National might find a few votes in grand statements about parents needing to wake up in time to take their children to school, but an actual policy or just one idea to address chronic truancy wouldn’t go amiss, writes political editor Jo Moir

Comment: Christopher Luxon found an unlikely ally in Education Minister Chris Hipkins on Tuesday when both agreed parents need to prioritise getting their children to school.

Hipkins had criticised Luxon and called for him to apologise last week when he blamed a “mixed standard of leadership across schools” for ballooning truancy, saying principals weren’t “focusing as strongly on getting kids to school as they can”.

Fast forward a week and the pair agree parents have a role to play in getting children to school, but the reason they think absenteeism is on the rise couldn’t be more different.

Hipkins says there are increasing reports of parents taking their kids out of school for family holidays, for example, and that becomes a challenge for schools, because it means students are missing out on an education.

But Luxon says students being away from school due to a family holiday isn’t “what we’re talking about here”.

In reality, there’s probably an element of truth to both.

Luxon says the problem is chronically absent kids, and parents not being motivated to see them off to school.

“All I’m doing is calling parents … to say, hey listen, it’s in your interests that we want your children to do better than you did.

“You choose to have these kids, you have to wake up at 7am, get your kids to school at 8am,” he said.

These comments come after newly released truancy data shows in term two just 39.9 percent of students attended schools and kura regularly.

The Ministry of Education attributes much of that to Covid-19 cases in the community remaining high during that period, along with a rise in sickness due to typical winter illnesses like cold and flu.

Covid has had a significant impact on truancy since 2020, but Ministry of Education data also shows there has been a slow but steady decrease in school attendance over the past decade.

So, this isn’t a problem that Covid alone created – school attendance was in decline long before a pandemic hit New Zealand’s shores.

And while the Government has introduced measures like free lunches and period products in schools, which are barriers to attendance for some students, truancy is still high.

Some of those provisions have only really come into effect recently so it is too soon to say how much impact they’ve had, but the vast number of children chronically absent suggests they have by no means been a silver bullet.

If the Opposition leader truly thinks a generation is on the brink of missing out on an education and that National is the right party to fix it, having at least one idea to address the crisis shouldn’t be too much to ask.

The Prime Minister told Newsroom on Tuesday that making the curriculum more inclusive and investing more money in attendance services are two other levers that could help.

A curriculum review is already underway, which Jacinda Ardern says is designed to “reach all kids in all areas”.

The Green Party agrees and says many communities have been calling out for greater inclusiveness in schools to try to lift regular attendance.

But ultimately co-leader Marama Davidson says it’s things like affordable, warm and dry housing and raising income levels that will have the biggest impact on those families not currently prioritising school attendance.

ACT leader David Seymour has proposed all schools receive funding based on attendance, as was the case previously for charter schools.

He told Newsroom state schools currently get funded based on their enrolment numbers, which means there’s little to no incentive to ensure students actually turn up.

Compare this with charter schools, where funding was received based on attendance, and much greater attention was given to truancy officers finding those students, Seymour said.

Once the absent students were found, time and resource was spent finding out why they weren’t attending and overcoming it.

So what does Luxon propose?

Give it a few months and he’ll let everyone know, he says.

Labour, the Greens and ACT Party certainly haven’t solved the issue – truancy is definitely getting worse on the Government’s watch – but at least all three parties have thought through a possible solution beyond just demanding parents get out of bed.

Asked where the policy or ideas were to get truant kids back in school, Luxon told Newsroom, “We do have ideas, we’re discussing that with the team and will talk to you about it next year”.

There’s a so-called school attendance crisis and Luxon’s saying he’s not prepared to “write off a generation of young people” but when asked for a single policy or idea, he had nothing.

If the Opposition leader truly thinks a generation is on the brink of missing out on an education and that National is the right party to fix it, having at least one idea to address the crisis shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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