We're failing kids over school attendance

Briar Lipson
30 June, 2017

Imagine what would happen if a third of the people you worked with were absent at least half a day per week? Most employers would not tolerate it. But it seems that our school system does.

We learned recently that just 67.2 per cent of New Zealand school students attend school "regularly". In primary schools the figure is slightly higher at 71.5 per cent.

It is widely recognised that pupils need to go to school regularly in order to benefit from education.

On average, children with poor attendance achieve less in school. According to the Ministry of Education's own data, if a child attends 70 rather than 80 per cent of school in year 11, the probability they will achieve NCEA level 1 that year drops by more than 10 per cent. For attendance levels below 70 per cent the rates of decline are even greater.

So, what is happening when it comes to attendance in New Zealand schools? And how, under our self-managing school system, might we expect to improve it?

In 2015, the ministry stopped publishing data on overall absence. Instead it now only shares data on the proportion of children attending "regularly", which it defines as at least 90 per cent of the time.

Buried deep in an appendix to its report officials do remind us that the 90 per cent definition of regular attendance "does not mean the ministry considers 90 per cent attendance as adequate, it is not".

But perhaps this is not clear enough. Because this definition communicates implicitly to schools and families that the ministry thinks taking one day off in every fortnight is acceptable.

In the UK, 90 per cent attendance is the cut-off below which children are defined as 'persistently absent'.

The messaging around that 10 per cent cut-off is wildly different across the two countries. And while on the one hand this may be just a semantic difference, on the other it communicates something important  to schools and parents about national expectations.

In England, the proportion of children of compulsory age who attend school at least 90 per cent of the time is 88.6 per cent, or 90 per cent in primary schools. This compares with New Zealand's 67.2 per cent, or 71.5 per cent for primary students.

And most interestingly of all, not many years ago, both England's expectations of attendance, and its levels of attendance, were significantly lower.

In the past 8 years England has been gradually upgrading its definition of persistent absenteeism; from missing 20 per cent or more of school in 2009; to 15 per cent or more of school in 2011; and now 10 per cent or more since 2016. And sure enough, during that period, England's overall absence rate has fallen from 6.4 per cent in 2008 to 4.3 per cent last year.

This is not to claim causation – which is challenging in education – but nevertheless it is a correlation worthy of note.

Further to this, in England the ministry has created a data loop that equips professionals to drive their own school improvement; as part of an annual census return, all UK schools submit data on students' daily attendance. This is a very straightforward process now that registers are taken using computerised Student Management Systems.

Encouragingly, the ministry here instituted the necessary system of approved attendance codes back in 2007. Added to this, New Zealand schools are well used to sharing roll data with the ministry for the purposes of calculating funding. To share attendance data appears a logical next step.

The illumination provided by robust school-level data has been transformational for attendance in England. Educators recognise that for some schools, such as those serving particularly transient populations, attendance is a greater challenge than for others.

But by generating transparency, school principals are equipped to compare their own schools' attendance rates with those of their neighbours. This empowers them to identify their own schools' weaknesses, to find neighbours that outperform, and go out and work out how they do it.

By comparison, here in New Zealand it is optional for schools to return the annual attendance survey. Where they do return it, schools only record attendance during one week in term 2. And the ministry does not publish comparative school-level data.

So even if there was a school down the road with dramatically higher levels of attendance, most principals or boards of trustees would be unlikely to know about it, and even less likely to knock on the door and ask for their advice.

Tomorrow's Schools gave control over schooling to communities, in return for a notion of accountability. The way the ministry defines, collects and then disseminates information is one of the few means through which it can still affect behaviour. Perhaps it is time it raised expectations of attendance, and equipped school with the data to improve.

Because at the end of it all, once school is over and working life begins, employers will not look with leniency on poor attendance, even if it was a habit learned in school.



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