A truly free society is one that releases the energies and creativity and abilities of everyone. It prevents some people from arbitrarily suppressing others. Freedom means diversity, but also mobility. It enables today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged, and, in the process, enables everyone from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life. – Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman
In a free society, the traditional way for today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged is through education. Throughout the ages parents have made extraordinary sacrifices to ensure their children succeed at school, so they can gain the qualifications needed for a good job and a better life.
The system falls down however, when children fail to properly connect with the education system – or more accurately, when the education system fails to connect with them. While the reasons for this can be a complex – often relating to family breakdown, welfare dependency and poor teaching – the reality is that a lack of a decent education in this day and age is all too often a passport to poverty.
Truancy is one of the clearest indicators of educational failure. The Ministry of Education tracks student truancy through a week-long survey of the country’s 2,426 state and state integrated schools carried out every second year. Since the Labour Government did not consider this issue important enough to facilitate the survey last year, the latest available statistics are for 2006. Those 2006 figures show that the number of students becoming disconnected from education is increasing with some 30,000 children skipping school each week – 4.1 percent of the 750,000 students attending state schools.
The 2006 truancy survey provided in-depth details about the problem. It showed that truancy rates for Maori (7 percent) and Pacific Island students (6.2 percent) were considerably higher than for European (2.8 percent) and Asian students (2.9 percent). Maori students attending Maori language primary schools were seen to have a far higher truancy rate (5.3 percent) than Maori students in all other primary schools (3.7 percent). It also showed that the 66 schools with the highest truancy rates across the country averaged 42 percent Maori and Pacific Island students.
As could be expected, the socio-economic ranking of the school was shown to be a significant indicator of truancy with decile 1 schools having a truancy rate of 6.3 percent, while decile 10 schools had a truancy rate of only 1.8 percent. State schools were found to have double the truancy rate of state integrated schools, and although not surveyed, the truancy rate in private schools could be expected to be minimal.
As a rule, state school truancy was seen to increase according to the age of the students with primary schools having an overall truancy rate of 1.9 percent, intermediate schools 2.2 percent, composite schools 3.5 percent, and secondary schools 8.3 percent. These 2006 rates show that truancy has increased significantly since 1998, when the figures were 1.4 percent for primary, 1.4 percent for intermediate, 2.5 percent for composite and 5.6 percent for secondary schools.
The 2006 survey showed that while the size of schools did not appear to have a significant impact on truancy, their regional location did, with the rate of unjustified absence from schools in Northland, Gisborne and the Bay of Plenty higher than other regions. Interestingly, according to the Ministry of Social Development 2006 regional benefit data, these three areas had the three highest percentage rates of the Domestic Purposes Benefit dependency in the country, and the three highest percentages of Maori on welfare.
The point is that New Zealand’s high rate of school truancy is symptomatic of a wider malaise deep within society, and until the underlying causes are addressed, this problem will create increasingly serious consequences for the country as a whole. After all, the economic cost of truancy cannot be over-emphasised with dysfunctional unskilled New Zealanders costing the country billions of dollars in lost tax revenues, in welfare dependency, and in crime.
This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Dr Michael Irwin, a senior lecturer in education at Massey University and author of Educating Boys: Helping Kiwi boys succeed at school, explains that, “Longitudinal studies conducted in New Zealand and 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.”
In his article Truancy: a costly societal issue, he argues 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”.
On top of all this, New Zealand faces another worrying development – the progressive “feminisation” of the school curriculum (driven by radical feminists influential within the Ministry of Education) is increasingly marginalising boys. With 80 percent of all youth offenders being male, the growing disengagement of boys is a very serious problem for society. Yet there are no signs that the Ministry of Education is making any serious effort to restore the balance. Instead, their attention appears to be on other radical measures such as putting in place the foundation for what will undoubtedly become the compulsory teaching of Maori language in schools.
This state of boys’ education in New Zealand is a disgrace. Dr Irwin suggests that in order to improve their educational outcomes boys “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.”
While millions of dollars is being spent on reducing truancy – including bringing prosecutions in extreme cases – the research shows that many students play truant because of low expectations. As our regular NZCPR Columnist, former secondary school principal Allan Peachey MP points out, “Too often schools fail because school leaders and teachers have expectations of students that fall below those students’ own levels of self-esteem. What is so hard about forgetting where youngsters come from and aiming for excellence for each of them? What is so hard about setting goals for students and expecting them to reach those goals? Young New Zealanders do not need adults who make excuses for them, or who don’t expect enough of them. They need adults who believe in them, who encourage them to succeed, and who role-model success for them.”
That goes for parents too. Too many parents of children who are chronic truants are long-term welfare dependents, who don’t value education, books or learning. That is especially the case for Maori who are significantly over-represented in all long-term welfare statistics, especially the Domestic Purposes Benefit. The hedonistic lifestyles that many of these chaotic families lead are deeply damaging to children. Without a father or a working role model, children from such families are doomed to underachieve. And in spite of the evidence of disastrous outcomes for children, successive governments have failed to introduce even minor reforms to the welfare system that could make a difference – such as linking welfare payments to child’s attendance at school.
There is also a strong case for bringing market mechanisms into the education system, especially when it comes to providing for chronic truants and other at-risk students. If such children, who are regarded as problems at the present time, were given a “scholarship” entitlement based on their share of the education budget – with a premium to compensate for the extra resources that they would need to be helped to ‘catch up’ – then suddenly schools would have a powerful economic incentive to compete for such students. By providing them with educational experiences and support mechanisms that would enable them to engage in education and succeed to the best of their ability, the lives of these children would be completely turned around.
And if such a scholarship system lifts the quality of education for at-risk students there is no reason why it would not work for all students – as it does in Sweden.
Ultimately, if all New Zealand children are to succeed in education, parents need to encourage them to do well at school, teachers need to be good at their job, and schools need to set high standards of academic achievement and school attendance.
The Government’s recent proposal to introduce National Standards is designed to further improve school performance by assessing students against national standards of literacy and numeracy. Just as all schools are reviewed by the Education Review Office at the present time, with reports available for all parents to see on the ERO website – National Standard data will help parents to better understand the progress of their children. With education being the key to advancement at all levels of society, any such moves to improve schools, lift student achievement, and empower parents, are to be welcomed.
1. Ministry Education, Attendance, Absence and Truancy in New Zealand Schools in 2006
2.Ministry of Social Development, Regional Council Benefit Factsheets
3. Allan Peachey, Conspicuously Politically Incorrect
4. Ann Tolley, Education Bill to raise standards
5. Education Review Office, Individual School Reviews