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Huge truancy numbers due to 'Covid, distrust in Govt and anxiety'

Author
RNZ,
Publish Date
Mon, 28 Aug 2023, 8:51am
Chronic absence from schools reached a high of 14 per cent in term two last year. Photo / Alex Burton, File
Chronic absence from schools reached a high of 14 per cent in term two last year. Photo / Alex Burton, File

Huge truancy numbers due to 'Covid, distrust in Govt and anxiety'

Author
RNZ,
Publish Date
Mon, 28 Aug 2023, 8:51am

Aggressive families, drugged parents and even a dog attack were among the challenges cited in half-year and full-year reports to the Education Ministry from 28 organisations contracted to provide attendance services. 

Poverty, insecure housing, rising costs and weak parenting were common themes in the reports. 

But they also repeatedly cited problems with the attendance computer system, government agencies and even schools themselves. 

RNZ required the intervention of the Ombudsman to obtain the documents, which ran to 300 pages. 

Read: some of the school attendance reports here. 

They covered the period when chronic absence reached a high of 14 per cent in term two last year and unjustified absences nudged 6 per cent. 

Many of the reports noted increased or heavy workloads, with more students who had completely dropped out of the school system. 

The high number of truants pushed attendance service case numbers to 28,754 cases last year, 40 per cent or 8600 more than in 2021, with most involving children whose enrolment had lapsed because they had been absent from school so long. 

Many schools have not recovered from the impact of Covid lockdowns. Photo / Stephen Parker, File Many schools have not recovered from the impact of Covid lockdowns. Photo / Stephen Parker, File 

All the reports mentioned Covid-19 as a driver of truancy, including the view that repeated school closures due to outbreaks of illness or staff shortages caused by other illnesses had weakened student and family expectations about going to school. 

They said some families were genuinely afraid their children would catch the virus at school, some used it as an excuse, and others were unhappy with mask-wearing rules. 

“Covid has been a significant barrier and has allowed some students to get into a habit of not attending school, or not having to get out of bed to go to kura,” said the report covering the Te Puke area. 

“The most significant barrier has been the disruption created by Covid and disruption to whānau,” another report said. 

A South Island provider observed “the combination of absence due to illness and rostering home leading to students getting into a routine of not going to school”. 

The reports also warned that many of the children they worked with had mental health problems including anxiety and self-harm. 

“Anxiety among students continues to be prevalent,” said one report. 

“Massive increase in anxiety, self-harming leading to suicide attempts,” said another. 

“Most referrals fell into one of two areas. A mental health problem (mainly anxiety) and lack of capacity to parent. Device addiction was a common theme,” said the report for the Hutt Valley. 

A report from an Auckland service said some students threatened self-harm to stop their parents sending them to school. 

Several providers warned that misinformation and distrust of the government were drivers for some truants. 

The provider covering Horowhenua said barriers to attendance included: “A high number of whānau who are expressing conspiracy theories about the system and a world view not based on factual information.” 

Schools report families citing conspiracy theories as reasons their children were not attending school. Photo / Edward RooneySchools report families citing conspiracy theories as reasons their children were not attending school. Photo / Edward Rooney 

“The current climate of fear and resistance to anything government is making things quite difficult,” said the provider for Taupō while the report for the Kapiti area cited “anti-mandate and anti-government parents”. 

Many providers said poor parenting was a problem. 

The provider for schools in the area including Waihi and Paeroa said some parents were overwhelmed by their child’s defiance and it was easier to let them stay home. 

“We continue to see whānau who have forgotten how to parent. They are reluctant to ‘make waves’ with their children because of fear of pushing too far,” wrote the Taumarunui service provider. 

Low incomes, rising costs and uncertain housing arrangements were another common factor. 

“Over this reporting period we have come across more broken homes and young people not coping with the break down at home,” said the report for the Papakura area. 

“Long-standing challenges with transience and whānau in emergency accommodation continue to be a major factor in attendance. Added to the ongoing Covid issue this has resulted in an exceptionally busy period,” said another report. 

Crime, gangs and drugs were cited as particular problems in some areas with one provider describing a “youth crime wave” in some parts of the region it covered. 

“The attraction of gangs is a significant barrier we encounter,” said the Rotorua service report. 

“Increased numbers of students striving for gang membership,” wrote the Tarawera provider. 

“There has been a rise in cases of youth offending referrals as young as 12 years old,” said another. 

Education Ministry figures showed unjustified absences accounted for 5.9 per cent of school time in term two last year, up from 4.6 per cent at the same time in 2021. 

-John Gerritsen, RNZ 

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