Teuila Fuatai: Poor student attendance not a choice


They say sh*t rolls downhill.

Last month, the economy was declared to be in recession due to a 12.2 per cent decline in GDP in the June quarter. From experts, we heard about the relationship between less consumer spending and rising unemployment. One key takeaway was that improvement was unlikely until later next year.

Those crunching the numbers said the damage was less than initially forecast. Overall, that’s a good thing. However, for those already struggling, that macro-picture doesn’t mean a lot. It’s hard to look to the end of 2021 when the ground — which was already pretty haphazard — seems to be coming away beneath you.

One way this has manifested in schools is through changing attendance rates. Iona Holsted, the country’s top education bureaucrat, outlined the “big picture”‘ situation on TVNZ’s Breakfast last week. Her appearance was part of the programme’s ongoing coverage of high school students who have sacrificed studies to work or stay home because Covid-19 has financially impacted their families.

“The numbers don’t reveal that more young people are leaving school to go to work during Covid,” Holsted said.

“Prior to Covid, there was a growth in the number of young people who would take longer holidays with their parents and take more long weekends, so that might be a few more skiing trips or might be a cheap trip to Rarotonga — not so much of that happening now. And that is actually meaning that the average attendance is going up.”

Holsted went on to specifically address those students, families and schools that did not match the overall pattern.

“Mostly poor attendance does locate itself in poorer communities. So we know we’ve got a system problem at the poorer end. Poor people’s lives are complex, but … parents need to prioritise their children going to school in the first instance.”

Like other well-meaning solution-seekers, I’m sure Holsted didn’t intend any offence by the explanation. In fact, she also outlined ways the education sector and communities could address declining attendance. All of which were valid. The problem was they were being discussed as responses to parents who’d supposedly chosen to involve their children in the workforce rather than send them to school.

This is a fundamental misreading of the situation. Yes, some parents do choose to keep their kids from school. These are the ones whose trips to Rarotonga have ceased due to border closures. But getting your teenager to become a caregiver or take on a job instead of attending school is not a choice. It is a necessity borne out of socio-economic circumstances that likely had you on a relatively precarious footing prior to Covid.

A closer look at school attendance statistics over the years illustrates this. Students at decile nine and 10 schools have much better regular attendance rates than their counterparts at decile one and two schools. A breakdown by ethnicity also shows Māori and Pacific attendance rates are lower than Pākehā and Asian students. Further, declining attendance rates prior to Covid were most significant among Māori and Pacific students, and in year levels one to eight.

The situation is complex. As Holsted and a raft of educators, community leaders, students and policy makers have pointed out, it intersects with poverty, the housing shortage, low wage rates, levels of financial literacy, and the list goes on. Covid has simply thrust the spotlight on parts of the system unsuitable for many families, students and schools.

Hearteningly, a $50 million “urgent response fund” has been set up for the education sector. Where things get murky is the best use of this funding. That relies on correct understanding and framing of the problem. Here, any narrative around parents needing to “prioritise” education risks making things worse. It minimises the reality of families, schools and communities at the heart of the situation. That in turn makes way for solutions and resourcing that never quite address why students work or stay home so their families can make ends meet. That then means the systemic flaws highlighted through the pressures of Covid fail to change in a substantive way.

Placed at the bottom of this hill are some of our youngest and brightest. They deserve, like all young people, a well-rounded education and the benefits that enables, a warm place to live, and peace of mind around their family’s living circumstances. Covid is a chance to address some of the fundamental inequities that have made these basic rights a privilege. Let’s not squander it by misreading the problem and failing to hear those at its centre.

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