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Michael Irwin

Truancy: a costly societal illness

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Truancy is a societal disease; which left untreated spreads and affects the social, physical, judicial and economic well being within our communities. Every day over 25,000 children are absent from our schools, which is approximately 4.1% of the school population (AND this is increasing). A minority of these young people are chronic truants who hang-out in small groups causing havoc within their community. This group has been linked to theft, burglary, property damage, graffiti, car conversion and assault.

At the same time these truants are causing harm to themselves through not receiving an education and by often partaking of drugs, alcohol aand sometimes harmful thrill seeking behaviours. Longitudinal studies conducting in New Zealand (and similar studies overseas) have established a clear correlation between:

  • Truancy and academic achievement
  • Truancy and criminal behaviour
  • Truancy and substance abuse
  • Truancy and unemployment
  • Truancy and early parenting

Truancy is a costly educational and social behaviour which needs immediate attention to eradicate.


  • Truant rates have increased each survey since 2000
  • During survey week in 2006 there were 136,098 truants and 77,235 unjustified intermittent absences (Absent for part of day without justification).
  • Lower decile schools have higher truancy rates (6.3%) than higher decile schools (1.8%)
  • Truancy rates increase rapidly during secondary years. (Primary 1.95%, intermediate 2.2% and secondary 8.3%)
  • Absence rates for males and females are similar across all year levels until secondary school. Early secondary school female truants are slightly higher than equivalent males and reverses at Year 12 and 13.
  • Maori and Pasifika students are over represented. Truancy rates among these two groups are 3-4 times higher than Asian and NZ European students.

These findings are from a 2006 survey of 2426 NZ schools, the latest statistics available.

I argue that if we reduce truancy we would reduce crime. Youth offenders (under 17 years old) make up 22% of total crime; most of this is property offences. 24% of all criminal offences are committed between 9am and 3:30pm. A suggested scenario: play truant…need some money, a bit of excitement…break into a property…sell stolen goods…receive money…use money to entertain self/peers. There is very clear correlation between truancy and offending.

The message to every school age student needs to be ‘Every Day Counts’. Research clearly shows that those students with high attendance (90% +) achieve the best results in NCEA or other external examinations. A UK Report noted that to effectively reduce truancy required specific programmes aimed at truancy and an emphasis within schools to raise academic achievement and standards. I have researched boys’ perceptions of factors that hinder or enhance their schooling and identified a number of factors that boys’ believe affect their motivation and learning. (Why boys? Because 80% of all youth offenders are male). Boys know how they learn best. They want hands-on active learning; learning that is relevant and with the opportunity for challenge and competition. Boys like clear boundaries and expectations, fair justice and opportunities to succeed. The key is quality teachers and supportive schools. Outside of school there are social, family and peer pressures that bring pressures on students to become truants. Schools need resources to offer a pastoral care network that counsel, support and offer alternatives. Truants don’t happen over night, they are created over time. Early intervention is required. The problem is early intervention costs.

Catching truants can sometimes be the easy part. It is what happens next that is important. To just return a truant, especially a chronic truant to school is not enough. The truant is returning to the very environment in which he/she disengaged from and found boring, irrelevant and too hard. Truants often have within a ‘boiling cauldron of emotions’ towards school such as anger, resentment, alienation and failure. There needs to be a specific programme for truants that reintroduce or orientate them to the school and re-engages them with learning. A truancy programme needs four stages for the truant to transform into an engaged student.

1. The truant back attending school on a daily basis. It is the roll of the District Truancy Services to find and get the truant back to school. All schools within the district should be actively supporting the local District Truancy Services and the implemented truancy programmes.

2. Opportunity to connect with the school and have successful experiences. Students who feel they belong will stay longer at school and experience greater academic success. There is a huge difference from ‘being at school’ and feeling connected with school. Connection is the goal, feeling you belong and have a place in the school community. Schools require funding to be offer to programmes to reconnect truants to school.

3. The key to educational success are quality teachers who establish affirmative student–teacher relationships. My research with boys identified pupil eacher relationship a key criteria for students to be engaged learners.

4. Opportunities for engaging in challenging, relevant, activity driven learning. Research has shown that best learning is more likely to happen when curriculum and teaching methods are relevant and engaging and the learning environment is emotionally safe.

Schools are the key to turning truants around. However, schools need staff and resources to offer the specific programmes and support to reconnect truants to school. Chronic truants can also have problems with alcohol and substance, anger management and other health issues which need treatment. It is far more effective and economic to help the youth reconnect than wait until costly adult issues occur. E.g. jail, major drug dependency.

Along side these four stages must be communication with the family. To just threaten prosecution of parents for not sending children to school is not enough. Families must become engaged in their child’s learning and school.

There is an increase in justified absences, which should not be ignored. A justified absence is one that has been satisfactorily explained to the school but often ‘hides’ a form of truancy. Parents taking their school age children skiing for a month or to a Pacific Island resort for fortnight on a yearly basis should be considered an unjustified truancy. Such students in the course of their primary schooling loose between ten to twenty weeks of schooling due to family holidays or activities. This type of truancy happens regularly, especially with students attending higher decile schools.

Parents and schools both have clear obligations to school age children. The Education act (1989) requires that parents enroll their children at school and ensure they attend. The Act also states that every school’s Board of Trustees takes all reasonable steps to ensure the attendance of students at school. Some parents and schools are not ensuring this happens. Societal attitudes to schooling need to change. Schools need to be held in high esteem and valued by community and family/whanau. Parents who deliberately keep children from school to look after siblings, to work, to go on a holiday or for companionship are devaluing their child’s education. The message to the child is school is not as important as a family holiday, or family work or family companionship. Schools also need to examine their attitudes. All schools should be actively involved in their District Truancy Services. Sc

hools should have rapid check and response systems in place to ensure attendance at every class. A school has a responsibility to examine barriers to learning that occur with their community, especially for the pupils who are failing or often truant. Each school must examine teaching strategies, alternative learning programmes and extra curricula programmes to ensure maximum student engagement.

Truancy is a disease in our community which spreads its sickness through many aspects of our society. Dealing with truancy will have a positive affect on reducing youth offending, property damage, and improving youth health and wellbeing. Truancy touches everyone; it is a community problem and requires a community approach. Economically it makes sense to invest in reducing truancy; reconnecting the truant with school is a lot cheaper than the other option of unemployment, poverty line and jail.