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The Empty Desks

Stuart Middleton


39 November 2017


WOW! Every day a whopping 76,000 young New Zealanders are not at school where they ought to be reports the NZ Herald.

Imagine it! Seventy-six empty secondary schools every day assuming an average size of 1,000 students. Measured in term of primary schools, it’s about 250 primary schools empty if the average primary school roll is 300 (which it isn’t). Of course, they don’t all absent themselves from a limited range of schools. It is a pepper-potting of truancy and absenteeism that hides this appalling statistic which is getting worse not better.

Perhaps this escalating issue provides some explanation of another statistic that isn’t rising but instead is falling – that is the set of statistics around achievement as many students seem progressively to show lower achievement levels as they work their way through the school system (according to the Education Review Office).

Can New Zealand be said to have a functioning school system when so many students absent themselves from it? Can we be said to have got it right when students decline in their achievement levels instead of showing a steady increase in understanding, knowledge and skills. The origins of the pile of NEETs starts long before age range of 15-24-years where they are recognised as a category and an issue, and are reacted to with difficulty and patchy success.

There has to be some explanation feature of the education system which is becoming hard-wired into the expectations of educators.

Is it the increasingly ethnic diversity of the student body? Are our teachers able to practice their crafts in ways that are culturally inclusive? Can they provide language education in ways that equip students for an English-speaking system? Do schools make effective use of the skilled community members from different language communities? Is the gap between home and school simply too great – writing of the situation in London school in the early 1980s a colleague finished a study with the sentence: “And at the end of each school day, Sharma walked home to India.”

Is it the seemingly unsuccessful truancy initiatives and services? A considerable resource has over time been spent on the issue of truancy and various interventions tried. Few have succeeded largely because of the circularity of returning young people to the place they have left to become truants in the first place. The solutions to truancy and absenteeism can only lie within the school but unless the school can offer a different kind of experience or an alternative school system is developed, there is little hope of the school system getting on top of the issue.

Add to that the worrying feature of the achievement decline demonstrated by so many students as they proceed through school and the outcomes can only be at some point to an inevitable inadequate academic preparation for education and training that could bring success.

I haven’t mentioned the role of parents and caregivers. Every truant and absent school student has a parent or caregiver somewhere. The statistics must in part be a reflection of the pressure so many households are under. Fix the fundamentals of employment, housing, health and support and the issues might go away, they will certainly become smaller. Education might then be able to offer the 13% who regularly excuse themselves from schooling, the benefit of an education.

Are we going to ignore this? Will we continue to fiddle with the school system in the hope that education can achieve something in which society generally and its governments in particular have failed?

This looks like a significant issue about which we should be worried. Many reports have been written, perhaps the time is now right for those reports to be read and acted on.

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One Comment

  1. Jo Duston Jo Duston

    From my point of view if parents took holidays in the school holiday time, if they could be bothered getting children out of bed and insist they go to school instead of condoning truancy, if they picked children up for dental nurse/doctors appointments instead of taking a whole day off because it’s easier to organise, if education was valued, we wouldn’t have a truancy problem.

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