Truancy: Principal hits back at Christopher Luxon's comments putting blame on some school leaders for poor attendance rates

A school principal has slammed National Party leader Christopher Luxon for blaming "mixed standards of leadership" across schools for low attendance levels. 

It comes after Newshub revealed last week that just 40 percent of Kiwi kids are attending school regularly, according to fresh figures out from the Ministry of Education.

Figures obtained by Newshub show the breakdown of students who've been unenrolled for more than a year by region. Of the nearly 1000 Kiwi kids not attending school for 13 months or more, 527 are in Auckland, 122 are in Waikato and 71 are in the Bay of Plenty. They make up 74 percent of the total.

Luxon told AM on Wednesday the level of kids not attending school is "really incredibly sobering" and there is a "mixed standard of leadership" across New Zealand's schools.

"So the first thing is we’ve got to make sure the Government is actually putting resources into truancy officers, getting kids to school. We need to make sure we've actually got leadership in schools that are actually very much focussed on getting kids into school," Luxon told AM co-host Ryan Bridge.

Bridge questioned Luxon, saying there are no school leaders in New Zealand who aren't focused on getting kids into school, but the National Party leader disagreed. 

"There is a mixed standard of leadership across our schools and across our principles which actually means they are not focussing as strongly only on getting kids to school as they can," Luxon said. 

Hora Hora School principal and Tai Tokerau Principal Association president Pat Newman hit back at Luxon's remarks, saying his comments point more to a "mixed bag of leadership within politicians".

"I am very, very disappointed that Mr Luxon drops in like a helicopter to one school, which is a good school, and quotes it as if he's met a whole lot of them and knows all about the problem," Newman told AM. 

"It's annoying as a principal and it doesn't matter which party the politician is when they trivialise a really complex problem with a lack of understanding but thinking they can pick up some votes with some tripe comments that will get some news media coverage. 

"I'm very, very disappointed in Mr Luxon that he thinks that a couple of seconds on television will assist the programme when he attacks people who are doing their damn best to get children into school and do the job correctly without needing comments like his just to get some votes."

Luxon used Manurewa Intermediate School as an example of strong leadership as it was the "most inspiring school I have ever visited in my life".

"Manurewa Intermediate School is a decile one school and they have attendance rates of 80 to 90 percent because they've got great staff," he said. 

"They call the parents to make them really accountable for getting their kids to school and showing up at parent-teacher interviews and they have really deeply engaged programmes and therefore deeply engaged kids and students and study."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: AM

Newman said Manurewa Intermediate School is a "damn good school" but there are also other schools that are good institutions but have high truancy rates.

"Principals and teachers and everyone learn as they go and there's no problem with that but how he can make such a broad statement on a short-term visit is beyond me," Newman said. 

"I know the principal at that school - I know it's a damn good school - I know there are also some principals running very good schools who have still high non-attendance and it's not from a lack of them trying to get the children to school. 

"He would have been better looking at the real complexities rather than making comments as he has. Yes, strong leadership is needed, but to say because your attendance figures are low, you haven't got strong leadership is absolutely tripe."

Newman said principals play an important role in getting kids to school but they can't do everything. 

"We cannot, for instance, go and feed every child. We cannot provide transport for every child," he said. 

"We cannot do heaps of things, we do try and do heaps but there are other things that we just cannot put in place because they are out of the ballpark of a school. But they impact very much on attendance." 

Luxon said New Zealand doesn't need to accept "abysmal results" when there are pockets of excellence like Manurewa Intermediate School.

When pressed by Bridge about what school leaders are accepting "abysmal results", Luxon said there is a mixed standard across the country.

"What I'm talking about is we have standards of excellence where you can get a decile one school delivering high levels of attendance and yet across the whole country, we can't [deliver high rates of attendance], and it requires a systemic response to say we're not going to make any more excuses," Luxon said.

"You can't run a country and have a future when you have 40 percent of your kids attending school, that's just not going to cut it. It's a moral failure.  It's a social failure. It's an economic crisis. So we have to all, Government schools and parents, be really accountable for getting our kids to school. That's what matters most in our education system." 

Hora Hora School principal and Tai Tokerau Principal Association president Pat Newman.
Hora Hora School principal and Tai Tokerau Principal Association president Pat Newman. Photo credit: AM

Newman told AM that school truancy is a "major problem" but it takes everyone coming together to sort the problem rather than wild comments. 

"To put it down to one aspect called leadership like it appears he has, shows little understanding. A good leader can do so much but I believe you have to turn around this problem by whole communities, by all the agencies working together, whether it's Government or social services all working together," he said. 

"It's not just one. It's a whole damn lot showing leadership, including our politicians, who should be looking deeply into this problem because it is a major problem."

When asked by AM if there are principals not doing enough, Newman said the people he knows are doing all they can to get kids back into school.  

Watch the full interview with Christopher Luxon and Pat Newman above.