Why are 30,000 kids a day voting with their feet?

The statistics on truancy are very worrying. Not only do we have 72,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 out of work and out of any form of education, but we have 30,000 students a day not wanting to go to school.

In response, the Government has doubled funding to deal with truancy. This is good news if it’s spent wisely, but will pretty much be a waste of money if it doesn’t seek to find out why school isn’t working for so many young people. A punitive approach focussed on penalising families of truant students would be bad news.

I am in the middle of a project which involves asking students why they like or dislike school. It includes students at alternative course because their perspective is particularly illuminating. If school hasn’t worked for them what are the problems?

No one so far has said they don’t care about learning or don’t want to learn. They have raised some challenging issues for teachers, parents and academics. They have told me that they want more diverse teaching methods, more participatory learning and more respect for their cultures.

The high school-age students have told me school needs to be relevant to their world and teachers and students need to have quality relationships.

The issue of quality relationships has also been named by education academics as a key factor in effective teaching.

If the Government chooses to ignore this and focus on fines and punishment it does so at its peril. Do what we have always done only more so and we will get what we have always got, including creating more alienated families whose kids hate school.

Many families living in poverty with no secure housing risk alienation from the education system because their living conditions are stressed and unstable before the children even start primary school.

As for National Standards, many people want a trial. The Greens want more than a trial, we want a serious explanantion of how it will benefit those young people who have voted with their feet!

24 Comments Posted

  1. And how would you ‘incentivise’ parents, who otherwise can’t be bothered, to get their kids to school?

  2. ‘All I’m asking is that parents be required to deliver the kid to the school office each day, if they then go AWOL, that’s the schools problem.’

    Is that all!

    Of course parents of school children across the country will have no problem delivering their children to the school office door every day.

    No problem samiam! Wish you’d asked sooner!

  3. I can only go by the unscientific stats of our school, that I’m on the BOT of, the truancy is largely due indifferent parents who fail to make the effort to get the kids to school. Those parents are invariably getting taxpayer money in some form or another. I’d like to see them ‘incentivised’ to try a little harder.
    We are a primary school and the kids like being at school, I agree that by secondary school the kids are often the problem, boredom, rebellion, etc.
    My oldest daughter was one of them, living with her mother who just didn’t make the effort to march her to school each day. Much to my despair my daughter was allowed to get away with it. her mother was, again, on a benefit.
    All I’m asking is that parents be required to deliver the kid to the school office each day, if they then go AWOL, that’s the schools problem.

  4. I am sure the truancy thing was partly a smoke screen to draw attention away from the stuttering introduction of National Standards. This is a black and white issue that the Minister can talk about without support. However it is interesting that national Standards will probably contribute to an increase in truancy. The heavy focus on numeracy and literacy with a reporting system that emphasizes the level of failure for each child will hardly convince our struggling truants that school is a great place to be. When league tables are created (the real purpose of National Standards) such children will drag down school results and then even the schools won’t want them.

    All those millions of education dollars going to doomed initiatives.

  5. “Truant kids = benefit deduction”, samiam?

    Maybe … or…truant kids, increased violence against children, runaways, further deterioation of families and communities.
    What makes you think the truant children would change their ways after seeing a government department punishing their parents for something the parent hadn’t done?

  6. Sorry, Sam, but you’re not getting away with that!

    Like Toad, my mum was solo when I went through secondary school (a high-decile provincial state girls’ school) and as I loved learning, I was at the top of the form, and didn’t skip school much (some illness due to asthma kept me off the ‘honour-roll’ for perfect attendance).
    My sister also was near the top of her class, and both of us bucked any trends for children of divorced/solo mothers.

    We both have tertiary qualifications, and only one of us has divorced and experienced life as a sole-care mother, so you can hardly blame socio-demographic stereotypes for our outcomes.
    So far, six out of six of our offspring are showing signs of negotiating school ok, although one of those is only 3 years old, so maybe take a raincheck on that stat!

  7. Definitely a gross generalisation, samiam. And a beneficiary-bashing one as well, with no evidence supplied to back your claim.

    Give me some evidence that beneficiary headed families have greater truancy than those with one or both parents in work, and then we have a discussion. At the moment, I just think you are trolling.

    Personally, as a “bright” kid (Dux of my Secondary School), I was really bored with school so was frequently truant.

    I guess I need to blame that on my Mum, do I samiam? After all, she was a single parent by the time I was 11 who chose not to shack up with some new guy who would give her the bash.

