Principals slam Christopher Luxon for comments on truancy, saying he 'doesn't understand' school attendance

Principals say Christopher Luxon "doesn't understand" school attendance and needs "educating" after he said some are to blame, in part, for the truancy crisis.

National Party leader Luxon told AM on Wednesday some of the blame should fall on school leaders who weren't doing a good enough job getting children in the classroom. 

Luxon's comments came after Newshub revealed last week just 40 percent of New Zealand children were attending school regularly, according to fresh Ministry of Education figures. 

Henderson Intermediate principal Wendy Esera told AM on Thursday her immediate reaction to Luxon's comments was he didn't understand school truancy.

"I feel Christopher Luxon doesn't understand at all what principals and what schools are actually doing currently in terms of the whole issue of attendance," Esera told AM co-host Ryan Bridge. 

"There is no one size fits all, in terms of what works for one school to get children back to school isn't going to work for school somewhere else."

Henderson Intermediate is a decile three school, which has a mix of students at the bottom of the poverty line while also having wealthy families, Esera said.

The national statistics for school attendance in Term 2 showed just over 40 percent of year seven students regularly attended school, compared to just under 40 percent for year eight students. 

Regular attendance is based on students attending school 90 percent or more of the time, according to the Ministry of Education. 

Esera said her school had just above 81 percent regular attendance for year seven and eight students and they're hoping to reach 90 percent by the end of the year. 

"The most effective way of getting children to school is through your own school having those good relationships with your whānau," she said. 

"One of the great things … out of COVID-19 was teachers became so proactive in terms of their engagement with families. So they're having communication with families every single day."

Esera said the process for her school when a student fails to turn up is for the admin staff to figure out if they're explained absences. 

"We get issues and I'm quite sure this is the same right across the country with parents saying things like, look, my child's not in school because I haven't got petrol in the car," she said. 

"We haven't had food last night, so there's no food this morning either. They've grown out of their uniform and they can't afford to pay for the uniforms, so we're just going to keep them home until we can." 

Henderson Intermediate principal Wendy Esera.
Henderson Intermediate principal Wendy Esera. Photo credit: AM

To fix this issue, Esera said the school board has taken a really proactive approach to get children back into the classroom. 

"Our board's favourite phrase is we'll pay for it. We'll buy it. We can get it, we can give it," she said. 

"We have in our budget what's called a student support fund and the reality is if we overspend that which we have done quite frequently, in fact, it doesn't matter. 

"The response is always the same. If they need that support, if they need the uniform, we're going to buy it. If they need food, we're going to drop off food packs and we doing all those sorts of things." 

It's not just Esera who thinks Luxon "doesn't understand" school attendance. The New Zealand Principals' Federation (NZPF) slammed the National Party leader for his comments in a statement on Thursday morning. 

"The leader of the opposition party could do with some education in the difference between opinion and evidence-based argument," Cherie Taylor-Patel, president of NZPF said.

"These inflammatory remarks are Luxon's personal opinion, reflecting his own biases and are not supported by any evidence or understanding of the issue." 

Taylor-Patel urged Luxon to educate himself on the initiatives already taking place at schools. 

"I would recommend to Mr Luxon that he does some research into what initiatives schools are already implementing and that he visits schools and makes his own contribution to the many campaigns schools are engaged in to lift attendance levels," she said.  

Meanwhile, Luxon received some support for his comments with ACT Party leader David Seymour saying some principals were "hopeless".

"I think he's absolutely right. As the Member of Parliament for Epsom, I visit all of the principals in our area about once a year and there are some fantastic people up against some real challenges," he explained to AM Early host Oriini Kaipara on Thursday. 

Luxon's comments on principals came under fire from some in the education sector, but the National Party leader wouldn't apologise on Wednesday afternoon.

Watch the full interview with Wendy Esera above.