Is wagging school that bad?

Dr Eric Crampton
2 October, 2018

After Fraser High School principal Virginia Crawford read her students the riot act about truancy, linking it to a host of social ills from criminal activity to being a victim of crime, and from illiteracy to unemployment, her offended students staged a walkout.

It is easy to see why the students were offended. Truancy rates in New Zealand are rather high. Term 2 results for 2017 released by Education Counts, the Ministry of Education’s data resource, showed that only 63 percent of students attended school more than 90 percent of all half-days, with lower rates of regular attendance for Māori and Pasifika students and for students at lower decile schools. So a third of students at the typical school might take the criticism personally – if they were there that day to hear it. And the proportion of students attending school regularly has been dropping.



There has been a lot of discussion about whether Principal Crawford was right to admonish her students to stay in school. Since part of a principal’s job is making sure the kids attend school, it would be hard to fault the sentiment.

But there is a much more interesting question lurking in the background. Was she right?

Education Counts shows that students missing fewer than 10 percent of school half-days in year 11 are more than 80 percent likely to attain NCEA Level 1 by the end of Year 11, while students missing a third of their classes have only a 50/50 chance, and students making only half their classes have just over a 20 percent chance.



Information on other outcomes is harder to come by. Education Counts says the Christchurch and Dunedin longitudinal surveys, which follow cohorts of children from birth through to later life, show that absenteeism predicts violence in later life, and that truancy is also associated with “delinquency, substance abuse, suicidal risk, unemployment and early parenting”.

Unfortunately, that still does not tell us what’s going on. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has run a randomised trial making sure some children attend school every day while forcing others to wag every Tuesday. We are then constrained by the data we have – observations on which kids wag, which ones don’t, and their later outcomes.

Simply pointing to differences in outcomes between the kids who skip school and the kids who don’t doesn’t really do the job. Kids can skip school for all kinds of reasons: home environments that do not value education; learning difficulties; bullying experiences at school; or, simply weighing present enjoyment more highly than future benefits. If those reasons also predict worse outcomes, then comparing outcomes for kids who rarely skip school with outcomes for kids who miss school a lot puts the blame in the wrong place. We need different tools to do the job.

There is reasonably rigorous recent work that helps figure out the effects of truancy over and above the effects of all the factors that might cause truancy. Unfortunately, that work looks at truancy in Sweden. And while the working paper was only released last year, it studies Swedish students born in the 1930s – the students for whom the researchers had sufficient linked administrative data.

What they did find was interesting, though. They compared pairs of siblings. Children from the same family usually share similar family circumstances and characteristics. Differences in outcomes between siblings associated with differences in truancy between those siblings, and adjusted for a measure of student starting points, can do a lot more in discovering the effect of truancy.

They find that truancy does hurt student performance. Ten days of truancy reduced student performance by 3 percent of a standard deviation – similar to effects found in more recent American studies. The effect of 10 days of truancy on overall grades in their study is of similar size to the effect on reading scores of having a teacher with a half-year less experience – at least in the short term.

The advantage of the Swedish study is that it allowed for testing of the effects of truancy on much later outcomes. Ten days of absence in grade 1 leads to a 2.6 percentage point reduction in the likelihood of being employed at age 25–30, smaller effects on employment at age 35–40, and no discernible effect on incomes or mortality.

All that suggests that wagging may not be a good idea, but it is only suggestive. The results are from primary school rather than secondary, and from a long time ago in a place rather far away.

Figuring out the effects here in New Zealand is quite possible. Data held by Statistics New Zealand in the Integrated Data Infrastructure can allow a researcher to link truancy to student NCEA attainment, progression to tertiary study, employment, income, benefit uptake, criminal activity and more. The data would also allow the researcher to account for the background characteristics that might give rise to truancy while also affecting later life outcomes, like family interactions with the justice sector; Child, Youth & Family notifications; and parental education.

And so the controversy around Crawford’s lecture on truancy has helped identify a rather interesting research question. If the Ministry of Education wanted to know just how bad truancy is, it would only need to ask the data.

Parents might also ask just what is going wrong in the schools if a third of the students do not see much point in turning up regularly.

The Initiative is currently undertaking education research using data held in the Integrated Data Infrastructure to determine how much of the differences in outcomes for students attending different schools is due to those students’ family background characteristics, and how much is due to differences in performance across schools. It expects to release those results next year.

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