Empty Classroom via Pexels
Empty Classroom via Pexels

Peter Williams: Why do kids miss so much school?

Opinion 23/06/2021

OPINION: It stands to reason that if you don’t go to school, your chances of a good education diminish. And that is worrying economist Cameron Bagrie. 

He’s written a great piece for BusinessDesk and his basic premise is that he monitors student attainment as an indicator for New Zealand’s economic prospects in decades to come. He reports that Ministry of Education research shows that each additional half-day absence from school predicts a consistent reduction in the number of NCEA credits a student subsequently receives. And this is what bothers him the most. In 2015, 70 percent of students went to school regularly - that is 90 percent of the time. By 2019, that number was down to 58 percent of students. It improved last year. In term two the number at school regularly was up to 64 percent. But chronic absenteeism - that is kids at school less than 70 percent of the time - rose to nine percent, one in 11 students. In the 4th term last year, only 61.7 percent of students went to school regularly, a drop of 4.4 points from the same term the year before. 

Now there are all sorts of reasons for bunking school, and the whole COVID situation didn’t help matters last year either because there was a constant cry of “stay at home if you’re sick.” But the bottom line is that attendance is a critical component of educational achievement and that having less than two-thirds of students going to school regularly in term four last year is just not good enough. 

The two basic questions are why is it happening and what can we do about it? If you’re a parent, a teacher, a current or former student who bunks school a bit, why do so many kids stay away from school so much?

By sheer coincidence yesterday I came across the latest Ministry of Education Bulletin for School Leaders. It comes from Iona Holsted, the Secretary for Education, and I was actually looking through it to see what protocols would be for school teachers who decided not to get vaccinated. But in the same bulletin were the results of an exercise the Ministry must have done a previous bulletin whereby they asked school leaders, which I presume is now the new and all-inclusive name for principals, to share ideas and stories about improving school attendance. 

There are some really interesting ideas that were published in this bulletin. Like changing the school sports hour from later in the week to Monday because a lot of kids love their sport, and one school said doing a simple thing like that immediately stopped the three-day weekends. Here’s another idea, based on peer pressure - if an entire class is at school for the day, the entire class has the last 10 minutes of the day as free time. In other words a small reward. Then there are the other incentive ideas of a certificate or a prize for being at school every day of the term, and here’s one a little outside the box. Taneatua School in the easter Bay of Plenty introduced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a way of combating both fighting and absenteeism - and it worked because both behaviour and attendance improved. 

But are they just papering over the cracks? Can you really improve school attendance with just incentives? What about the time in the classroom? The engagement with teachers and learning itself? 

Listen to Peter Williams everry weekday from 9am on Magic Talk.