We need to recognise truancy as a complex problem that requires complex policy solutions

Opinion: As schools open their doors after the summer break, how many students won’t turn up?

Truancy has emerged as one of New Zealand’s more significant education problems. While student absenteeism increased sharply after Covid-19 hit, there is evidence of a much longer, steady decline in attendance.

Our schools have lower student attendance than many other countries – and the rate of wagging is growing.

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In 2019, the rate of regular attendance was just 58 percent – down from 70 percent in 2015. In term 2 in 2022, the fallout from Covid saw it drop as low as 39.9 percent.

Similar countries to us have much higher rates of regular attendance – for example, the UK has 90 percent (2020/21) and Australia has 73 percent (2019).

The “truancy crisis” has generated heated political debate.

National Party Leader Christopher Luxon’s claims that parents and poor school leadership need to be held responsible for school attendance drew sharp critique from principals and associate education minister Jan Tinetti, who said Luxon was misinformed and “completely wrong”.

The question of blame aside, it’s clear we’ve got a problem.

Acknowledging this, the Government has launched an Attendance and Engagement Strategy with the aim of getting regular attendance levels back to 70 percent by 2024 and 75 percent by 2026.

The ramifications of students missing school are very worrying. Research shows that poor attendance leads to lower achievement and lower future earnings, as well as poorer mental health and social functioning, and increased likelihood of criminal behaviour and social isolation.  

Work done by New Zealand researchers tells us what we could do to address the problem.

Early detection of truancy is key

Some students say they begin by “wagging-in-class”, by being there but not engaged in any way.

This often leads to missing just one class and if it’s not picked up or noticed early on, it becomes a habit. Truancy generates further truancy.

Research shows addressing truancy early and helping students understand how detrimental it can be for their future is key to reducing long-term absenteeism.

Some students even wish they’d been given a detention and taken to the room by a teacher as this would have meant their truancy was taken seriously.

Feeling valued and noticed at school is important

When interviewed by researchers, students who truanted commented that learning at school could be boring or too hard. In contrast, the communities they formed outside school often felt more inclusive and enjoyable. Students who wagged regularly said that making learning more interesting and relevant was crucial for keeping them in school and getting them to come back.

Being “visible” at school was important too – having friends and teachers notice if they weren’t there and care enough to ask about them. In short, relationships matter. A 2022 report found that getting to see and spend time with friends was a motivating factor for school for 80 percent of New Zealand students.

Liking at least one teacher was also motivational for students and it is clear that teachers play a significant role in helping young people get back to school if they have been absent for a long time.

‘Fixing’ truancy is complex

Politicians have blamed schools, teachers, principals and parents for truancy, and truanting students are often seen as the problem that needs fixing, but there is no one person or place to blame and no one quick fix.

Instead, we need to recognise truancy as a complex problem that requires complex policy solutions.

Research shows that getting students back to school requires support from parents, teachers and the students themselves, as well as a positive and welcoming school climate.

It also shows that support from a significant adult – not necessarily a teacher – and peers is as vital in helping youth who wag to develop a positive and determined attitude to re-engage with learning.

Consistency of attendance matters. Every class matters. Every student matters.  

Dr Delia Baskerville, lecturer in the School of Education at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington

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