School leaders worried truancy will get worse if Government axes free lunches

The Government-funded lunch programme, Ka Ora, Ka Ako, is under review ahead of the Budget.
The Government-funded lunch programme, Ka Ora, Ka Ako, is under review ahead of the Budget. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ellen O'Wyer for RNZ

A school leader says he is worried truancy will increase if school meals are limited to certain students next year.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour has confirmed the government-funded lunch programme, Ka Ora, Ka Ako, is under review ahead of the Budget.

Porirua College deputy principal John Topp said the school feeds more than 1000 students a day in the area through the free school lunch programme.

The contract runs out at the end of the year and he was worried it would not be renewed for all students.

"Sometimes it's the only food they'll have in that day - and [they ask] can we have more? So we've got to keep doing that.

"But we can't target the students that need it the most because they are going to feel whakama [shame] about that and that's going to make it worse here at school, and they just won't come."

Since 2019, the programme had been offered to students at schools with the highest levels of disadvantage.

Leaders at the school said truancy was an ongoing challenge due to poverty and the cost-of-living crisis hitting families hard.

The school has about 70 percent of students attending at any given day, Topp said.

Attendance officer Mose Skipworth agreed the lunches helped to keep kids in school.

"A lot of people are just seeing students not showing up to school, not sitting in the seats - but I think what they are not seeing is that they didn't have dinner, or they haven't had lunch, or they haven't had breakfast."

Ministry of Education statistics show in term three of last year, only 46 percent of students across the country attended school more than 90 percent of the time.

Seymour warned at an Education Select Committee this week that if the truancy crisis was not solved it would leave an 80-year shadow of negative effects.

He said the school lunch programme, including whether it was targeted to certain students only, was going to be reviewed in the lead up to the Budget.

Seymour said there was no hard evidence in New Zealand the programme had improved achievement and attendance since it began.

"When you've got a programme that is close to $350 million every year, you've got a duty to ask yourself is this programme delivering value for the people who need it most, not creating any waste, and having an effect on the government's overall objectives?"

Seymour cited a Treasury report of the programme from 2023 which said about 12 percent of lunches, or about 10,000 a day, were left over.

The report stated the lunches generally made students happier and healthier but did not find an impact on attendance.

Researchers at the University of Auckland, also in 2023, found the programme improved nutrition and educational outcomes.

Fines for truancy a possibility

Seymour said everything was on the table when it came to truancy, including imposing fines on parents who do not send their kids to school.

"We fine people who speed past the school, but somehow we apply a totally different standards to the duty that says you've got to send your kids to school."

He said fines were just one idea to tackle truancy, and they were not going to be used on families in financial hardship.

"We don't intend to do it in a way that equates to 'the beatings will continue until morale improves'.

"We are not going to fine people who are already hard up and may in fact not be sending their kids to school because they are in financial hardship," Seymour said.

Te Tai Tokerau principals' association president Pat Newman questioned how a fine system would work.

"What are they going to do if they don't pay them, put them in jail at $150-$200,000 a year? You've got to look at how you are going to enforce this."

Newman, who has been in education for 51 years, said he wanted effort and money put into regionally led programmes, putting the issue of children's attendance at the centre of the community.

Topp said Porirua College's attendance programme has improved since they were able to employ attendance officers born and raised in the community.

The school now delivered the attendance work for schools across Porirua East.

Tamara To'omaga said she worked with families over weeks and months to turn truancy around.

"Being born and raised here in Porirua, a lot of these families are families that we grew up with, so having hard conversations is okay."