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Nothing matters more for the future of New Zealand than educating our children. As part of the globalised world we have contributed towards the common good and wasted opportunities in about equal measure. Unless we now retreat to the small, isolated South Sea islands that the current government appears to favour, improving educational standards will be vital for an economy and society that engages with the wider world. Yet, literacy and numeracy standards have sharply declined in recent years. Worse still, truancy from schools has risen rapidly. Despite schooling being compulsory for children, more and more kids have been skipping classes. The rising rates are available from the Ministry of Education. In 1996 roughly 90% of all children were attending school on any given day. Over the following decade truancy rates, especially from Year Nine rose, especially among boys. Maori truancy was worse than any other ethnic group, and two and a half times more than for New Zealand Europeans. By 2019-2020 attendance at schools was down to 62% across the board with the largest increases being in the lowest decile schools among Years One to Eight, and for Maori and Pacific Island children.

The law provides for ways in which these statistics should be handled. The Education Act requires teachers to take the roll, to report details to the principal, who in turn alerts the school’s board and passes problems to the area’s Truancy Officers. Parents can be fined for every day a child skips school without an excuse, with a maximum fine of $3,000. Sounds straight forward doesn’t it? But, more and more schools don’t file their statistics, and there seem to be fewer and fewer Truancy Officers. More serious is the fact that this government in particular seems unprepared to hold parents responsible for any form of parenting. Gone are the days when a judge mulled over parental failings before sentencing. Ministers don’t like using the stick on parents who are voters. Instead, they hopefully dangle carrots.

When faced with the evidence of rising truancy rates, our de facto Education Minister, Jan Tinetti, in the absence of Covid manager Chris Hipkins, had this to say: “By refreshing our curriculum, providing lunches and period products in schools, eliminating exam fees, and removing school donations, we are making sure school is interesting and relevant to young people, which will contribute to improved attendance”. Note that what she claims credit for is mostly substituting state payments for what in former times were parental obligations. And across the board, not just in needy areas. Nothing about the importance of education or parents’ obligations to get their kids to school. And to cap off her comments, she intends to “review truancy services this coming year”.

We are now into the fourth year of this government’s time in office, during which truancy has risen steadily. And the minister is going to have a “review”? Fills you with confidence doesn’t it? I wonder if she’ll consult her ministry’s own statistics on line and realise how serious the problem has become under her government? The one thing I feel sure about is that she won’t have any solution that might work. Remember that these are the ideologues who stopped establishment of any more Charter Schools just when they were producing great results: 90% attendance rates in schools with 90% or more Maori and Pacific Island students, and much higher than New Zealand’s average NCEA results.

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