In the second of a five-part series where we look at our neediest kids, social issues reporter Simon Collins reports on what happens when they drop out or become truants.
A drive to stop schools kicking out difficult students has brought down the number of children being lost from the school system to its lowest level for at least a decade.
The number of 13- to 15-year-olds not enrolled in schools appears to have plunged by almost two-thirds from 7296 a decade ago to only 2801 last July.
Unsolved cases referred to non-enrolled truancy services have dropped from a peak of 9304 soon after a computerised national enrolment system was introduced in 2007 to just 1672 last week.
However, Youth Court judges believe the true number of non-enrolled young people is still "up to 3000" and that students are dropping out of schools earlier than in the past.
"Based on impressions, I think we are losing some of the young people that 10 years ago we lost at years 9 and 10 we are now losing at year 8," said Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft.
Unenrolled young people now represent only 1.5 per cent of all youngsters aged 13 to 15, down from 4.3 per cent of the age group in the year 2000.
But Judge Becroft said they accounted for three-quarters of the 4000 young offenders aged 14 to 16 who appear in the Youth Court each year.
"It's less than 1 per cent of their [schools'] problem but it's at least 75 to 80 per cent of our problem," he said.
The figures do not include young people who skip school but are still on school rolls. That official truanting has stayed stable in recent years with about 2 per cent of students absent without justification on any day, and a further 2 per cent who go to school but skip at least one class.
The numbers of those who have dropped off the rolls completely is harder to establish, and estimates have varied widely.
A 2006 study for Counties-Manukau District Health Board estimated there were 500 15-year-olds who had been granted early-leaving certificates and a further 500 youngsters aged 6 to 15 who had simply dropped out of the system in Counties-Manukau alone.
Since then the Education Ministry has clamped down on early leaving certificates, cutting them from a peak of 4187 in 2005 to just 570 last year.
It has had less dramatic results from a drive to reduce student stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions, but all have come down slightly. Exclusion rates have dropped from 2.5 for every 1000 students in 2005 to 2.2 in 2008, or from about 1900 to just under 1700 students.
The best available national data comes from comparing Statistics New Zealand's quarterly estimates of the population for every age against school enrolments for the same ages.
These show a fairly steady decline in apparently unenrolled 13- to 15-year-olds from 7296 in 2000 to 4455 in 2008, with a further big drop to 2801 last year.
However, these estimates are unreliable because there were 4722 more 6- to 12-year-olds enrolled in schools last July than Statistics NZ believed were resident here.
Statistics official Adele Quinn said this was partly because 9529 foreign students on short-term permits, up from 7191 in 2000, were not counted as New Zealand residents.
An Institute of Policy Studies analysis last year concluded that data issues, rather than a real improvement in school retention, was "the predominant driver of the outcomes".
An Education Ministry manager, Jeremy Wood, said the drop in unsolved cases with non-enrolled truancy services reflected staffing increases in the service through one-off budget increases of $1.95 million for 2008-09 and $1.5 million in the current financial year.
The service is contracted out to Datacom, which employs 16.3 fulltime-equivalent staff for the work.
Boy's excuse flimsy but honest
It wasn't the best excuse for wagging school, but at least it was the truth.
"I stayed up last night watching TV," said Puke Paparu, 12, when truancy officer Tai Marsters nabbed him in the Mangere Town Centre just before lunchtime recently.
He had gone into the shopping mall to buy a large bottle of fizzy drink while his aunty and his grandfather, Tupou Tuteru, waited in the car outside.
Mr Marsters and Mangere community constable Nicko Ng Wun accompanied him out to the carpark to talk to the family.
"I like school," the boy said. "I've got a good teacher."
He said he got up about 8am that day. His grandfather said he offered to take him to school but he didn't want to go.
"He should go to school but he just wants to stay home," Mr Tuteru said.
He was let off with a warning and a fridge magnet with a tollfree number (0508 TRUANT) to call the next time he needed help to get the boy to school.
"He'll be in school tomorrow," he promised.
Saturday: Alternative education.
Teens in Third World schooling
When the mainstream model doesn't fit
A far better alternative to dropping out
Monday: Truancy and dropouts.
School dropout levels fall over past 10 years
Tuesday: Issues of transience.
Message sinking in: switching schools bad for kids
Absenteeism often cry for help
Transient students struggle to catch up
Wednesday: Who kicks kids out?
Second chance works well for student
Expulsion seen as tool of last resort
Aorere strives to improve record
Thursday: What can be done?
Help for those who fall through cracks
Trust moves in well before students get out of control
Schools can't do it all on their own