Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman is calling for more use of the powers of prosecution against parents who deliberately and persistently fail to send their children to school.
Mr Newman last week called on Northland principals to rate their experience with the Te Tai Tokerau Attendance Service. The Hora Hora Primary School principal said he had referred families to the service, contracted to Ngāpuhi Iwi Social Services by the Ministry of Education, after all other options had been exhausted, but it had made no difference.
"We've had people demanding we go and pick up children from the gate, we've supplied shoes, we've supplied raincoats, and as the last resort we've referred them to the truancy services, and there's been absolutely no result," he said.
"It's easy for me to attack but [truancy services'] hands are bound. They seem to be okay with the ones we can deal with, but where we have a real problem is with the ones that are deliberately being kept at home. The kids with 20 per cent attendance."
According to a Ministry of Education report released last month, Te Tai Tokerau had the lowest school attendance rates in the country during last year's second term, while last year the attendance service dealt with 841 students who were not enrolled at a school, and 854 cases of unjustified absence.
The Education Act 1989 allows for parents to be prosecuted when absences are unjustified, ongoing and condoned by the parent.
Very few are ever prosecuted, and Mr Newman believes there need to be more.
"One of the arguments is that if you prosecute families then they don't have the money.
But I think if they knew they were going to end up in court, they might actually get the kids to school," he said.
"I think they should be using the powers of prosecution to a much greater degree."
Katrina Casey, Ministry of Education deputy secretary for sector enablement and support, said the attendance service did a good job of engaging with families whose children were persistently absent, and advisers were skilled at working with families.
"We know regular attendance is one of the strongest drivers of student achievement," she said. "Schools work hard to keep young people engaged in education, and effectively manage everyday attendance issues."
Non-attendance prosecutions — a last resort — were usually led by schools, with ministry support.
"The ministry can lead this type of prosecution, but schools are better positioned to provide evidence because they will have attendance records and information about any past interventions," she said.