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Unfortunately, Fraser High School’s principal is right in many ways

The consequences of truancy for Māori students are as shocking that speech, writes Graham Cameron.

Virginia Crawford, principal of Fraser High School, is under fire for a speech about truancy the media has characterised as “shocking”. In it she stated:

“Every student who walks out of the gate to truant is already a statistic of the worst kind, highly likely to go to prison, highly likely to commit domestic violence or be a victim of domestic violence, be illiterate, be a rape victim, be a suicide victim, be unemployed for the majority of their life, have a major health problem or problems, die at an early age, have an addiction – drugs, gambling, alcohol or smoking.”

The speech came out on social media after being recorded secretly by a student. Staff and parents have anonymously expressed concern and outrage about frightening students and putting responsibility on the students themselves for any criminal offending that might occur against them. I don’t know if there’s a clear path from truancy to domestic violence and sexual violence, but I listened to the speech rather than reading the soundbites and I agree truancy and absenteeism is a scourge on our society that is damaging to both the individual and our society.

I previously ran a community centre in Tauranga Moana. We ran programmes for rangatahi and tamariki. My tamariki are in kura kaupapa Māori and kura-ā-iwi. I am on a board of trustees for our local wharekura. I live in our turangawaewae. I am proud to say that our tamariki and rangatahi in our kura and wharekura truly are becoming tomorrow’s leaders for our Māori communities. But it is also true that we, teachers, management and governors are battling truancy and absenteeism every day, and in some instances I find that whānau do not understand why their child being truant is actually a problem.

In the Ministry of Education’s report on attendance of Year 11 students nationally in Term Two of 2017, under two thirds were attending more than 90% of school days. 14% of students were attending less than 80%. Only one in two Māori students were attending more than 90% of school days. 22% of Māori students were attending less than 80 percent.

Think of it this way: there are 40 weeks in a school year for students. If a student is only attending 75% of school days, they are missing the entirety of one ten week term. Nationally then, one in five Māori students are missing a whole school term in their Year 11 school year.

How can we help Māori students achieve their dreams and goals if they are gone a whole school term? Truancy and absenteeism is a scourge on our society that is damaging to both the individual and our society.

Every day in Aotearoa about 4.5%, or over 28,000, students are truant or absent. A minority of these young people are frequent truants (that is absent without explanation for over three days). Frequent truancy is linked to youth offending including theft, burglary, property damage, graffiti, car conversion and assault. These figures don’t include the 2,500 young people who are not enrolled in any school at all.

Unfortunately Crawford was quite accurate in some of her assessment of the outcomes and truancy and absenteeism. Longitudinal studies conducted here in Aotearoa show that truancy has a positive correlation with lifelong academic failure, criminal behaviour, substance abuse, unemployment, and early parenting.

For the parents or teachers who are more shocked by Virginia Crawford’s speech than they are by the shocking outcomes of truancy and absenteeism; you are focusing on the wrong thing. If you are parents or caregivers who allow your young person to be truant, you need to understand what you are risking. You are complicit in risking the future of that young person. And Crawford is right that our world is not going to protect our rangatahi the way the talented teachers and management of kura and schools attempt to. Out there our rangatahi may well discover that they are “not a person anymore, not a unique individual with the potential to develop awesome talents. [They are treated as] a thing.”

There are understandable reasons for truancy in my community. Some parents and caregivers start early at work, do long hours and shift work, so when one of the younger kids are ill, an older child needs to stay home to care them. Sometimes the whole whānau will be doing seasonal work and the rangatahi will take some time off to help with the whānau finances. Particularly in winter we can have a run of tangihanga, and rangatahi may be at the marae for some days or even weeks, cooking and cleaning.

But then there are also less understandable reasons for truancy: whānau holidays; not wanting to conflict about getting up on time; not being interested in what your rangatahi is doing during the day. And one of the key challenges in our community is parents and caregivers who had a terrible experience of education themselves. They may have been physically and psychologically abused; they were convinced they were not capable learners; and they may not have achieved any qualifications or success. So in time some develop coping mechanisms – myths they tell themselves – for example that formal education is not a necessary part of life.

These beliefs are part of the the current our rangatahi swim against. Frequent truancy means they are swimming alone without the kura community, and in that situation in time they will leave, and it will be as Crawford suggests: “But really what they’re saying to me and what they’ve convinced themselves is it is cool to leave school without qualifications.”

It is unchallengeable that rangatahi who regularly attend kura are more likely to succeed. First and foremost because just like Fraser High, in all schools and kura, “help and support is here.” Secondly it is because kura and schools create environments that put value on learning, put resource into learning, and put significant role models in front of rangatahi. Growing up is hard, and education can also be difficult. But the words of Virginia Crawford ring true here:

“In every class your teacher has what you need as a next step towards your future goals. Don’t let that teacher or anyone else hold you back from moving closer to your goals. It takes commitment, effort and courage. You will need courage not to get sucked in by peer pressure, by what’s supposed to be cool right now. Have a vision of when you leave school with your higher qualification. Those so-called cool things and cool people will be of no consequence because you will have left them behind at the bus stops…”


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