Raising school attendance an uphill battle

The Education Review Office (ERO) released a report recently which looked at why attendance rates are falling in New Zealand schools. Here, we dive into some of the detail around attendance and try to make sense of why it has been falling.

Attendance at school is important because it contributes to higher achievement. The drivers of lower attendance are numerous. Some parents and learners don’t prioritise attendance at school over other activities such as cultural events, sports, or holidays. Some learners face barriers to attending school such as mental health, bullying at school, a reluctance to participate in certain activities at school (for example sports), a lack of interest in what is taught at school, or tiredness.

Attendance decline a longer-term trend

There has been a steep drop in school attendance in 2022, but attendance rates have been declining since 2015 (see Chart 1). Regular attendance (measured as the proportion of learners attending more than 90% of term two in any given year) has fallen from 70% in 2015 to just 40% in 2022. The proportion of learners attending between 81% and 90% of the time has jumped from 20% to 31%, and the proportion attending for less than 80% of the time has almost tripled from 11% to 29%.

Groups with historically low attendance are the biggest concern

What’s most concerning is the fall in attendance among groups such as Māori and Pacific learners, and learners at lower decile schools, where attendance was low to begin with.

Regular attendance has fallen across all ethnicities since 2015. Māori learner attendance has fallen from 57% in 2015 to just 27% in 2022. Pacific learner attendance fell from 61% to 26% during that time (see Chart 2).

There’s a clear relationship between school attendance and school decile with higher decile schools having higher attendance rates (see Chart 3). Regular attendance rates have fallen across all school deciles, but more so among lower decile schools. Attendance at decile 1 schools fell from 57% to just 23% between 2015 and 2022. At decile 10 schools, attendance fell from 77% to 50% during that time.

There is very little difference between male and female learner attendance. Female attendance fell from 69% to 40% between 2015 and 2022. Male attendance fell from 70% to 40%.

In 2015, Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and Otago regions had the lowest regular attendance rates. Gisborne had the lowest at 59%. In 2022, these same regions (except for Otago) have attendance rates below the national average of 40%, with Northland at just 28%. Taranaki and Manawatū-Whanganui Regions are also below the national average this year (see Chart 4). Even in regions such as Tasman and Nelson, which had high attendance in 2015, attendance has fallen below 50% this year.

Many of the regions with low attendance have dispersed, rural populations where travel times to school are probably quite long. The ERO found that transport is a barrier to school attendance for some learners (see below). Some of these regions also have large Māori populations which, as we have already shown, tend to have lower attendance rates.

Attendance hasn’t fully recovered from Omicron

Since May 2020, the Ministry of Education has been collecting daily attendance records from schools. This measure is a different measure of attendance to the one used so far in this article. Here, attendance is measured as the proportion of learners enrolled in a school who attended on any given day.

What’s interesting is that from the onset of Covid in 2020 and going right through 2021, aside from during lockdowns, around 90% of enrolled learners were attending school on any given day. Even following the Level 4 lockdown during term 3 of 2021 when the Delta variant was surging through New Zealand, attendance rates recovered to 90% within weeks (see Chart 5).

Attendance rates fell again in term 1 of 2022 while New Zealand was at the Red traffic light setting to help limit the spread of the Omicron variant. As we have moved through the Orange and then into the Green traffic light settings, attendance has yet to fully recover – sitting at 84% so far in November 2022.

Why is this year different?

The ERO’s research into why attendance has been falling concludes that there are a wide range of learner, family, school, community, and economic factors that influence a learner’s attendance at school. Unfortunately the research, which involved surveying learners and parents and running focus groups to explore their attitudes towards school, was only carried out this year. So, we can’t see how attitudes have changed over time. This lack of earlier data makes it difficult to draw conclusions about why attendance has declined over time.

COVID-19 is still a major factor

The ERO found that more than one in seven learners missed school because they were worried about catching COVID-19. About one in 10 learners had missed school in the last two weeks because they were isolating from Covid-19.

The ERO survey was carried out between 23 June and 18 August 2022 when New Zealand was at the Orange traffic light setting. During this period new COVID-19 cases rose from an average of around 5,000 per day in mid-June to almost 12,000 in mid-July, before falling back to below 3,000 in late August. New COVID-19 cases have been trending upwards again since mid-September.

