Instead of blaming kids for truancy rates, we should be asking ourselves, is this system serving its purpose?

In the face of growing concern about young people getting engaged in crime, Christopher Luxon, leader of the National Party, has attempted to draw a link between the ram raids and truancy. And though there may be some common underlying factors behind the two, that correlation does not prove causation.

Young people not attending school isn’t a new issue. Though recent statistics revealing that 40 percent of young people are not turning up to school regularly is concerning, this is only a 10 percent increase since 2015, showing this isn’t a new problem that has solely arisen due to the last few years of lockdowns (though that may very well of contributed).

In the face of these numbers, a simple solution is to blame the parents and label young people as lazy. And yet, throughout my vocation as a youth worker, I’ve learnt that it is never as simple as “kids are just lazy”, or “parents just need to take more responsibility”. If a young person is not turning up to school, there is always a reason.

Disengagement from education happens for multiple reasons, many of them similar to the factors that drive some children and young people into crime.

The most striking factor is poverty and inequality. When you’re hungry and just surviving, school isn’t always the first thing on your priority list. Add to this that the research from the most recent Youth19 survey highlighted that 29 percent of secondary school students had experienced some form of housing deprivation, meaning a significant portion of our young people are experiencing housing insecurity and youth homelessness, and you start to see why for some young people school will not be all that high on their priority list. Can you imagine trying to go to school and learn about maths and geometry when you’re moving from house to house, or sleeping in your local Burger King?

But, poverty is not the only factor contributing to young people not engaging with education regularly. I’ve met countless young people, struggling with learning disabilities and their mental health, who have just not been provided with the support and understanding they need to manage these things. And instead of manaaki they have been labelled “problem kids” and either been pushed out of school, or disengaged because it’s become too hard.

The current patriarchal and hierarchical system that many schools still operate out of also needs to be re-examined. This is a point that is not talked about enough but deserves stronger evaluation. I’ve seen young people give up on school because they were essentially pushed around and bullied by their teachers. I knew one young man who had been homeless yet still wanted to finish his Level 2. He came to school with the wrong socks on (right colour, wrong brand), was yelled at by a dean, pulled into the principal’s office and threatened with expulsion. A story not that uncommon.

If we want to get more of our young people back in school we should start by examining the school system itself. There’s a phrase that youth workers say a lot. “Young people will vote with their feet”. When we say that, basically what we mean is that if a young person’s needs are being met, if they feel safe, valued, loved and cared for in a space, that’s where they’ll be. If the space doesn’t meet their needs, then it’s unlikely they’ll keep turning up. Instead of blaming the kids, we should be asking ourselves, is this system serving its purpose? Which, we sometimes forget, is to serve young people, not necessarily to achieve unit standards.

If we want to support young people to get back into school, then we need to respond to the reasons young people aren’t turning up.

And we need to support whānau, not demonise them.

These challenges are complex, so much so that many health professionals struggle to navigate them, and yet we expect parents – many working long hours and juggling the complexity of life themselves – to be able to do so without adequate support. Whānau are not the problem here, they are a vital and necessary part of the solution.

Again, if we’re serious about solving these complex challenges facing our communities, we need more than sound bite solutions, and reactionary one liners. Instead, we need to respond to the needs of our young people. That means we need to end youth homelessness, eradicate poverty, ensure there’s support for young people suffering from mental health and addictions, and manaaki for those with disabilities. We need to increase youth work support in our schools and communities, and we need to provide whānau with the manaaki they need to care for their children.

And above all, we need to listen to what is going on in our young people’s worlds and respond to that.

Leave a comment