New Zealand education has a cute capacity for explaining some ugly features. The latest is to blame COVID/OMICRON for the failure of students to return to school after the lockdowns and disruption of the past several years. It sounds convincing but face facts – declining school attendance has been a feature for quite some time. It’s not new! We have known this but declined to accept it.
In the first decade of this millennium, I used to make speeches that included warning that students were dropping out of secondary school at rates approaching 20% of each cohort and over time this had become a stubborn statistic. It was a growing feature of secondary schools but was not unknown in primary levels – it appears now to hav seeped well across the whole system and 20% has increased to 40% – the compulsory sector has become optional!
By the 2020’s, levels of absenteeism were increasing at all levels with schools and the government were challenged to find ways of arresting this. Recent reports showed that regular student attendance declined to 58%, down 6 percentage points following a brief period of stability in 2018 (64%). This means that around 40% of all students did not attend more than 90% of their available class time.
A lack of attention to managing transitions across levels was resulting in gaps in academic preparation and training. It was becoming more and more problematic as increasing numbers of students were presenting themselves ill-prepared and well behind in their academic development, They were ill-prepared for successive transitions. This was a recurring issue for students starting at both secondary school and when starting a post-secondary qualification.
The number of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) continued to creep up on educators. A new realisation was dawning that the growth of NEETs was an outcome of the performance of the schooling systems and their increasing inability to teach the full range of students. To be fair, some of this was exacerbated by social factors added to the load for schools.
Secondary students were staying longer at school. The old Turn-16-and-Celebrate-by-Getting-a-Job was no longer the custom. This was despite the evidence that extending the length of compulsory schooling and encouraging students to stay longer in conventional schools, repeatedly failed to have impact on outcomes.
The culmination of these factors – absenteeism, failure to manage transitions, the growth of NEETs, staying at school longer regardless of outcomes – has created a significant problem triggered to an inescapable level by a pandemic. But this mix of factors has seen a pattern of an increase in the number of dropouts which might have become hard-wired into the educational and skill landscape.
Analysis of school leavers’ destinations in Auckland, just before the pandemic, showed that “going nowhere” constituted the largest group of secondary school leavers. It could be that schools will have somewhat radically altered the way they work as it might not be that case that returning to school is unpalatable. Rather, what galls students faced with going back to school might be the programmes that they had faced, the ways learning was structured, and the general culture of NZ high schools. The gap and its enforced time out of school might just have been enough to encourage the reported trend among some students to not return but to seek employment.
This might not be only the encouragement of parent but a signal that they feel ready prepared to make this move. The system might be wise to consider this and their response to it. It could be that significant numbers of learners are sending the message that they are having to stay at school past the point where school seems useful and perhaps even bearable.
Now, the issues of primary school absenteeism is a different kettle of fish entirely.