If education is an economic indicator of where New Zealand will be in 30 years, alarming school attendance rates suggest the country is in trouble, says independent economist Cameron Bagrie.
In 2015, 70 per cent of children regularly attended school, by 2019 that number had become 57.7 per cent and "lord knows what the Covid (year) number is going to look like", he told a DairyNZ forum in Hamilton, to which more than 350 turned out or watched from other regions.
"I thought initially it was older kids wagging. But it's not. The biggest decline we've seen is in primary schools," said Bagrie.
"If you've not regularly attended school, what are your odds of being a regular attendee at work?"
The Ministry of Education responded that the latest attendance data for term 2, 2020, showed 64 per cent of students attended school regularly during the last seven weeks of the term, compared to 57.7 per cent in the corresponding time in 2019.
The ministry said attendance was "a priority issue".
Bagrie told the Herald that education was the "epicentre" of New Zealand's future.
He suggested school attendance was unlikely to improve with children living in motel emergency accommodation and "bouncing" around different areas because of the housing crisis.
"We can't disconnect this from the housing market."
Regularly attending school was classified as turning out 90 per cent of the year, Bagrie said.
"That 2019 stat means 42.3 per cent did not turn up regularly. Forty-five per cent of Māori and Pasifika kids regularly attend school. I wonder why those statistics are not getting more of an airing?"
No one in the Hamilton audience picked education when, at the start of his presentation, Bagrie asked what was an important economic indicator for the country's future.
In the Waikato, only 53.3 per cent of children regularly attended school, he said.
Only Northland and Bay of Plenty had a worse showing.
"We are now in an economic time when it's all about people. The past 20 years it's been shareholders at the top of the pile. Now we're going back to a stakeholder model and Covid has highlighted we need to invest in people.
"It's not just about investing in training for the workforce - this goes back to what is going on the school system. We can't disconnect this from housing.
"Is there a health connection here? We need to be looking at this. We have data per school, make comparisons, start to break it down and see what is driving it."
Bagrie said that was the job of the Ministry of Education but despite it identifying falling school attendance as a "systemic trend", there didn't seem to be much action or "deep diving" into data, which was a fundamental issue.
"The answers might be connected to the health system and to housing but let's start to connect the dots and come up with a programme."
A response from the ministry said attendance was a priority issue.
It was now collecting and reporting attendance data much more regularly than in the past.
Initiatives in place to support schools with attendance included the Urgent Response Fund, part of the 2020 Wellbeing Budget, which provided $50 million in 2020-2021 for schools, kura and early learning services to support attendance following last year's lockdowns.
As at end March, $40.4m of this had been distributed.
A separate amount of $2.57m was allocated in Budget 2020 to support students impacted by lockdown to engage and attend school during the pandemic recovery.
The Attendance Service was a contracted service consisting of multiple providers, each with their own outcome agreement, the ministry said. The majority of providers were external organisations, but a small number of schools hold contracts or are subcontracted for the Attendance Service.
Schools which hold Attendance Service contracts or subcontracts may have also received urgent response funding but use of this funding was specific to the needs of their students and not related to their role as an Attendance Service provider.
"Over the last year, we have moved from collecting and reporting only Term 2 attendance once per year, to now collecting attendance data from New Zealand schools at the end of every week of every term," the ministry said.