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It’s tough for everyone being in school

Fifteen years ago Education Counts published a comprehensive study[i] of student retention (and therefore also of disengagement) very much focussed on the views of Principals and including students and what is described as “a series of in-depth interviews with principals, teachers, guidance counsellors, key personnel in the education sectors, early, and the parents/caregivers of early school leavers.”  There is therefore likely that the picture presented is quite accurate in terms of 2006.

One thing that stood out 15 years ago includes the following. “Most students who are at risk of leaving school before the age of 16 are identifiable.” Three quarters of principals believed this and the rather larger number of principals (91%) believed that there are warning signs from which they can spot the likely disengagers. They can also list the warning signs – disengagement, low achievement, dysfunctional family, lack of family support, lack of social skills, disengaged attitudes, disruptive, lack of family support, and negative out-of-school behaviours.

All these signs are signs of disengagement. And the question which is begged is this. If the situation is clear to those managing the school system and that is what it seems back then, why has the school system not been able or supported to meet the challenge that all this raises?

Perhaps the answer is that the situation has got a lot better, or the issues have largely gone away, or schools are doing their best, or all of these and more. The latest report (1918)[ii] on “staying at school” might provide the answer. The average daily attendance now stands at 88.6%. Absences when categorised as either justified or unjustified show sickness as being the bulk of the justified absences but half of the unjustified absences either truancies or an unknown puzzle. Students who can claim regular attendance (i.e. fewer than 5 days absence) are at 58% and at this rather stringent measure, the report tells us that “around 40% of all students did not attend 90% or more of their available class time.”

The closing sentence is not encouraging for prospects of improvement with the news that “regular attendance has declined across all demographics…… the largest declines have been seen across levels 1-8 and among priority learners.”

One must conclude that disengagement is rife in New Zealand schools and has been for some time. That this continues is New Zealand’s little secret. You only have to look at the continued growth of NEETs in New Zealand, or the daily rate of truants or the collapse of the New Zealand Youth Labour Market to believe that a lot of young ones are forsaking the opportunity to learn and progress to a productive future on the strength of that learning.

I believe that this continues because we have a misconception as to the nature of disengagement, seeing it as an event rather than a process.  And we accept the one-bang notion of the dropout.

I believe that disengagement is a complex and painful process endured by students over time which can be categorised as being of three kinds. There is Physical Disengagement – the final decision to leave from the school – a culmination of that suffering even though the school is often surprised. The second is Virtual Disengagement – students are obliging, pleasant to teach, quite like school, but the process of learning is not occurring and the student faces failure and poor outcomes as a result. These are the students who are left behind. Finally, Unintended Disengagementoccurs when a student might have studied honestly and has achieved somewhat pleasing results but when wishing to progress finds that the bundle of achievements lacks substance and integrity. Consequently, the student faces a blind alley rather than a pathway. Each of these states is obvious when a close analysis takes place of the steps that the student takes and opportunities to provide interventions which could have been developed to counter each of them.

The rather alarming fact that the largest declines of students occur in the primary school. It seems inevitable that students arriving at secondary school are a rather skewed group.

Is it no wonder that the largest group of school leavers are those who are completely disengaging from further education and training they are heading to the couch they might simply be finishing off a slide downwards that started in an earlier life in education. Is this the time for a wake-up call?

[i] Ministry of Education (2006) “Staying at school consultation report,” Education Counts, Wellington.

[ii] Ministry of Education (2018) “Staying at school report”. Education Counts, Wellington

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