Coronavirus: Lockdowns behind drop in school expulsions nationally but disruption to students still 'significant' - principals

Individual schools decide how to respond to student's behaviour.
Individual schools decide how to respond to student's behaviour. Photo credit: Getty.

The number of Kiwi students stood down and expelled from school fell across the country last year, but that doesn't mean children were more well-behaved, the New Zealand Principals' Federation says.

Data released to Newshub from the Ministry of Education shows that 14,006 children were stood down by schools nationally in 2020, down from 16,489 in 2019. A stand-down is when a principal removes a student from the school for up to five days.

The number of suspensions - where a child is removed from school until the board of trustees decides further action - fell from 2988 in 2019 to 2111 in 2020, which was the fewest in at least five years. 

Data via the Ministry of Education.
Data via the Ministry of Education.

When a child is suspended, a board has three options: Lift the suspension, extend it or terminate the student's enrollment at the school. For children under the age of 16, this is known as an exclusion, while for those over 16, it's an expulsion. 

There were 700 exclusions in 2020, down from 1050 in 2019, and 111 expulsions, a fall from 139 in 2019. 

Data via the Ministry of Education.
Data via the Ministry of Education.

Newshub received information for each age group and region of the country and found disciplinary action in 2020 was down on 2019 in nearly every category.

However, there were some exceptions. For example, the Nelson/Marlborough/WestCoast education area saw the number of stand-downs jump in 2020 to 627 from 588 the year before.

Data via the Ministry of Education.
Data via the Ministry of Education.

Individual schools decide how to respond to student's behaviour, but the ministry believes the drop in disciplinary action could be down to students simply spending less time physically at school last year due to lockdowns required by the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealand Principals' Federation Perry Rush isn't surprised by the drop in disciplinary action. 

He says it's an obvious consequence of the pandemic and shouldn't be taken to suggest students were better behaved last year. Instead, many children were "substantially less focused" due to the "significant disruption" COVID-19 caused. 

"The disruption caused by COVID in particular was influential and every time there was disruption you had young people learn and relearn different ways of working alongside teachers and time to re-establish routines when those young people were back on-site at their schools," Rush told Newshub.

"That disruption wasn't just the period of time that young people spent away from their physical school sites, it was also the time to establish routines, to settle back down into business as usual." 

Anecdotally, Rush heard teachers and principals had a "challenging year" dealing with students' behaviour. Much of that can be put down to the mental health effects of the pandemic, he said.

"There are lots and lots of reports of young people feeling stressed, experiencing anxiety, being concerned and worried. Those mental health challenges are on the increase," Rush said.

"Schools are dealing more and more, not just with the core role of teaching and learning the curriculum, but also trying to wrap their support around young people to make sure their mental health is well catered for, and in particular, manage anxiety which is a really significant challenge for schooling. "

He said the stress experienced by students as well as teachers is reflected in the amount of money the Government put aside for its education Urgent Response Fund. The $66 million package provided immediate support to schools to help manage learning, social, emotional and mental needs with $16 million specifically for educator's wellbeing. 

Data via the Ministry of Education.
Data via the Ministry of Education.

Melanie Webber, the PPTA Te Wehengarua president, said the pandemic was "absolutely" the reason for the fall in disciplinary action. However, while it may not have been dished out by schools, Webber expects actions were taken instead by parents. 

"Teen behaviour is something that parents and teachers are very used to, and I expect that during lockdowns there were children being sent to their rooms in numbers like never before," she said.

"That’s not to minimise the experience of many families though, who suffered very tough times during lockdown, with overcrowding, job losses and stress. We know many young people left school in order to provide an income for their families, and some students were not safe in their homes."

Rush said every child's experience of COVID-19 lockdowns was different. 

"There were some young people who spent some of that lockdown at a family's second home somewhere in the college," he said. "There were other children who were embedded in crowded households without the resources to adequately connect to schooling in a remote capacity."

Data via the Ministry of Education.
Data via the Ministry of Education.

Both Rush and Webber welcomed the Government's decision to delay NCEA examinations and provide a boost in credits. 

"One of the main schooling stressors for students was NCEA, and we are very pleased the government understood that and moved quickly to ensure young people were not disadvantaged by the impacts of the pandemic," Webber said.

"Anxiety for many students reduced hugely when these changes were announced."

The NCEA results ended up being in line with previous years despite the disruptions, with some schools recording better than usual achievement.