  8. I’ve been away for a few weeks, I’m back!
    As a gross generalisation, I’d say the parents of nearly all truants are on some form of benefit/WFF etc. I’d tie some of the payments to the parents ensuring the kids make it to school. Truant kids = benefit deduction. I suspect you would see far less truancy very quickly.

  9. I think there’s a lot of truth behind making an education more relevant to the real world for kids today. There are so many things that are going on outside of the school that it would be beneficial for kids to have it put into perspective as well as putting some kind of focus on career and job skills.

  10. One moment I remember well from high school was when a frequent late attender was caught wagging – they asked him up to collect a prize and he wasn’t in assembly!


  11. My school even managed to make music a stink subject. I wagged a whole term of it until the deputy head relieved one day and recognised my name on the role (the regular teacher had assumed i had left the school).

  12. “The high school-age students have told me school needs to be relevant to their world and teachers and students need to have quality relationships.”
    The question is of what quality the relationship is. It is often of poor quality because of lack time and in some cases lack of skill. It takes a highly skilled teacher to establish constructive relationship with the up to 150 students they have at secondary schools especially with 30 or more in a class. They are doing well to remember all their names. A lot of time goes on settling them and get them focussed.
    From my observation as a Special Needs Assistant in a High School and time at Tamariki alternative school in Christchurch it would work better to have only 10-12 students in a class at a time and the other two thirds in self-directed activities; e.g. chess, library, sports, collecting stuff for classes. With small classes they would get through 4 times the amount of work. This is what happens at Tamariki especially when the pupils are are involved in choosing when they attend and what they need to learn.
    Ex Tamariki students have done well at university.

  13. Parents have children at school and are therefore the people to judge whether an educational initiative is of value, or not.
    Just as parents, whose children are attended to by doctors, are able to determine whether this or that medical procedure should be implemented.

    We’re all experts in other people’s fields.

  14. Katie I take your point teachers should not be doing paperwork when they could be more efficient and do what they are trained to do, teach the subjects they know best.

    If they are going to become bureaucrats then I am afraid that NCEA will be a big failure.

  15. Great post Catherine, pretty brave to come out and ask why young people are skipping school 🙂

    Like Toad I spent a lot of my high school years doing other things rather than sitting in class. Frankly I found the school environment boring, alienating and profoundly disempowering. By third form I was reading first year sociology books and in fifth form I read through much of the educational theory section at Auckland university. Sitting still for five hours a day, copying off the board has nothing whatsoever to do with learning and I had the theory behind me to tell my teachers so.

    Anyway if I as a white male with well educated parents found the school system alienating and irrelevant I can only imagine how bad it must have been for the other students at my school, the majority of whome were polynesian.

    Hope your project bears some fruit 🙂

  16. I’m very interested to see it also jh, though my own research on why students do or don’t wag (is that the same question?) has produced a range of responses, dependent upon gender, age, status, ethnicity … you name the variable.
    If you are interested, the first time I had students ditch my class, for the afternoon, was so that the two of them could go fishing! The tide was right, the weather was perfect.
    I laughed and laughed!
    They caught three red cod.

  17. “I am in the middle of a project which involves asking students why they like or dislike school. It includes students at alternative course because their perspective is particularly illuminating. If school hasn’t worked for them what are the problems?”

    Will you publish your results and will the results of your study be peer reviewed (Greenfly et al)?


    I will go along with Toad there I think that it boils down to the quality of the teacher and how innovative that teacher is in making the subject interesting.

    The 30,000 that Catherine mentions does seem large if kids are wagging school for a whole day, however if they are wagging by the subject then that would be a good basis for doing some research on why certain subjects are more popular than others.

    I bet your bottom dollar that mathematics would be right down the bottom of the list. When I went to boarding school (in the 60’s) I didn’t have much opportunity to wag school so I just slept through the boring subjects to be rudely awakened with a slap over the face. That was usually during maths a subject that was ramed down my throat in a very authoritarian way.

    One got the impression that these institutions regarded students who were good at maths, physics, logic and accountancy to be the most intelligent, but history has proven that, that is not necessarily the case Leonardo Da Vinci could not add up his shopping list correctly!!! Fact!!

    Was Da Vinci dumb?

    I think modern education needs a lateral approach if one wishes to impart the uses of maths to mortal beings like me, the best way is not in the maths class. Maths and physics could be best taught in an indirect way when it is related to some other project or game like building a model aeroplane or playing billiards or chess.

