Why children are missing school more in New Zealand than other countries

New Zealand's startling attendance rates are put in the spotlight as a new report has found Kiwi kids are missing more school than other comparable countries. 

New research from the Education Review Office (ERO) found only three out of five students regularly go to school.

COVID-19 has badly disrupted attendance, but even before the pandemic, Aotearoa had lower attendance than other countries.

Attendance among students who were going to school regularly fell a huge 12 percent between 2015 and 2019, before the pandemic.

Ministry of Education data shows comparatively, New Zealand sits well below the likes of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom for regular attendance which is measured by the percentage of students who have attended more than 90 percent of the term.

International comparison of regular attendance.
International comparison of regular attendance. Photo credit: Ministry of Education NZ

"Missing school adds up. If students miss a week of school each term by the time they are 16 they will have missed a year of schooling. That's a lot of learning time lost. There is no safe level of non-attendance, even just missing two days a term is linked to lower achievement," Head of ERO's Te Ihuwaka Education Evaluation Centre Ruth Shinoda said.

"What we found is that many New Zealand parents and students don't prioritise going to school."

Parents told ERO they thought regular attendance was less important in primary school, but ERO said that is not the case. 

Primary school provides the foundations of learning, and missing school in primary school is linked with poor attendance in secondary school, ERO said. 

It found four in 10 parents are comfortable with their child missing more than a week of school a term. In addition to this, a third of students didn't see going to school every day as that important and nearly a quarter of students said they did not think school was that important for their futures.

The report also found parents are choosing to prioritise other things over school, with many taking their children out of school for holidays, special events and birthdays.

Eight percent of children were missing school to look after sick or younger whānau and family members.

The report also highlights the barriers that some students face. Students who miss school are more likely to report poor relationships with teachers and peers, and having good relationships at school is a key motivator for student attendance.

Nearly half of parents would keep their child out of school for mental health challenges and over one-third would keep their child out of school to avoid bullying.

"We need to urgently turn around New Zealand's falling attendance rate if we want to see our children achieve. This will require action from the Government, communities, schools, parents, and the learners themselves," Shinoda said.

The report highlighted five key areas to increase attendance which were:

Improve understanding of the importance of regular attendance

  • Explain the importance of attendance and the impact of non-attendance
  • Set clearer expectations about attendance
  • Set expectations and the support needed that learners catch up on missed learning

Improve awareness of how often learners are attending school 

  • Understand the attendance of every learner in a school and act early when concerned
  • Help parents to better understand their children's attendance
  • Empower learners to better understand how their attendance is tracking
  • ERO evaluate how schools are preparing to meet attendance targets, and how they collect, analyse, report, and use student attendance data

Make learning more engaging

  • Understand learners' interests and what at school they find engaging or disengaging
  • Review the way in which teaching and learning is organised, drawing on learners' perspectives
  • Help learners to see how subjects are relevant and valuable to them
  • Take early action when learners are disengaging from learning and support them to re engage and catch up

Make school a great place to be 

  • Understand how learners find the school environment and identify issues early
  • Use proven tools to tackle bullying, racism, and discrimination
  • Provide access to mental health support for those learners who need it

Tackle barriers to attendance

  • All agencies to work together to tackle the key barriers to attendance (for example, transport and uniform costs)
  • Build strong relationships between schools and families to identify key barriers to attendance and any actions schools can take to overcome them
  • Have pathways back into regular attendance for learners who aren't attending regularly