Children as young as 12 are leaving school in search of work, according to youth employment agencies who say the country is headed towards a “significant crisis” if nothing is done to curb the flow of young people not attending school.
Meanwhile, truancy services are working with thousands of kids as young as 6 who have been un-enrolled from school.
Gaeleen Wilkie, manager of Taupō Pathways For Youth Employment, was gobsmacked when she received a call from the parent of a 12-year-old asking for help finding their child a job because she had stopped going to school.
“They’re too young to work. I mean, a 12-year-old, they are a child,” she said.
“What’s that 12-year-old going to look like when they are 16?”
Wilkie said the number of families turning to her for help because their children were no longer going to school had increased massively over the past year - to the point where she has been getting at least a call a week from parents of children under 16 asking what their options were.
“It’s a big issue,” she said. “They’re coming to us thinking that we can get them a job, but I can’t.”
Legally, students cannot drop out of school until they are 16, but neither can they work, as it’s unlawful to employ a person under 16 during school hours.
Data shows the number of unenrolled students - those who had not attended school for at least 20 consecutive school days - was 9205 at the end of March. During 2022, there were 9980 non-enrollment notifications for children between the ages of 5 and 13.
Taupō Pathways manager Gaeleen Wilkie says there are few options for training or work for children under the age of 16. Photo / Laurilee McMichael
Wilkie said most students who left school before the age of 16 would get stuck in low-paid jobs and struggle to build a career from them.
One 15-year-old she worked with got trials with two builders, but was refused an apprenticeship because he had no driver’s licence and was very “green”.
Wilkie said parents often didn’t realise that their children needed good maths skills to even get a job in the trades.
“The common comment I have from employers is that young people don’t even know how to use a tape measure.”
Wilkie said the study and employment options for people under the age of 16 were very limited, especially in small towns.
“They could get a job cleaning, maybe, but is that what you want your child to do for the rest of their life?”
She said both parents and schools could do more to keep kids in the education system.
“Maybe schools aren’t that good at joining the dots between what you learn at school and how [that’s] used in the real world, but also, parents just aren’t parenting and making the kids go.
“They’re not valuing education, and I don’t think they realise how much they’re shutting doors on their children.”
Youth Employment Aotearoa convenor Shirley Johnson said the issue was the same nationwide.
“We’re really heading toward a significant crisis event unless we start looking at how we make school more relevant and accessible for our young people right across the country,” she said.
“Kids who are at school are 10 times less likely to get involved in crime. Health, social, financial outcomes - so much of that is linked to them staying in school.”
She believed the drop in attendance was largely driven by poverty, which caused inter-generational disengagement.
“Covid scraped the scab off quite a long-standing issue,” she said. “Young people haven’t got back into those same routines where the norm is going to school.”
The problem with those under 16 looking for employment was that they ended up in poor-quality jobs where there was a high risk of them being exploited, she said.
Blue Light chief operating officer Brendon Crompton said his organisation, which is responsible for working with all the non-enrolled students in south Auckland, said they had 4000 referrals last year and were on track for the same again - with the biggest chunk aged between 8 and 14.
The number of non-enrollment notifications nationally for 10-year-olds had increased by 96 per cent between 2018 and 2022 - the largest jump of any age group - and 8-year-olds were up 88 per cent, according to the Ministry of Education.
”We’ve got kids on our books who are 8 or 9 who have essentially spent less than a year, in their entire schooling, at school.
“The issue we have is, we can place them back in school, and then the school’s got a nightmare because the kids are two or three years behind their peer group in their learning.”
Crompton disagreed poverty was to blame when many low-decile schools provided students with free uniforms, meals and stationery, as well as on-site social workers.
“The reason that kids don’t go to school is because of drug addiction or family violence. There might be some older kids who are staying home looking after the kids, but that’s very unusual.”
Bullying and anxiety were also common issues, he said.
He said getting young people back into school was vital because research showed those who were long-term truants or out of school were more likely to be teen mums, youth offenders, in low-paying jobs or on an unemployment benefit for an extended time, and have mental health issues.
“Lack of education is a robbery of people’s opportunities.”
But there is hope - Blue Light successfully re-enrols 70 per cent of the students it works with.
Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault said he was seeing more students leave school for low-paid jobs. Photo / Dean Purcell
Secondary School Principals’ Association president Vaughan Couillault said he had not heard of 12- or 13-year-olds leaving in search of employment, but getting Years 9 and 10 students engaged and attending regularly was a challenge post-Covid.
There were more students leaving school to get work earlier than they would otherwise, which always happened at times of near-full employment, he said.
But what really concerned him was the increase in students who were leaving school with no real purpose or career plan.
“We have seen far greater numbers of students exiting education early to go into low-paid employment.”
He said principals and teachers did all they could to encourage students to stay in school, “from ringing mum and dad to just having a heart-to-heart in your English class, or talking to your sports coach or cultural leader”.
Education Minister Jan Tinetti agreed high employment levels always saw more senior students choosing to leave school, but said the Government’s attendance and engagement strategy was seeing attendance rates improve.
“Education gives people choices, and I want our young people to have as many choices in life as possible,” she said.
National’s education spokeswoman Erica Stanford said it was extremely concerning increasing numbers of young people were disengaging from school at an earlier age.
“The Government, schools and parents all have an important part to play in improving attendance and keeping students engaged in their education.”
Amy Wiggins is an Auckland-based reporter who covers education. She joined the Herald in 2017 and has worked as a journalist for 12 years.
Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you