19 May 2015

Difficult times for anti-truancy services

6:10 pm on 19 May 2015

Organisations charged with getting truants back in the classroom have been struggling with high caseloads, difficult families, and uncooperative schools - not to mention the power of Facebook.

student generic

Photo: AFP

The 18 attendance services took over from truancy services at the start of 2013, and their December reports show some dealt with over a thousand cases last year.

The reports mentioned hostile home visits, a lack of alternative education places for troubled teens, and fears for the future of young people who refuse to attend school.

The services deal with students who are not enrolled in any schools, and those who are often unjustifiably absent.

Their reports show most services succeeded in getting only about a quarter or a third of non-enrolled students in their area back to school last year, while the success rate for truants was between a half and two-thirds at most of the services.

Other students returned to the classroom without any intervention at all, and in some areas they outnumbered those the attendance services helped back to school.

The Secondary Principals Association says some of these 18 organisations responsible for chasing truants and unenrolled students needed to do better, saying the effectiveness of the services varies from region to region.

Its president Sandy Pasley said some schools were still not happy with anti-truancy efforts in their area.

She said organisations with prior experience of truancy work seemed to be doing better than those with little or no experience.

But the Education Ministry said the system had improved significantly in the past 12 months.

It said the services resolved almost all of their 20,000 truancy and non-enrolment cases last year, though some were children who had gone overseas, already returned to school, or turned 16.

It said the services were dealing with the most difficult truants and they are working with more schools than the truancy services they replaced two years ago.

It is not quick work. By the end of December, four out of five of the truancy cases the services were working on were more than five weeks old, while half the cases of non-enrolment had been unresolved for more than 10 weeks.

Nevertheless, the ministry's deputy secretary, sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, said it was pleased with the introduction of the new system.

"The attendance service is making headway with the more difficult cases in which children and young people are not attending school," she said.

Ms Casey said the services were using innovative ways of working with students and families, and last year helped 2689 non-enrolled students and 6629 unjustifiably absent students back to school.

She said the ministry had increased funding for services in Auckland, Northland and Waikato because of high caseloads.

Barriers to attendance

In their reports, several of the services blamed lack of money for truancy, saying that some parents cannot afford uniforms, lunches or transport.

The provider of the Waikato attendance service, Te Kohao Health, lists these barriers to attendance:

"Poverty. School does not appear to be a free education system with the stress on whanau to provide uniforms, stationery, schools fees, subject fees, camps, suitable kai to take to school for lunch etc."

The Whanganui, Manawatu and Horowhenua section of Datacom Services, which is the attendance service provider in several areas, blamed the internet for a lot of truancy.

"Social media, e.g. Facebook, has the ability to enhance and accelerate negative behaviours at such a rate it can be a challenge.

"It is often the root cause of absenteeism; a powerful weapon in the hand of bullies."

Several providers said there was not enough alternative education in their area, and some express concern about the future of truants who do not re-engage with education before they turn 16 and are no longer legally required to go to school.

Some of the providers said they were working well with local schools, especially those that refer a lot of truants, but others were tardy in referring students.

Many also said that schools in their area found the computerised referral system hard to use and some schools refused to use it at all.