16 Apr 2024

School principals on the truth behind truancy

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 16 April 2024

Principals are urging the government to take care in the way truancy data is published, saying if it's just going to be another set of league tables it won't be helpful.

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Photo: 123RF

Bad parenting - or are there a million other reasons that a child might not make it to school? 

Ash Maindonald - the principal of Western Heights School, a primary school in West Auckland - says that every principal he speaks to has a litany of war stories they share on the truancy issue. 

"It's front and centre, it's top of mind for them," he tells RNZ's First Up host Nathan Rarere on The Detail today. 

Maindonald is sceptical about government moves to address truancy, saying one of the causes of it that is not being addressed is "the huge challenges that our explosion of neurodiverse children are posing in class every day.

"Rules, regulations, gimmicky red tape aren't going to make a difference for our neurodiverse children.

"The government needs to take a big look at what they do and what they prioritise and say 'let's forget some of this gimmicky stuff and get some of this real core business stuff sorted' - like a teacher aide in every class, every day, all day'.

"Then you will find that schools, being the self-managing wonders that they are, they will be able to free up other resources to get out into the community and to get out into the homes and to get those children in, because it's people who have a relationship with those families in our community who are going to be able to have the most success interacting with them." 

Community involvement is a common theme among the three principals we talked to for today's episode, along with the need for more resources to tackle attendance and truancy problems, rather than 'gimmicks' like traffic lights. 

The government announced last week an "attendance action plan" to address what it calls a "truancy crisis". 

The government has a target of having 80 percent of students at school more than 90 per cent of the term by 2030. The most recent statistics (from Term 4 last year) show only 53.6 percent of students reached that target.

In the first phase, from Term 2 (on 29 April), there will be a public communications campaign, updated public health guidance on attending school and schools will be made to publish attendance data weekly instead of every term.

Further proposals still have to be approved by Cabinet - they include a traffic light system to monitor attendance and daily reporting of attendance data by Term 1 next year.

The president of the Secondary Principals' Association is not too worried about the extra reporting requirements. 

Papatoetoe High School on Thursday 18 February.

Photo: RNZ / Kate Gregan

Vaughan Couillault, who is also the principal of Papatoetoe High School in South Auckland, says it's just a matter of uploading a digital file and exporting it. 

But he says the change has to be done right. 

"If they're looking to gather and publish information that is systemic - that is about weekly attendance so that everyone can get in behind the national drive to getting everyone back to school... then the data is useful. If there's going to be a set of league tables... that is unlikely to be helpful.''

Couillault thinks daily reporting won't provide the clarity the government is looking for, as there can be a "lag with comms from families".

He believes the proposed traffic light system could work if it's targeted at a student, but is worried about targeting it at schools.

"The heart of it is when schools are unable to intervene any further because the issues around attendance are more societal and systemic, we need to have not only capacity but capability to access external agencies to do the lifting to get those people back to school. 

"We know that where it has worked - it's a community response using community people to resolve those community issues.

"They have to know the person who's coming to talk to them - attendance improves when the family are engaged and understand the value of regular daily attendance."

The Detail also speaks to Sommerville Special School principal Belinda Johnston, who we spoke to earlier this year for another episode.

She says reasons for her students not attending could be because they end up in hospital due to a sickness, as many of them are immunocompromised.

She says some families don't want to bring the student to school because those events might have been traumatic and stressful.

"For some families... where it's not complex - I think an attendance officer can be just like a little gentle reminder. It's not that they never work, but the ones that are hardest to get back to school, it's less likely to work with them because there's usually really good reasons happening in the background that need some proper support.

"Our families are so stressed and so traumatised that they don't want a stranger banging on their door anyway. What they need is someone to work alongside them and help them through their challenges and work out a way to come back to school."

She's calling for funding for specialist staff that can be employed directly by the school. 

"None of that [traffic light or data publishing] is going to help attendance. All it does is tell you about it, but we already know about it, we don't need to know about it anymore we've already got the facts - what we need is some help to change it."

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