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Tag: truancy

When will we ever learn?

Shock horror revelations by the police last week had the country reaching for the smelling salts. “300+ students” truanting from school from just three high schools in southern Auckland. The story didn’t have a lot of merit – it was the last week of term. How many were explained absences? On what basis was this precise figure calculated.

But the issue it raised was a critical one – if students aren’t at school, they are less likely to learn, more likely to fail and inevitably join the ranks of the NEETs and rather than be unemployed, end up as unemployable.

Talkback callers should fasten their seat belts at this point.

It has been estimated that on a daily basis in New Zealand in excess of 30,000 students are truanting. They are not all from secondary schools either. If a large school is one of a thousand students then every day thirty large schools in New Zealand are empty.

First reactions are generally to blame the parents and caregivers. Fine them! Take them to court! All of this is just hot air for how can parents and caregivers who have failed to get their young ones to school and keep them there, start doing so because of a fine or the admonitions of a judge. Quite simply, by the time that such actions are taken something has well and truly broken down.

Truanting is a process and not an event. Zero tolerance from age 5 for any unexplained absence would be a good start. But this probably requires skill sets that are different from those of teachers and, dare I say, current truancy services. This is where the social worker presence in education should be targeted. Going to school each day and staying there is a habit as much as anything else based on routines in the household. Schools and teachers have a role to play in making the programme relevant and interesting and they should be left to get on with that.

The issue with older students is more complex. Disengagement is also a process rather than an event (and truancy plays both a part in this and is a key indicator of likely disengagement). Teenage persistent truants fall in to two categories – on the one hand there are those disillusioned with school, not making progress in learning and probably at war in their own little way with the authority of the school and, on the other hand, middle class students who rather than truanting are attending selectively. Yes, there is quite a bit of this as well.

It is the first group – the likely disengagers / drop outs – that should concern us greatly. If they are in Year 10 or higher it is most unlikely that any attempt to return them into a school will succeed. At that point it is the environment of a school that has become toxic and they need to be placed somewhere else. This is not a criticism of teachers or of schools but simply a conclusion that when disengagement has reached a point where dropping out has occurred or is incipient and truancy has become persistent, schools are almost certain not to be able to effect a change.

The provisions of alternatives for education (and I don’t mean “alternative education”) for such students exist through the development of secondary tertiary programmes such as the Tertiary High School at Manukau Institute of Technology and if they are 16 years old, rather than happily washing them off the hands of the system we should be guiding them into the fees free places under the Youth Guarantee policy in tertiary providers. Such learners respond positive to the opportunities to undertake applied learning and to experience success in doing so.

Of course this has implications, NCEA would clearly become a qualification common to providers other than schools, many “secondary school age” students would learn in settings unlike a school and free of the irritations that those seriously headed towards disengagement have no appetite for wanting to put up with any longer.

The discussions of truancy are dogged by an obstinate belief that schools as they are constitute a good place for everyone and for all levels. It simply isn’t true. A more flexible approach to provision of schooling will lead to a more flexible range of responses to issues such as truancy.

It is only in the past few years that we have asked: “Where have all the students gone?” As unpalatable as the answers might be we do need also to ask “When will we ever learn?”



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Talk-ED: To be there or not to be there?


There has been quite a bit of interesting talk lately about parents withdrawing students during from school term time for the purpose of taking them on holiday.

My first thought was “goodness me, it never happened in my time at school” and then I remembered that you can’t go far with a family on a bicycle or a little later in an Austin 10 and there just wasn’t the disposable cash floating around, and air travel was greatly restricted and not for people like us.

But all that has changed. There seems to be plenty of cash floating around for those for overseas travel, skiing and mountain sports have become family activities, air travel is relatively cheap (and the cheaper still if you avoid the official school holidays), and so on.  But several other things impact on this trend that I think started in the early 1990s and which is now seemingly common.

Quite simply, some elements in the community, a growing element perhaps, is increasingly taking the view that if it doesn’t suit to have the children in school then they will simply take them out. This lack of respect for the schools is worrying because it is present just as much among those who would assert that they hold education in high esteem through to those who have scant regard for it.

There is on the truancy parental spectrum, those parents and who condone truancy both chronic and intermittent while at the other end there are the parents who turn a blind eye to the occasional day off.  Where do we place parents taking their children on holiday? Certainly it would be a bit illogical to head for the chronic end. What about the other end, do you see them in the same light as the parent of the occasional truant?

