Labour calls Government's school attendance plan unambitious

Labour leader Chris Hipkins says the government's school attendance target is hardly ambitious, because the government's baseline was from during the Covid-19 response. 

Associate Education Minister David Seymour announced the plan alongside Prime Minister Christopher Luxon at Cardinal McKeefry Catholic Primary School in Wellington at 9am. 

As reported earlier by RNZ, it included a push towards more regular attendance data collection - with plans to have this reported daily by the first school term in 2025. 

It also included changes to public health guidance around when it was acceptable for children to attend, and a traffic light system for when children were chronically absent - with those cases to be handled by the Education Ministry. 

The plan aimed to tackle one of the government's nine targets announced on Monday, aiming towards having 80 percent of students present at school for 90 percent of the term. 

Luxon had sold the targets as "deliberately ambitious", but Hipkins said that was hardly the case for school attendance. 

"School attendance was sitting in the 70 to 80 percent range before Covid in 2019. They're using as their benchmark term two in 2022 when all of the kids were at home with all of their parents isolating because it was the country's first outbreak of Covid-19. 

"They've set the benchmark for themselves very very low, and then claimed that getting back to levels that we were at before Covid is somehow ambitous - it isn't actually." 

He said the data expected from term four last year - due out on Friday - would be expected to show improvement already, with attendance data including children who had been sick. 

"They've missed, say, five days because they might have had Covid and then they've missed one other day and therefore they fall into the next band and they don't meet the criteria. 

"I have no problem with the target, I agree with the target, I think it's a good target, I don't think it's ambitious though." 

Labour's education spokesperson Jan Tinetti says parents and teachers had already raised concerns with her about the attendance plan. 

"I'm actually really disturbed by elements of it," she said. "I've already had a few emails that have come through expressing the same concerns I have, number one concerned about the impact of getting young people who have health issues, getting them back to school. 

"I thought we'd moved in the right direction, saying around how when young people are sick they shouldn't be going to school to infect others. Personally as someone who has a son who is well past school but is an asthmatic, and a really bad asthamtic, going to school when you're not feeling so well or when others are not feeling so well actually coudl have been life-threatening for him. 

"I've also had emails just in the last half hour of paretns whose young people had been bullied at school, and they said 'is that on us that our young people couldn't get to school". 

"It has simplified, and oversimplified a really complex matter." 

She said she was "all for" getting young people back to school, "but we already have the research that is from both New Zealand but also more importantly from overseas in recent times that show that stick approach is just not working. There are other underlying aspects here." 

Hipkins said the real crisis in attendance was a few thousand children who were missing a lot of school, and getting students who were only attending one day a week to attend regularly would be "a major achievement". 

"The reality is the government will be able to hit their target without getting a single one of those kids to attend school more regularly," he said. 

"I think you need to look at attendance at a more granular level." 

He also criticised the announcement on Tuesday, considering many of the new policies had not yet been agreed on by Cabinet. 

"So who's running the show? Is Christopher Luxon - the prime minister making the announcement - the guy who's actually running the show, or is it David Seymour who's making up policy on the hoof and then admitting that Cabinet hasn't approved it yet. 

"It's another example of the government just not knowing what it's doing." 

He said the daily attendance reporting would require a lot of daily manual data compilation. 

"Ideally we would get to a system where the IT systems at schools were able to extract that data automatically without schools ahving to do anything extra - that was what we were working towards, so we'd worked towards getting a new IT system in place." 

Tinetti also warned the daily reporting could make the data much less reliable. 

"You have to understand what happens in schools. Teachers take that data on a daily basis, now, if it's a relieving teacher that's in those classrooms they might not understand or know those young people. 

"Often, in the next couple of days, that data is then reworked to make certain that it's a little bit more robust than what it was in the first place. I've been in that position. I know how on the first day that data is not strong enough. 

"I'd have concerns that the data was valid and appropriate and right ... and I've asked this question of the Minister as to whether this data is robust enough, I don't believe it is - and the schools tell me that."