The effect of COVID-19 can be seen in absence data. Chart 6 shows the proportion of time learners were absent with either a justified or unjustified absence. There was a steep rise in justified absences in the June 2022 quarter (term 2) and a smaller rise in unjustified absences. If we look into the reasons for these increases, justified absences increased mainly because of an increase in learners with a short-term illness or other medical reasons. We don’t know what these illnesses were but COVID-19 was probably a factor alongside seasonal influenza.

It’s important to look at attendance in the past few months in the broader context of the past few years. For example, the worry of catching COVID-19 still may be a factor keeping learners away from school even though case numbers are currently relatively low. It’s probably fair to say that by now everyone knows someone who has had COVID-19 if they haven’t had it themselves, which could heighten anxiety about contracting the virus.

The ERO found evidence that lack of engagement causes learners to miss school. Perhaps COVID-19 has amplified these issues and normalised non-attendance for some kids. Certainly, the one in 10 learners who reported finding their school work too hard might partly be the result of kids falling behind in their learning because COVID-19 has kept them out of school for several periods in the past few years. Also, Chart 5 shows that there has been an increase in unjustified absences. Unjustified absences are a measure of truancy. Perhaps truancy has become more normalised for some learners.

The stress of the last few years could also be causing an upturn in mental health and anxiety issues. The ERO notes that New Zealand has high rates of youth mental illness, and found in its research that half of parents are likely or very likely to keep their child out of school if they have mental health challenges. Stats NZ have found evidence of poorer mental wellbeing among New Zealanders, including young adults. So, it’s not a stretch to conclude that mental health challenges are also rising among school age children.

Cost of living pressures

High employment rates and rising cost of living pressures may also explain why attendance rates have not recovered in recent months. Either some learners are working themselves, or they are needed to help out with more chores at home because their parents and older siblings are working. This trend might mean that school kids have family or work responsibilities during school time, or that they have responsibilities outside of school time which result in them being too tired to attend school. The ERO found that one in 10 parents keep their children home because they are tired, and a third of learners found tiredness to be a barrier to attendance.

Recent cost of living pressures might also mean that some parents are not able to afford to pay for shoes, uniforms, school events etc for their kids. The ERO found lack of money was a barrier for one in 10 parents.

Even transport can be a factor when parents are working. The ERO found that 5% of parents kept their child home due to transport issues in the last term. Parents working additional hours, a stay-home parent having to work, even high petrol costs, can make transporting kids to school challenging.

An accumulation of factors

There is a complex interaction of many factors that influence whether a learner is attending school or not. You can’t disentangle pandemic factors from other (physical and mental) health factors and economic factors because they are inter-related. Importantly, getting school attendance rates back to a higher consistent level is a national priority. It is important for the learners, their whānau, for our society, and for the economy. The ERO makes several recommendations for increasing attendance:

  • Improve understanding of the importance of regular attendance.
  • Improve awareness of how often learners are attending school.
  • Make learning more engaging.
  • Make school a great place to be.
  • Tackle barriers to attendance.

COVID-19 has amplified falling school attendance. But the problem already existed in our education system.

Attendance and Engagement Strategy

In its June 2022 Attendance and Engagement Strategy, the Government has set a goal of getting 70% of kids to go to school for at least nine days a fortnight (a 90% attendance rate), by 2024. That target was set because it would get attendance back to rates last seen in 2015.

The Strategy includes highlighting the responsibility of parents, caregivers, and whānau to support learners, setting clear expectations for schools, prioritising the attendance of Māori and Pacific learners, developing a whole-of-government approach, intervening early before non-attendance becomes entrenched and developing and sharing local initiatives that work. In Budget 2022 $88 million was committed across four years to reduce absenteeism.

The Strategy document includes the 2021 figure of 59.7% of learners attending school for more than 90% of the time. The fall this year to 40% of learners attending school for more than 90% of the time will obviously be a disappointment to policy makers. Although, the fact that this rise in non-attendance is due mainly to a rise in justified absences is some consolation.

Attendance needs to increase by 30 percentage points in two years’ time to meet the Government’s target. That’s a national average so some schools, lower decile schools for example, will probably not achieve it. Hopefully, 2023 will see COVID-19 cases remain low, which should increase attendance to a degree. But the normalisation of non-attendance is going to be harder to reverse. So hitting the 59.7% target it is going to be an uphill battle.

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