I think not. I actually have difficulty in seeing this phenomenon – taking children off on holiday during school terms – as any form of truancy at all.  It is simply a judgment made by parents as to the little likelihood of damage to the student or, in some cases, an assessment that there would be a gain.  A trip to Europe, to other lands and  other cultures, is surely an amazing experience for a young person but only if the youngster isn’t that young that the experience will remain only in the files of photos.  A bit of judgment is needed here.

Many years ago we went as a family to England for a year with two sons aged 4 and half years and two and a half years. The elder one remembers snatches of little bits while the younger remembers none. So age becomes a factor when the “its-all-part-of-their-education” argument is used.  Similarly going to Rome or the Australian Outback or to China is a qualitatively better educational option for a holiday than going to Disneyland, Seaworld or Universal Studios.

Family is a good destination and heading overseas to meet relatives is an excellent thing for people to grow up doing.  And who can blame parents for opting to travel when air fares lower to out-of-holidays fare structures.

I would find the objections of some schools and some principals as being weightier if they could assayer parents that each and every minute in the school day is packed with educational advancement. But it is not nor can it be.

Finally I wonder if the arguments about this are fuelled to some extent by nothing simpler than the old “time served” argument. A fixed view of x hours a day for y number of years constitutes an education. But some students need less and some need more. The calculation of the school year has always been a sham and even more so when a calendar year is equated to an achievement level or a curriculum level or a qualification level.

The challenge is for those who would uncritically reject the notion that parents should not take their children out of school to produce some evidence that lateness-due-to-holiday has led to a clear failure to make progress. It might well lead to assigned failure when a student potentially misses an assessment but that would be a deplorable practice were it to held over parents.


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Pathways-ED: Wagging students reach 29,000

Stuart Middleton
13 April 2012


For some time I have listed the level of truancy in New Zealand schools as being 30,000 students truanting every day. I knew this to be true even though such a revelation would be often greeted with incredulity. But it is official now!

The weekend paper screams its headline “WAGGING SCHOOL THE DAILY DEAL FOR 29,000”.  This is an official 10% of the New Zealand school roll. Or as the paper put it, the equivalent of the population of Blenheim fails to go to school each day!

How did we achieve the fall of 1,000 between the older figure of 30k and the latest result, 29k? Well it appears that $4million dollars was paid out over the past two years to tackle the issue and the figures have dropped by about one thousand, a 3% reduction for $4 million! Or put another way – for $4,000 we can get one truant back to school. So if we put up another $116 million, could we lick the problem of truancy? I think not. 

I wonder if it occurs to anyone that truancy is but a symptom of an education system that is simply not working. To think that the answers lie in the schools is about as silly and thinking that the answer to alcoholism will be found inside a pub.

Schools as they are currently constituted have never catered for a diverse population over a thirteen year time span. The comprehensive nature of the schools as they have developed compounds the issue, keeping students in school long past the point at which they are learning exacerbates it and throwing money and trying to get “truants” back into the school is, without significant changes, simply wasted.

The reasons given by students for being truant as reported make for grim reading. They were “hungover” and “stoned”. School was “boring” “dumb” and they were “bored”. This is so depressing but only slightly less so than the description of this group by a school leader – “Children are staying home to look after siblings or do housework and other activities in the home.”  Baking scones and doing needlework as well perhaps.

Get real!  We have a growing crisis in New Zealand with our young people. We mope around grizzling about youth unemployment when the fact is that we have a bigger problem with unemployable youth. The group that truants is the group that become NEETs, the group that feeds the youth justice system, the group that forever and a day will be a drag on the wealth of the community and the country and its citizens.

I cannot accept the Minister’s seeing the solution as being predominantly in the community. True, the community has to play its part, generally the 90% of students who do not truant reflect that the community is doing just that and I meet parents of some of the other 10% who wish for nothing more than that their sons and daughters would want to go to school.

The truth in these kinds of issues is always in the middle. The Minister notes in her quoted statement that Principals and boards are responsible for offering an “engaging programme.”

It is no good battling truancy, being able to monitor attendance electronically or prosecuting parents unless we address the issue of what constitutes an “engaging programme”. This should not be difficult and here goes:

An engaging programme is one in which:

  •   students are successfully taught the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and digital schools
  •   students are taught the skills of employment, develop social skills, demonstrate work skills and relate easily to others in diverse settings
  •   students have a sense of purpose in their education where they see connection between what they are doing and where they are headed (students who see no purpose see no point in being at school); 
  •    where schools demonstrate an interest in all students and give them a vested interest in engaging with the school programme.

There is too much failure in primary schools and too great a lack of purpose in secondary schools for our education system to be free of truancy. How long will we continue to be spectators of the trends without heeding what they are telling us?


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