Schools are looking for creative solutions as Covid-19 is expected to exacerbate a long-term trend of dropping attendance rates.
Student attendance rates have dropped to alarmingly low rates over the past five years, and the Ministry of Education expects Covid-19 will continue to have a further negative impact.
In an effort to mitigate the potential long-term impacts of Covid-19 and fight against the concerning trend of dropping attendance, the Government, ministry and schools are designing a range of systems and supports to try and get students and families re-engaged with education.
In 2015, data showed 70 percent of students attended school regularly.
In 2019, that figure was just 58 percent. This means that last year, about 40 percent of all students did not attend more than 90 percent of their available class time.
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Regular attendance measures the percentage of students who have attended 90 percent or more of term 2. It is the most rigorous dataset available in New Zealand, with more than 90 percent of schools reporting their data.
This steady decline in attendance rates over the past five years has been attributed to a range of factors, from families taking advantage of cheap flights and long weekends, through to cultural events, and a range of socio-economic barriers to engagement, including transience that comes with insecure housing.
And while regular attendance has been dropping across all schools and student groups, it has been dropping fastest for low decile schools, and for Māori and Pacific students.
For decile 1 schools, the proportion of students attending regularly was down from 57 percent in 2015 to 41 percent in 2019.
This is compared to students at decile 10 schools where regular attendance dropped from 77 percent in 2015, down to 68 percent in 2019.
“Other elements that happen in the absence of traditional schooling, such as the curbing of educational aspirations or the disengagement from the school system, will have a long-term impact on students’ outcomes.” – OECD
Covid-19 is now expected to have a further negative impact on long-term attendance and engagement, and will aggravate existing inequities in the education system.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said while Covid-19 did not create the attendance problem, the ministry did foresee that it might exacerbate it for some students.
This is backed up by trends emerging in other countries, and an OECD study, which said Covid-19 had heavily disrupted the learning process.
Forced closures in 188 countries impacted schooling for more than 1.7 billion children, youth and their families.
While much of the early debate focused on how much students had learnt (or not learnt) during school closures, there was more than the temporary learning loss caused by the lockdowns, the OECD paper said.
“Other elements that happen in the absence of traditional schooling, such as the curbing of educational aspirations or the disengagement from the school system, will have a long-term impact on students’ outcomes.”
This disruption and disengagement from school could have a long-term hysteresis effect, which could continue to drive down attendance rates – a lag effect that is usually talked about in terms of unemployment after a recession event, not education.
And this long-term impact was expected to most keenly affect those who were already more likely to be disengaged from school, including those in lower socio-economic areas, and Māori and Pasifika.
The issue of post-Covid attendance has been in the headlines over the past few months, with Northland (Tai Tokerau) continuing to report lower attendance rates, along with schools in South Auckland.
In September, RNZ reported that Covid-19 misinformation, as well as a recent loss of work and homes – leading to transience – had impacted school attendance in Northland.
And in Auckland Aorere College head girl Aigagalefili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i raised the Covid-19 attendance issue during the first election leaders’ debate.
Fepulea’i-Tapua’i asked Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins what the next government would do to support low-decile students forced to drop out of school to support their families through Covid-19 – many who had not re-engaged with school since the first lockdown back in March.
“We’re working across-the-board with schools and early learning services … to ensure children and young people return to their centres and classes, catch up on missed learning, and reconnect with their teachers, friends and peers.” – Katrina Casey
While recent data did show attendance was increasing in some schools, this wasn’t consistent across all schools and demographics.
Attendance rates for Auckland during the first week of term four showed attendance rates improved compared to a low when Auckland was coming out of Level 2 (between 88 percent and 90 percent attendance). Nationally, attendance rates for that week were 88 percent to 91 percent.
But this was not evenly spread – attendance remained lower among some groups and schools: lower decile schools, Māori and Pacific students, and primary school aged students.
During that same week in October, Pacific and Māori students had the lowest school attendance rates.
Pacific students had attendance rates between 80 percent and 87.5 percent that week, with Māori students’ attendance sitting between 82 percent and 87 percent.
In comparison, Pākehā students had attendance of 90 percent or above on each day of the week.
The Auckland-specific weekly data also showed there were a few thousand more Māori and Pacific students, and students from decile 1 and 2 schools, absent from school for at least three days over the first fortnight after the Auckland lockdown, compared to the same two weeks in 2019.
A similar trend, but less marked, was seen around the rest of the country.
And in Auckland, there was also an increase in the numbers of students who did not attend school at any point over the two-week period after the Auckland lockdown, compared to the same two weeks in 2019.
Off the back of already poor attendance rates, this post-lockdown data (though less robust) suggested those already struggling to attend and engage in school were even worse off due to Covid-19.
“Young people are best placed to go on and realise their potential when they have developed the skills they need for study, work and lifelong learning.” – Katrina Casey
Those who’ve spoken to Newsroom about the issue of attendance, particularly in the wake of Covid-19, say they fear some of these students have fallen off a cliff and it will be hard to bring them back into the education system.
The OECD paper on the issue of long-term disengagement with education says there are ways to bring students back in and mitigate the effects in the case of future lockdowns.
This included examples of Spain’s “second chance schools”, which gave students (aged 15-29) not in education, employment or training a unique school environment, where there were individualised follow-ups, where they discussed their academic, health and personal doubts.
And in Germany, “transition coaches” were supporting students at school to limit dropouts and ensure they completed general or vocational education.
Casey said the ministry, with the help of new Government funding, was working hard to come up with creative solutions and support schools and communities to get students back into education, and keep them there.
Unless children were sick, school was the best place for them to be, she said. This was a message that had been reiterated throughout the pandemic by Education Minister Chris Hipkins.
“So we’re working across-the-board with schools and early learning services, and the wider sector, to do things differently to ensure children and young people return to their centres and classes, catch up on missed learning, and reconnect with their teachers, friends and peers,” Casey said.
During lockdown the ministry’s regional directors worked directly with school principals to plan for the return to school, and the ministry had supported schools to free up teachers, teacher aides, and other school staff so they could encourage attendance back to school and reengagement in learning.
This encouragement came in the form of home visits and phone calls (in the family language where appropriate).
“Education has a clear role in supporting students’ wellbeing and development.” – Katrina Casey
In some regions, the ministry was supporting principals to broker the most culturally appropriate connection for the family to assist in encouraging a return to school.
This support extended to alternative education providers and activity centres.
In July the Government announced its urgent response fund, which would enable schools, kura, early learning services, and local clusters of schools to apply for discretionary funding for services that would support or improve attendance and engagement.
So far, a third of the $50 million fund has been allocated ($16.6m).
The ministry said these services and initiatives (1700 approved applications) would support the wellbeing of more than 174,500 school students and children in early learning. More of the funding would be rolled out through to the cut-off date of June 2021.
In some schools, the fund was enabling teachers, teacher aides, principals and/or kaumatua to visit students’ homes to provide assurance around safety and support at school, and to connect families to additional wellbeing support where needed.
In other examples, additional support was being provided to whānau to access the help they need from other agencies so they could overcome barriers to their children attending school.
In one case, a group of South Canterbury schools were working together to respond to concerns about wellbeing and behaviour, including additional parent training programmes for early learning and providing a new whānau adviser to support student needs.
“Education has a clear role in supporting students’ wellbeing and development,” Casey said.
“We know that young people are best placed to go on and realise their potential when they have developed the skills they need for study, work and lifelong learning.”