“Fifty-three per cent of kids don’t go to school regularly,” I’ve heard National Party leader Christopher Luxon say during this campaign.
“They’re not showing up for weeks on end.”
It’s a statistic other National candidates also use, given as proof that schools are failing badly.
But it’s not true.
I wrote last week about Luxon’s misleading use of numbers and this is another example. The official record is available at the Education Counts website and it shows he’s wrong on several counts.
First, while the 53.9 per cent figure is accurate, it refers to term one of 2022. Term one this year was 40.5 per cent.
Second, “regular attendance” is defined as being present for at least 90 per cent of half days.
That is, if a child misses one morning or afternoon a week, on average, they are deemed to be “not regularly attending”. That’s a pretty high bar.
There are three other measures: “irregular” attendance, and “moderate” and “chronic” absence.
A child in the last group turns up less than 70 per cent of the time. On average, they’re in class for fewer than three-and-a-half days a week.
So even among the “chronically absent” kids, many were there more often than they were not. That’s the third misleading aspect of Luxon’s claim.
How many children were in this chronically absent group? Just 8.3 per cent. One in 12.
And Luxon’s attack is wrong in a fourth way. It suggests absenteeism is a social ill for which someone must be to blame. Truancy is rife. The kids are off the leash, so are the parents and possibly the teachers are too.
But as Education Counts reports, the “main driver of absence” from school in term one of 2023 “continues to be medical reasons”.
Covid is still with us and we have a new understanding about illness. We know that people who are not well, or living with others who may be infectious, should stay home rather than go to school or work and infect others.
Luxon doesn’t stop there. He’s also down on academic achievement, which he calls “abysmal”.
“Half our 15-year-olds fail the most basic reading and writing tests,” he said recently.
But that can’t possibly be true, and it isn’t.
The principal measure of progress is the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA), run by the University of Otago, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research and the Ministry of Education.
NMSSA data shows student achievement has not declined in 25 years, although it hasn’t risen, either. On the contrary, it has stubbornly resisted the efforts under both National- and Labour-led Governments to shift the dial.
What has declined is New Zealand students’ achievement rates in international testing.
But as Nina Hood of the research group Education Hub told RNZ last week, this decline is across the board. It’s happening in “elite” schools as well as the “underperforming” ones.
Why? It’s unlikely the standard is falling in “elite” schools. No one says it is. So it’s reasonable to assume the problem with our international test results is not related to teaching and learning.
Gavin Brown is a professor of education at the University of Auckland, specialising in student achievement. He told RNZ that some of the “decline” is relative. Since the 1990s, achievement levels in many countries have significantly improved.
Brown also noted that those improving schools may be using the international tests differently. In New Zealand, those tests don’t contribute to grades, so students may not feel the need to study for them.
His colleague Aaron Wilson said this phenomenon might also apply to the low scores achieved by students in recent NCEA literacy and numeracy tests. They were pilot tests, with nothing riding on them for the students.
None of this means we should be happy with achievement levels. There’s a stubbornly low pass rate among many students and it deserves serious attention.
But it’s not half of all kids, it’s not new and some of the causes - like poverty and dysfunctional homes - are beyond the easy reach of schools to fix.
I had lunch earlier this month with some former school principals, all of them retired from long service at low-decile schools in south Auckland. We were joined by the still-serving principal of a large, higher-decile primary school.
They wanted to share some of their frustrations about the schools debate today. The first issue they talked about was special education.
Disruptive behaviour used to be an occasional problem, but it’s much more common now. Schools hire teacher aides for children who need special help to manage their behaviour and the principals were full of admiration for the commitment and skills they bring to their work.
But special education has always been badly underfunded. There aren’t enough staff and there isn’t enough training for them. As one principal noted, in a hospital, the patients with the most complex needs don’t get assigned to the least-trained staff.
They suggested that if we’re serious about getting better outcomes from schools, more funding for special education is an excellent place to start. All students would win.
We talked about the thousands of schools where charities and corporates now provide meals: it’s been a blessed help. We talked about mobile phones: yes, they’re distracting, but why has National, the party of personal responsibility and community choice, gone all Nanny State about them?
Curriculum advances are important and there was praise for the new status of New Zealand history as a core subject. And teachers need access to good test programmes, to help them plan students’ work rather than simply cough up a score. But what’s available is out of date, due to - you guessed it - lack of funding.
And if schools are to teach reading, writing and arithmetic for three hours each a day, as National wants, what’s going to miss out? That’s more than half of all classroom time.
Since our lunch, National has announced that all children will be taught to read using “structured literacy”, which focuses on the sounds made by letter formations. This will be fully phased in for Years 1-6 by 2027.
Jan Tinetti, Minister of Education, has responded that on Labour’s watch, remedial reading programmes like Reading Recovery already include elements of structured literacy. And Labour wants all schools to follow a “compulsory common practice model” for reading, writing and maths by 2026.
My principals said that with any learning difficulty, there is usually no quick fix. The key may not be to replace one teaching method with another, but to resource the work better.
Yet, when it comes to kids with reading problems, neither National nor Labour has ever fully met the need.
The big theme of our conversation was how to give schools and teachers the status and effectiveness they need.
The recent pay rise for secondary teachers will help: they’ll get a 14.5 per cent increase by December 2024, including a $10,000 bump for beginner teachers. But it’s more of a catch-up than a repositioning of the profession.
The principals were keen on a return to the system they’d been through: paid an allowance to train and then bonded to stay a certain number of years. They also wanted a big media campaign to promote the value of schools.
I suggested one reason many Catholic schools do well is that home and school reinforce the same set of values. They help each other. Can secular state schools recreate that?
Everyone wanted to say yes, although I’m not sure anyone knew exactly how. Could schools work more closely with families, to raise student achievement and build stronger communities in the process? Without expecting teachers to double their workloads?
It’s hard to tell the truth about schools, especially at election time when slogans and simple ideas abound. But even among the schools doing it toughest, it doesn’t follow that they’re failing. Schools tend to be very proud of their achievements.
They survived the extraordinary hardships of Covid. They have all sorts of ways to embrace the challenges of the modern world - cultural, social and environmental as well as economic. Children learn heaps and graduate into higher education in record numbers.
“Schools are really good places for kids,” said one of the principals. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. Because, mostly, it’s true.
As for the politicians who spout wrong data, perhaps they could do a refresher course: one hour of arithmetic a day.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.