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Lots of students rely on alarms to get to school on time (Getty Images / Bianca Cross)

OPINIONPoliticsNovember 21, 2022

The truth about school principals and student attendance

classroom empty with alarm clock floating and slightly odd eerie colours, it's desaturated
Lots of students rely on alarms to get to school on time (Getty Images / Bianca Cross)

Christopher Luxon appears to understand neither attendance data nor what actually works to get students into school, writes educator Traci Liddall.

Who’s to blame for increasing truancy? At least partly, it’s principals who aren’t focused on getting kids into the classroom, according to National Party leader Christopher Luxon. His argument is being backed up by Act’s David Seymour, who last week added a jab at “absolutely hopeless” school principals for good measure.

For those of us who have been in education for more than five minutes it’s no surprise to hear this rhetoric. Over the last decade, teachers, principals and the schools where they work have been increasingly blamed for society’s ills. Once upon a time a teacher could sit all day at their desk, cane in one hand, a lit cigarette hanging out the window in the other, down a few pints at the pub at 3, be home by 5, and still be respected as a pillar of the community. These days a 10+ hour work day is the norm, with a recent report showing that 69.6% of New Zealand primary school leaders and 82% of New Zealand secondary school leaders are working between 50 and 65 hours per week.

School teachers and principals are forced to be everything to everyone (Illustration from The Side Eye by Toby Morris)

So let’s start with the numbers. Luxon said that according to recently released data less than 40% of students are attending school regularly. The report can be read here. What he didn’t explain is exactly what “regularly” means in this context. In Ministry of Education terms, a student is deemed to attend “regularly” if they are at school 91-100% of the time it is open for instruction. That means in a 10 week term of 50 days, the maximum number of days a student can be absent and still be considered to be attending regularly is four. Staying home sick is considered an absence. Attending a tangi is considered an absence. When I look back on what a terrible time schools had in term two this year with Covid, including rostering home year levels because of sick teachers, I’m surprised the attendance level is as high as 40%.

According to that same report, 71.2% of students attended 81% or more of the time (or more than 41 days out of 50). My two step daughters fit into this box. They both had Covid in term two and were also affected by year level rolling stay-at-home orders due to staffing difficulties. They are both diligent and studious and their dad knocks on their bedroom door to rouse them from slumber at seven each morning – but according to some of the comments made recently by these politicians, these two young women are “truants”, another problem that principals need to tackle.

There is actually no data for truancy in the attendance report Luxon quoted from. The most I could find was the percentage of term time wasted with unjustified absences. Without the raw data it is impossible to extrapolate the number of students this refers to nor which band of attendance they fit into. So it is hard to understand just what Luxon meant. That those who were not regular attenders were truant?

It’s just not true that principals aren’t paying attention to who is and isn’t in school (Photo: Getty Images)

This is not to say that attendance isn’t something that plays heavily on the minds of all principals. Of course it does. The evidence clearly shows that attendance below 91% negatively affects learning – and we want all of our students to succeed. If a student is absent and the school has not been notified, then an attempt is made to contact home. Sometimes by automated text, email or phone call, sometimes all of the above. This becomes escalated the longer a student remains absent without notifying the school. Schools keep much more detailed data and know who the students are and trends around absences.

Healthy lunches in schools have helped. Fewer children are kept home to cover the whakamā of having no food. Period products in schools have helped. Girls who have free and easy access to pads and tampons (and, where possible, new undies and brown paper bags) are more likely to come to school. Funding given directly to schools for targeted attendance programmes to fit their own unique circumstances has helped.

Addressing the why alongside the what – such as having someone employed in small communities who is able to quietly and respectfully provide school uniform, learning materials, food, even bedding and curtains – has helped. Having flexible teaching and learning models to accommodate students who have responsibilities outside of school such as care of family members or work have helped.

Interestingly, none of these options have reduced the amount of time some higher decile students spend absent on overseas holidays, and it’s not rocket science as to why.

Unfortunately the restraints and challenges with attendance are the same as they have always been. It always comes down to money. In the absence of an effective truancy service this has fallen back on schools and principals to deliver. And in some schools the money marmite is already spread pretty thin. If more money is spent on attendance, less will be spent elsewhere. That is basic economics, and something I would have hoped a great business mind like Christopher Luxon would understand.

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