as most people would hope by so many parents, and actually meet in the middle and find a way to make education viewed as valuable and relevant again."

Covid also opened families' eyes to alternatives, Burtonshaw says. Lockdowns were deeply traumatic and stressful for some people, but for others, they could suddenly see "another way of being", Burtonshaw says.

"Parents spoke to us about the benefits of having their children at home or how that enabled them to be together more with their family and to prioritise that time."

That fed into a new, universal acceptance among parents of holidays during term-time - with the savings to be had on airfares and accommodation outside of the school holidays vastly outweighing the £60 (NZD$125) fine that accompanies non-school-condoned absences in England.

Some families face far more existential issues.

Burtonshaw's focus groups talked about how the cost-of-living crisis had made even the basics - laundry powder to wash school uniforms, money for the bus - an insurmountable financial hurdle at times.

She found a "massive increase" in children and adolescents being referred to youth mental health services was also driving absences, but so too were changing attitudes to mental health in general.

"We also saw parents who were talking much more about child well-being…They see that allowing their children to have a day or two off school may well kind of give them a chance to reset."

Are parents right?

"What is hard is that we know there is a very, very strong correlation between attendance and attainment," Burtonshaw says.

But a day off here or there? The problem is that "it's very hard to tell which day is going to matter or not", Burtonshaw says.

"Maybe not every single lesson and every single day feels incredibly meaningful. I am not saying that schools can't do more. But the data shows very strongly that schools massively improve educational outcomes versus those children who don't go."

It can be hard to know where to start, Burtonshaw says.

"A lot of the interventions and the research is quite embryonic… So trying to understand what works and what we should scale is a real challenge."

Truancy is 'a symptom of a problem'

School bags at Manurewa West School

Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

Kirsten Hancock, an education researcher at The Smith Family charitable trust in Australia, published a report last year on how low attendance might be addressed there, after a research tour that included visiting New Zealand and the USA.

"The issue with attendance is remarkably similar across every jurisdiction that you look at," Hancock says.

While the direct effects of Covid do not explain the entire picture for any of the countries she visited, the pandemic "really helped to shine a light", she says.

"There is more work being done in research, in governments, in schools, to understand things a bit better and to try some different things."

Student absence is always the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself, Hancock says.

She identified a similar mix of issues feeding into declining Australian attendance rates, including the cost of living, "social-emotional safety" issues like mental health and bullying, and increased appreciation in some families of time spent together. For some younger children, lockdowns meant they never formed an attendance habit.

It was clear what doesn't work.

"Punitive approaches to attendance problems are ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst," she wrote.

Likewise, reward systems only have a surface-level impact, she says. "If you have a child who is experiencing some sort of adversity at home, offering an ice-cream on Friday is not going to address those deeper issues."

Many schools are also taking too long to intervene, she says - waiting until the end of term to look at absence rates rather than identifying patterns early on.

Instead, Hancock suggests a proactive, "multi-tiered approach" that tailors the response to what a student actually needs to get them back to school.

For lower-level absences, fostering a culture of attendance and making school a welcoming, nice place to be might be enough. Others might need help addressing learning difficulties, or health conditions such as asthma, that prevent regular attendance. At the most intensive end of the spectrum, a multi-agency approach might be the only thing that works: getting a student and their family into stable, secure housing, for instance.

At a higher level, governments should be gathering data about what schools are trying and whether it works, so successful initiatives can be rolled out across the system, Hancock says.

"Schools [already] talk to each other. They might share, well, we tried this and it worked and we tried this and it didn't work, but collating that information so that it can be used on a broader level is kind of where that gap has been."

Despite the focus from politicians on term-time holidays, Hancock's previous research has found no effect from those types of absences on national literacy and numeracy scores in Australia.

"I couldn't find any evidence to suggest that students taking holidays during term-time were suffering academically. There's other research, I think from Scotland, that has found very similar things."

She suggests that could be because parents are more mindful about making sure their child catches up on schoolwork afterwards.

"That doesn't happen for other absences. If a kid is off for a week with a cold or flu, it's kind of viewed as just what happens. It's completely normal, we'll send them back to school next week."

David Seymour and Christopher Luxon at Cardinal McKeefry School

David Seymour and Christopher Luxon at the announcement of the government's plan to tackle school attendance Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

There's nothing wrong with the New Zealand government's plan to raise awareness of attendance rates and introduce a 'decision tree' to help parents decide whether their child is well enough to attend school, Hancock says.

"But it can't be the only thing…. That might fix a teeny tiny part of the problem. So it's those two things, plus all of the other things that need to happen."

A 'whatever works' approach

That's exactly the approach that schools across Manurewa in South Auckland have been taking since 2020, when an attendance service based within schools was first piloted.

Now funded on two-year contracts, the service employs six attendance officers across 34 schools in the area.

Greenmeadows Intermediate principal Cathy Chalmers, whose school hosts the service, says it responded to 1300 referrals in 2023. Of those, it managed to get 90 percent of children and young people returned to school.

The attendance officers have "built their own reputations", Chalmers says.

"They are part of our community, they're Māori, Pasifika, so that they connect well with our families, but also because they're school-based, they also get on really well with schools."

The key is adapting their approach to "whatever works, basically".

Often, the students who are chronically absent come from families mired in drug and alcohol problems, or struggling with deep poverty. Getting a child to school falls way down the list of priorities, Chalmers says.

"That's a really, really complex situation that takes quite a wrap-around approach to get those students back to school."

Officers have worked with some families for years now.

"They do try to keep contact with them to keep their relationship going so that they can sustain attendance as well."

But most students with irregular attendance are not chronic truants - they fall somewhere in the 70 to 90 percent attendance category.

A blue sign near Rutherford College in Te Atatū, Auckland, with school branding on it. The sign says: "At Rutherford students strive for 95%+ attendance and to always turn up on time."

A sign near Rutherford College in west Auckland advertises attendance to students and their families. An Auckland school principal, Cathy Chalmers, says she's noticed schools doing more to promote attendance as absence rates have fallen. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

For those students, promoting attendance can work, along with removing as many barriers as possible, Chalmers says.

Gradually, the school has lifted its regular attendance rate from the mid-40s - well below even the national average - to about 65 percent, Chalmers says.

"Everybody's sharpened their focus on it and it's working."

Greenmeadows Intermediate gives certificates to students who meet the regular attendance mark, and also puts a student's current attendance rate at the top of the profile page parents see when they log into the school's portal.

That can only take schools so far, though.

"That works for the willing. That works for the parents that read the newsletters, that works for the parents that care about their child bringing the certificate home."

She is "very pleased" that the school lunch scheme will continue.

"I absolutely believe that [it] contributed to getting kids returning to school."

But where the government has given with one hand, it's taken with the other.

"The other thing that helped us get kids to school was the free transport for under-12s and, of course, that's gone," she says.

School lunch

The free school lunches programme contributed to getting kids returning to school, Greenmeadows Intermediate principal Cathy Chalmers says. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

"I'm not being political, but if we're cutting funding to things that get our students to school to save money for tax benefits, for our families who are really struggling with poverty, I'm sure that the tax benefit they're going to get is not going to equal what they would have to pay for transport and lunch."

Chalmers herself is taking some time out of class, on a term-long sabbatical.

Her research topic? Attendance.

"Really, what can schools do and attendance services do to help support regular attendance? It's as simple as that."