  19. Yep, I hear ya, Toad.

    It’s my brightest kid I’m struggling with ATM…

    We fail by having a curriculum that is aimed at the majority, with teachers being so stressed with piles of paperwork to do for NCEA reporting that extension topics just aren’t available for the brighter students, or the ones who pick up fundamentals very quickly.

    I just ask him to be mediocre enough not to cause aggravation in the subjects he hates that are compulsory at his school, then put his creative energy into the subjects he really enjoys, that build towards what he wants to do in the future.
    It mostly works, but I do find myself repeating the same phrases every 3-6 months!

  20. I was a frequent truant in my last 3 years at secondary school. I’d read and learned most of the stuff we were meant to learn before I even got to class, so classes were really boring.

    So I would skive off one or two afternoons a week to explore a few of the practical aspects of physics on the tables at the local billiard hall. The billiard hall owner also drove my school bus, but never dobbed me in, presumably because I was spending the money I had earned in my holiday jobs in his establishment.

    I got the top grades overall for my school in the public exams in each of those years, despite my frequent absence. How much better I would have achieved if school were actually interesting for me I’ll never know.

    But school also involved a lot of authoritarian bullshit, which was as much a turn-off for me as a “bright” kid as it is for those who struggle academically. I wasn’t challenged at all by school – just tread water, knowing I would pass anyway.

    How much better could school be if it actually met the needs of all students, and did things to keep all students interested. It is not just those who struggle academically who go truant because they feel school has little relevance – those who achieve academically can too, especially if, like me, they dislike authoritarianism.

    Schools need to have some relevance to all kids, not just those who conform to the norm.

  21. Yep, I’d query how accurate that figure is.
    And I’ve had one child who developed a pre-adolescent aversion to school, who used to try the old ‘walk around the block then duck home’ lark, when I was doing honours papers at uni.

    Thankfully, I was home once or twice to catch him returning, and firmly sent him off to school with a note for the teachers and a warning that I’d know if they didn’t get the note!

    But I know it’s much harder for some sole parents to manage recalcitrant sons, especially when the testosterone kicks in and the boy is suddenly a young man, taller than his mother.

    One tool that helped me was reading Celia Lashlie’s book about raising young men “He’ll be OK”, and another was finding him mentors outside the family to support him as he hit the ‘teens.
    I’ll admit to a certain amount of luck being part of that solution, too….

    I guess being ‘technically’ a teacher helped, too, as I had an attitude about kids missing out on educational opportunities that I was not scared to explain in terms a 12-year-old can understand!

  22. School should not be relevant to their world! School should be a location completely displaced from their world so as to allow the student a differing perspective everyday. Participatory learning is important and many schools already engage in it but the simple fact is if these student eventually go to university after being molli-coodled for 13 years at school they aren’t going to cope with the lectures of 400 students and the tutorials of 40 neither of which will help them with their personal issues or teach them any more than what needs to be taught for that topic and it’ll be the same for those that go into polytech except with even less support unless they joint he classes that offer the support at additional fees. I have personally meet people of my generation who around 14-15 years old have dropped out of school and they have said they don’t want to learn. Many students that are truant are generally only truant once or twice in their high school years for something that they really wanted to do but couldn’t get or didn’t ask for a note from their parents, yes forcing students to sit in class is mean but maybe, just maybe if they are isolated from the ones who want to learn, they might just learn something themselves if that something is being able to sit at a desk chair for 4 hours without complaining 🙂

  23. The ‘thirty thousand’ figure is being questioned, quite rightly I think, and may be a case of missed periods (‘scuse me?) at high schools inflating the figures, but never-the-less…
    there are a lot of students skiving off.
    Can’t blame the present Government for that, I suppose, but as Catherine asks, where’s the action to sort this issue out? Threatening parents Authoritively, is all very well, texting them, attaching tracking devices etc. all good ‘ambulance at the bottom..’ stuff, but the focus on national standards seems like pissing into the wind, so far as improving educational standards for the disenchanted is concerned.
    Perhaps John Key will step in, as he has with the whaling issue, and solve the problem by saying, ‘BE STILL to the Max’.

  24. The Greens want more than a trial, we want a serious explanantion of how it will benefit those young people who have voted with their feet!

    Even before that, Catherine, I want a serious explanation of how National Standards are proposed to work in practice. Minister Tolly seems woefully unable to provide one.

Comments are closed.