Economist warns of major consequences down the track from 'horrifying' school attendance rates

An independent economist is raising alarm bells over New Zealand's declining attendance rate after a rocky start to the year with teachers' strikes and weather disruptions seeing schools close regularly. 

It comes after years of COVID-19 disruptions with attendance rates falling from 66.1 percent in term 4 of 2019 to just 50.6 percent in term 4 of 2022. 

Economist Cameron Bagrie told AM's Ryan Bridge he is "horrified" by the figures and they will have significant real-world consequences in a few decades. 

"As a parent, [I'm] somewhat angry in regards to where the system has got to and really worried about where the New Zealand economy is going to be in 20 to 30 years," Bagrie said. 

He said the education system is a strong barometer for New Zealand's economic future, and based on the current data we are in trouble. 

"There are three main channels where we could potentially take a hit. The first is labour supply and the availability of people for work 10, 20, 30 years down the track and I guess if kids are not turning up to school it's not a great story in regards to their potential to be regularly turning up to work. 

"The second is productivity and innovation. You know smarter, more literate kids who achieve better in school are going to be a barometer of New Zealand's productivity performance and that drives incomes and living standards down the track. 

"The third one is just the quality of institutions. The institutions across our economy really matter and if you don't have good people across the board, then you have problems coming through that."

But Bagrie added it's important not to catastrophise the situation, pointing out there are still a lot of kids who are doing well in school. 

"There's a big gap between the top and the bottom and it's really that bottom lot we need to do a hell of a lot of work on." 

He said teachers are massively underpaid and there needs to be a plan to fix that. But he added with higher pay needs to come greater accountability for results. 

Bagrie said education needs to become an election issue because it will have a huge impact on the entire country in the future. 

"I wouldn't say it's a crisis but we need a call to arms and parents need to get involved," he said. 

Education has been a talking point ahead of the election with the National Party regularly criticising the Labour Government about falling attendance rates. 

Recently National's education spokesperson Erica Stanford lashed out at the Government's announcement it was delaying a requirement for schools to be teaching some refreshed NCEA subjects by one year to put the immediate focus on maths and literacy.

The announcement came after feedback from teachers' and principals' groups as well as the NCEA Professional Advisory Group that schools could struggle to properly implement the planned changes on the current timeline. 

The announcement also came as the Government faced pressure to address the downward trend in students' achievement in maths and literacy, which Education Minister Jan Tinetti has already said she is "not happy with".

"We'll prioritise mathematics, English, te reo Māori and pāngarau areas of the curriculum, by deferring the requirement for schools to implement the other areas by one year," Tinetti said.

"The refresh and redesign of the curriculum will continue on existing timeframes and be available to all schools from 2026 but teaching it won't be compulsory until 2027."

But Stanford called the announcement a "panicked response from Labour as they finally wake up to how serious New Zealand's declining education standards are". 

"The Government’s pilot of this assessment showed that 90 percent of students in decile one schools would have failed, and therefore could not obtain any NCEA qualification. Labour has neglected the very students that need a great education to change their lives.

"Overall, more than half of New Zealand students involved in the pilot were unable to pass a foundational writing test the OECD says is necessary to succeed in further learning, life, and work.

"It is clear the Minister and her predecessor had no clue the pilot results would be this bad."