A 90 percent attendance rate for students at schools is the number that successive governments have assessed records against for several decades – but Education Minister Chris Hipkins says it is not actually helpful.

As persistent absenteeism steadily climbs, Hipkins told Newsroom he is looking at reversing a truancy policy that came out of a 2012 survey of attendance, which changed the relationship between truancy officers, schools and their communities.

The survey findings led to a “move away from a school-based model for truancy officers to an external contracting one,’’ he said.

It was designed to allow officers to provide more wrap-around services and deal with non-attendance issues. A number of iwi organisations were awarded contracts as part of the new programme.

“But the brutal reality is it just hasn’t worked – some areas are better than others but on the main that model hasn’t delivered what was expected,’’ the minister said.

“It means the money that previously went into having attendance officers being based in schools was transferred away from those to external providers, which were meant to have a relationship with both the schools and the families.

“That hasn’t worked and what schools will tell you is it hasn’t worked because what they’d rather have is some people more directly connected with their school, community and families.’’

Those external contracts are up for renewal later this year and Hipkins says he wants to look at changing the model back to being one that is based in schools.

“I want to explore whether we get some of that resource back closer to the classroom so the people forming the relationships with the family are genuinely building a bridge between the school and the families, not creating a third-party component.’’

“Kids pick up public discourse is happening around them and I think there is still quite a lot of anxiety and catastrophising going on around Covid-19, and I think kids pick up on that.’’ – Chris Hipkins

In an interview with Newsroom, Hipkins explained how the numbers underneath the 90 percent benchmark tell a much bigger story.

“If a kid’s family goes away for one week on a family holiday during school term, and then over Easter they take the Thursday before Good Friday off, then they’ve missed more than one week of term, which means they’ve missed more than 10 percent so fall below ” that 90 percent benchmark for attendance, Hipkins said.

But chances are those parents aren’t the ones schools should be focused on, and the one-week holiday during the school term will likely be a one-off, for a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

“Frankly, they’re not the end of the absenteeism spectrum that we want to dedicate a whole lot of resource to changing,’’ Hipkins said.

While those students will be captured as falling below the 90 percent attendance rate, which skews the data, it’s not necessarily where the problem lays, he says.

“The kids who are persistently absent are the ones we want to direct the resource to.’’

For children who wind up missing two weeks of school each term, over their school lifetime that is two years of lost learning.

And if children turn up to school an hour late each day that quickly builds up as well – over a year that’s 200 hours of learning they won’t get back – and it’s not even recorded because those students are marked as present.

Hipkins said the biggest thing to avoid in coming months and years as Covid evolves is having children and teenagers fall between the cracks and never return to school.

“That’s certainly something we want to avoid, which is where the revamp of attendance services is going to be really important.’’

Covid keeping kids at bay

Currently, there’s a variety of reasons why children aren’t at school.

“For some, it’s because of Covid-19 and you get both ends of the spectrum. You get anxious parents not wanting to send kids to school because they don’t want them to get Covid, and then on the other end you’ve got families who are saying they don’t want to send their kids to school because they think they’ll be vaccinated without parental consent,” Hipkins said.

While he insisted vaccination without consent would never happen, “there’s no doubt that Covid-related anxiety amongst parents is having a real impact’’.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he does his best to keep Covid anxiety out of his own children’s lives. Pool photo: Robert Kitchin

He expects absenteeism to be an ongoing problem this year, and hopes by 2023 school attendance will start to return to normal levels.

“Schools were closed during the Delta outbreak in Auckland and yet the prevalence rate [of Covid] in that cohort is about the same as for Omicron, when schools have been open.

“I really don’t think parents should be as anxious about that as some are – a proportion of children will get Covid, that’s just the reality of living in a community where covid is circulating.’’

Anxiety being passed from parent to child

As the pandemic has dragged on for the best part of two-and-a-half years Hipkins said there’d been much “heightened anxiety’’ that has come from that, and schools hadn’t escaped it either.

He said parents had an important role to play in reassuring children Covid was a challenge  – but something the country would get through.

“Kids pick up public discourse is happening around them and I think there is still quite a lot of anxiety and catastrophising going on around Covid-19, and I think kids pick up on that.’’

Asked who or what he thought was being catastrophised, Hipkins said it was a “general observation, not designed as a criticism’’.

“It’s just all those informal conversations people have around the place that kids hear and are part of, everything from, will I still have a job to will the family get Covid again?

“We all have a role here to make sure we’re positively projecting for our young people.

“I’ve got kids of my own, I think about this all the time. Our household has a lot of anxieties in it related to Covid, but I work bloody hard to make sure I don’t pass that onto the kids and they don’t see that, and I think every household needs to think about that,’’ Hipkins said.

Getting children back to school and alleviating parents’ concerns is an ongoing battle for school leaders and politicians.

Most days it feels like “one step forward and two steps back,’’ Hipkins said.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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