New Zealand schools have seen a significant decrease in attendance this year – and National says it can’t be excused by Covid. But is that actually true? Emma Vitz dived into the data.
National has been sounding the alarm on a “truancy crisis” in New Zealand, with leader Christopher Luxon recently claiming that 55% of students aren’t attending school regularly. As many have pointed out since, the definition of regular attendance is attending school at least 90% of the time — so if a student misses more than one day per fortnight, or more than one week per term, they are not considered to be attending regularly.
However, I’d like to put aside the definitions and turn to a slightly more interesting argument National makes about truancy in New Zealand – that it can’t be explained by the pandemic. In May, National’s education spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said: “Given there has been a serious fall in regular attendance at schools over the past five years, excuses that the latest figures are a result of Covid-19 don’t wash.” Let’s dive into that.
Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage of half days for which students in New Zealand were marked as present hovered around 91%. This includes all students in years 1 to 13. By term four of 2019 (i.e. the last term before the pandemic began), this had dropped to just below 90%. This is not exactly a precipitous drop, but it is a slow and steady decrease in students being present at school.
Any figures since then must be interpreted in the light of the pandemic. And 2022 is the biggest outlier of them all.
Given that term one of 2022 coincided with New Zealand’s first real widespread wave of Covid, is it any wonder that school attendance dropped to 84.5%, the lowest since records began in 2011?
To see whether this lower attendance really does stem from Covid, I looked at weekly absences in term one of 2022 by region and compared these to Covid cases in the corresponding DHBs.
Absences from school are categorised as justified or unjustified, and I’ve broken justified absences into medical and other. It’s not clear whether a student who is absent from school because they’re a household contact but don’t test positive themselves would be considered a medical absence or fall into another category, so these absences may also be influenced by Covid.
Overall, there is a clear correlation between the number of Covid cases reported in a particular part of the country and the number of students absent from school during that time. The similarity in the way these develop is seen in every region of the country, from Auckland’s sharp peak to Nelson’s flatter hump.
We can also see the way omicron swept through the country from north to south at the beginning of the year. Auckland peaked in both Covid cases and school absences at the end of February, while the lower North Island isn’t hit until March. In the South Island, cases and absences don’t peak until the end of March.
Of course there are also some concerning trends in unjustified absences, which in Auckland in particular make up a significant part of the peak in absenteeism in term one of 2022. Whether this is due to poor data collection (i.e. miscategorised Covid absences) is unknown, but it’s certainly a possibility. It could also reflect a genuine increase in truancy that coincided with the omicron wave.
Overall, there has been a slow but steady decrease in school attendance over the past 10 years, a trend which could be seen before Covid. However, that’s a decrease in the order of 1%, not the 5% or more drop we’ve seen more recently.
Coming back to Paul Goldsmith’s statement, you’d be hard pressed to argue that the pandemic has had no effect on student absenteeism in 2022. The correlation at a weekly and regional level is just too strong to ignore. We can focus on improving school attendance without pretending that the global pandemic that finally hit New Zealand at the exact time students went back to school this year had no impact.