Last week, Education Minister Jan Tinetti announced $74 million would be put towards tackling truancy in schools; part of that fund would be put toward establishing 82 new attendance officers.
The funding will also be invested in the Attendance Service, which will help an estimated 3000 rangatahi. There is also a commitment to standardising attendance data across schools.
The announcement came after the latest figures showed regular attendance in Term 2 of 2022 was at just 46%. Regular attendance is defined as a student attending school 90% of the time; missing just one week of school a term is enough to dip students below that threshold. Over 13 years of schooling, 90% attendance equates to missing one-and-a-half years of schooling.
Concern over the rising number of absences has been attributed in part to COVID-19, though attendance had been steadily declining in the years before. The decline in attendance is consistent across all schools and ethnicities, though the drop is more pronounced in low-decile schools and for Māori and Pacific ākonga. There has been a marked increase in students going to school “often”, defined as 80 – 90% of the time.
In a recent report, the ERO notes that this drop in attendance could be partly attributed to attitudes among parents and whānau, 41% of whom are comfortable with their child missing more than a week of school per term. Additionally, a third of learners don’t believe going to school every day is important. The reasons for keeping a student from school are myriad, with cultural or special events, holidays and sporting events being cited as reasons for parents to allow their child leave from school. Mental health challenges, bullying, transport and disability are also barriers to attending school.
The report recommended improving broad understanding of regular attendance, improving awareness of learner attendance, increasing learner engagement, improving school environment and removing barriers as primary methods of action to improving attendance.
While announcing the package, Minister Tinetti acknowledged the “complex” nature of attendance issues.
“[Attendance] will require the whole community, including parents, to fix.
“We know there are many reasons why a child might not show up to school, which is why we’re also continuing our initiatives that are focused on removing barriers to education such as free period products, free healthy school lunches, school donations, preventing bulling and redesigning our curriculum.”
The new funding will come on top of last year’s $88 million package, which invested into the Regional Response Fund, the Attendance Strategy and its associated campaigns. Minister Tinetti said the package had seen results, saying that “early intervention with students whose school attendance is falling can make a huge difference.”
Currently, attendance services are independently contracted, and Tinetti admitted “we can’t put a figure on it because schools do have their own attendance officers.” She said the new announcement simply made sure there would be more officers in the role.
The role of attendance officers and attendance service
Attendance officers work with students whose attendance is low or declining, to make sure they go to school every day unless sick. Attendance officers also work alongside whānau and schools. Currently, attendance officer roles are contracted to third-party providers.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told AM the government currently contracts around 77 different attendance service providers, who are then allocated cases by schools. Those contractors may employ counsellors, social workers and truancy officers. Hipkins said “we don’t collect that data. What we collect are the results”.
Attendance services providers vary widely. Some are run by “lead” schools, others are run by iwi and/or other non-government organisations. Some may have a hybrid model to target different kinds of absences. Funding to the services was increased to over $15 million in the 2021/22 budget, with an additional $600,000 put into Auckland to recognise regional-specific hardships such as extended lockdowns.
But despite this increase in funding, in a review and redesign of the service in May 2022, providers said caseloads were increasing and becoming more complex. They reported increasing hostility toward attendance officers, which presented a barrier to connecting with whānau. New providers also noted there was a lack of resourcing and materials.
Figures also showed that the Attendance Services’ case load increased by almost 40% in 2022 compared to 2021, rising to 28,754 cases. Over half the cases involved Māori students and 82% of cases were first-time referrals.
16,400 of those cases involved students who had been absent so long their enrolment had elapsed.
Of the 77 attendance service providers Hipkins mentioned, many new providers are groups of schools. The Ministry of Education noted that this was part of an effort to localise response efforts following trials in Auckland and Kawerau.
Localised attendance services “allowed for faster responses to referrals, a more direct line of sight between schools and the local attendance service provider, [and] strong relationships with school leaders, family and whānau enabling more collaborative processes,” said the Ministry.
Will it work?
The Education sector has had mixed reactions to the announcement.
Principal Karl Vasau of Rowandale School told AM that attendance officers were invaluable, but needed to be the right fit for the community.
“The best people for these kinds of jobs are people who are parents who’ve understood the struggles we have with our own children, getting them out of bed and getting them to school.”
Many principals have called for more direct access to funding.
Leanne Otene, President of the New Zealand Principals Federation, said the NZPF welcomed the announcement of new attendance officers, but said “the best way to achieve success is to give the schools agency over the funds.
“[Schools] already have a relationship with their community, and they know and understand what will work best in their local area.”
Principal Graeme Norman of Te Kōmanawa Rowley school agrees. When he came onto the job, attendance at the small primary had dropped to 40 – 60%, and a commissioner had been appointed to the struggling school. Now, attendance has more than doubled to around 80%, and the roll has increased from 97 (in 2017) to 145.
He told School News “the most important factor [in lifting attendance] has been making our children feel welcome [and] engaging with our whānau around attendance and how important it is to their child’s education.”
Norman said he doesn’t believe that attendance officers are the best pathway to lifting attendance, as they don’t have an existing relationship with the whānau and community.
Norman said Te Kōmanawa Rowley has engaged with attendance officers in the past to little success. Attendance officers would have difficulty engaging whānau, said Norman, and wouldn’t persist, “saying it’s not going to work, and then walking away.
“If [the MoE] were serious about lifting attendance, they would be talking to the people at the forefront and putting money into supporting local initiatives.”