The truth about school principals and student attendance

Christopher Luxon doesn’t seem to understand either attendance data or what actually works to get students into school, writes Middle Principal Traci Liddall.

Who is to blame for increasing truancy? At least in part it is headteachers who, according to National Party leader Christopher Luxon, are not focused on getting children into the classroom. His argument is supported by Act’s David Seymour, who last week threw in a jab at “absolutely hopeless” headteachers for good measure.

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For those of us who have been in education for more than five minutes, it is no surprise to hear this rhetoric. In the last decade, teachers, principals and the schools where they work have increasingly been blamed for social ills. It used to be that a teacher could sit in a desk all day with a cane in one hand, a lit cigarette hanging from the window in the other, drink a few pints in the pub at 3, be home by 5 and still be respected as a pillar of the community. A 10 or more hour working day is the norm these days, with a recent report showing that 69.6% of New Zealand primary school principals and 82% of New Zealand secondary school principals work between 50 and 65 hours a week.

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Teachers and school principals are forced to be all things to all people (Illustration from The Side Eye by Toby Morris)

So let’s start with the numbers. Luxon said that according to recently released data, less than 40% of students attend school regularly. You can read the report here. He did not explain exactly what “regularly” means in this context. In terms of the Department of Education, a student is considered to attend “regularly” if they are at school 91-100% of the time it is open for instruction. This means that in a 10-week semester of 50 days, the maximum number of days a student can be absent and still be considered regular attendance is four. Staying home sick is considered an absence. Attending a tangi is considered an absence. Looking back at the terrible time schools have had this second term with Covid, including the breakdown of home grade levels due to sick teachers, I’m surprised attendance is up to 40%.

According to the same report, 71.2% of students attended 81% or more of the time (or more than 41 days out of 50). My two stage daughters fit in this box. They both had Covid in the second term and were also affected by annual stay-at-home orders due to staffing issues. Both are studious and studious, and their father knocks on their bedroom door to wake them up from their sleep at seven every morning – but according to some comments from these politicians, the two young women are “truants”, another problem that the headmasters need to address.

There is actually no record of truancy in the attendance report that Luxon quotes from. The most I found was the percentage of semester time wasted by unexcused absences. Without raw data, it is not possible to extrapolate the number of students affected or what attendance band they fit into. So it is hard to understand what Luxon meant by this. That those who were not regular visitors were truants?

It’s just not true that principals don’t pay attention to who is and who isn’t in school (Photo: Getty Images)

This is not to say that attendance is not something that plays a big role in the minds of all principals. Of course yes. The evidence clearly shows that attendance below 91% negatively affects learning – and us want for all our students to succeed. If the student is absent and the school has not been notified, attempts will be made to contact home. Sometimes by automated text, email or phone call, sometimes all of the above. This escalates the longer the student is absent without notifying the school. Schools keep much more detailed data and know who the students are and what the absenteeism trends are.

Healthy school lunches helped. Fewer children are kept at home to cover the whakama without food. Period products in schools helped. Girls who have free and easy access to pads and tampons (and, where possible, new panties and brown paper bags) will be more likely to go to school. It helped direct funding to schools for targeted attendance programs that fit their unique circumstances.

Addressing why next to what For example, it has helped to have someone employed in small communities who is able to quietly and respectfully provide school uniform, learning materials, food, even bedding and curtains. Flexible teaching and learning models to accommodate students who have extracurricular responsibilities such as caring for family members or work have helped.

Interestingly, none of these options reduced the amount of time some higher decile students spend away on overseas holidays, and there is no rocket science as to why.

Unfortunately, the limitations and attendance issues are the same as always. It’s always about money. In the absence of an effective truancy service, it is up to schools and principals to provide this. And in some schools, the Marmite money is already spread pretty thin. If more money is spent on attendance, less is spent elsewhere. This is the basics of economics and something I would hope a great businessman like Christopher Luxon would understand.


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