Getting children turning up to school regularly is the number one issue for Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti, who is responsible for reforming attendance and truancy services.

The Prime Minister’s reshuffle earlier this month didn’t give the former Bay of Plenty principal a promotion, but with an estimated one-third increase in workload she’s picked up a lot of the slack.

Tinetti says she’s never directly told Jacinda Ardern she wants to be Education Minister but admits to Newsroom that she would “never say no to that’’.

“The title doesn’t worry me … if one day that happens I’ll take it with open arms but it doesn’t worry me either,’’ she said.

“I’m more excited now because I’ve got an even greater mandate within the schooling sector than what I’ve had before.’’

Ardern has tried and failed twice to move Chris Hipkins out of the education role so he could concentrate his time on some of the many other tasks he’s had, such as health, Covid-19 and Leader of the House.

Hipkins’ great passion in politics is education and he’s held onto the portfolio once again, despite picking up the meaty police job that Ardern says is a government focus.

But something had to give, so in her reshuffle announcement Ardern said a significant chunk of the work would be shifted over to Tinetti instead.

That’s seen her pick up oversight for Te Mahau within the Ministry of Education, which is responsible for schooling network and operation decisions for English-medium schools, as well as Tomorrow’s Schools reforms.

That’s in addition to her delegations around learning support, the refresh of the curriculum, NCEA changes and the attendance and engagement strategy underway.

“I was leading the curriculum refresh, and you can’t do that without looking at NCEA or the work that Te Mahau does to support that. The fact I’ve now got the responsibilities is a good thing because I’m able to have those conversations direct and not have to go through the minister’s office.’’

This week Tinetti will make announcements around the NCEA changes as the Government looks to take some of the workload off teachers who are increasingly suffering burnout.

The changes are being made alongside decisions on how best to refresh the curriculum and Tinetti told Newsroom, “basically nothing’s off the table’’.

That extends to making NCEA level one optional, a decision that is still to be made but not likely to come in this week’s announcement, she said. 

The other priority for Tinetti is the reforming of the truancy service, something Hipkins told Newsroom in May was on his radar to reverse given it hadn’t worked as intended.

Following a 2012 survey the truancy service was contracted out, which meant schools lost truancy officers on site and in some cases from their communities altogether.

Tinetti said this was her experience when she was principal of Merivale School up until five years ago, where truancy officers didn’t have relationships with the school or families.

“I don’t believe that the idea when those services were taken away like that was to make things worse, but it really did make things worse,’’ she told Newsroom.

“The title doesn’t worry me… if one day that happens I’ll take it with open arms but it doesn’t worry me either.” – Jan Tinetti

Two pilots testing new ways of providing truancy and wraparound services to schools have been running for the past 18 months and last week Tinetti received a report back on how they’re doing.

She was reluctant to go into too much detail, having not read the full reports on the pilots in both Kawerau and South Auckland, but she was “heartened” by what she had seen so far.

Tinetti said she met with the New Zealand Principals’ Federation earlier in the month and the consensus is that schools want the truancy services, which come up for renewal later this year, returned to communities rather than being contracted out.

That will also mean looking at “tailor-made approaches’’ for some areas given a rural school like in Kawerau has different needs to that of a big urban school in South Auckland.

One principal asked Tinetti at her recent meeting why the Government couldn’t run an equivalent campaign on school truancy to the ‘Make it Click’ campaign that convinced many of the merits of seatbelts in cars.

But Tinetti says that’s exactly what is being worked on – a nationwide campaign to inform parents, children, businesses, and wider communities of why students need to be at school regularly and the impact that has on their choices later in life.

It includes input from everyone, even shop owners who see students who should be in school in their businesses and helping to get them back to class, she said.

Keeping students in school is about engagement and while Tinetti says she hates the term ‘alternative education’ it is something that can be used to lessen truancy.

“Alternative education needs to be part of the system and we need to start thinking of it as part of the system … sometimes we have square pegs that we’re trying to fit into round holes and we’re trying to change the shape of the peg all the time.

“What we need to do is change the shape of the hole,’’ she said.

In the next couple of weeks Tinetti expects to make some decisions around the truancy service and how it is contracted.

She already has officials coming back to her with more information, and once the full results of the pilot have been assessed Tinetti hopes to “see changes asap’’.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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