Rotorua schools are desperately doing what they can to solve the problems which stop kids going to school, with school attendance in the Bay of Plenty the worst it's been in nine years. Cira Olivier reports
Less than half of Rotorua students are regularly attending school, a nine-year low according to new data.
The Ministry of Education's latest Schools Attendance Survey showed the Bay of Plenty and Waiariki regions had an overall regular attendance of 51.3 per cent - the worst rate in the country.
Rotorua schools' combined regular attendance in Term 2, 2019 dropped to 48.6 per cent from 64.9 per cent in the same time period in 2011. This was a sharp drop from 59.4 per cent in 2018.
Rotorua principals say not having a uniform, overseas trips, family violence and poverty were some of the reasons why students weren't turning up regularly. Some say they are desperately trying to resolve the issue.
More than 60 per cent of Asian students attended school regularly in Term 2 last year, European Pakehā 53.2 per cent, Māori 40.3 per cent and Pasifika only 36.2 per cent.
Rotorua Intermediate principal Garry de Thierry said family violence and poverty were among the multitude of reasons students did not turn up to school.
If a student did not arrive at school, de Thierry said their parents would be sent a text.
If the absence continued, the school counsellor would be involved before home visits and recommendation of external agencies.
"Schools are going out of their way ... but there's only so much we can do. We are in that desperate zone of really trying to resolve this."
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He said it was challenging showing parents the consequences of not enforcing attendance meant a child had fewer opportunities to develop their skills and fewer opportunities later in life.
Students who were away for a longer amount of time noticed the gaps in their knowledge as the class and teacher had moved on, de Thierry said.
"As soon as students start doubting themselves, what do they do? They look for more excuses to have more time off because they don't want to be in that situation."
Rotorua Girls' High School principal Sarah Davis said reasons for student absence included not having a uniform and attending overseas cultural events.
"A lot of students have other responsibilities from 8.30am to 3.30pm," she said, which involved looking after siblings or whānau events.
Davis said the school aimed for 85 per cent attendance and was working with truancy officers and families to bring the numbers up.
"It's definitely an issue ... but it's an issue everywhere in the country."
John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh said every day a student was absent from school they were missing out on their education and the responsibility lay between the schools and parents to get them through the doors.
Walsh said there were major social and economic consequences including lack of qualifications and poor literacy and numeracy - and bored students could get involved in petty crime.
Rotorua Principals Association president Rawiri Wihapi said hardships in communities meant some children may stay home to look after younger siblings while parents go to work.
Wihapi said lack of support for solo parents, low economic communities, drugs, alcohol, lack of food, homelessness and an inability to afford uniforms and stationery played a "big part in why children can't or don't attend school every day".
Otonga Rd Primary School principal Linda Woon said when children were absent frequently on Mondays and Fridays, it raised concerns.
Woon said the school had an average attendance rate of more than 90 per cent but was hit with "awful bugs" last winter, which lowered attendance to 88 per cent.
The biggest concern for school was children arriving late, Woon said, and just 15 minutes late each day added up to over an hour a week.
"It sets them on the back foot for the day," she said.
Rotorua McDonald's manager Ailafo Semi said the number of students who came in during school hours in their uniform had increased in the past two years.
Semi said students would tell her there was no point going to school because the content they learned was not something they would need in the future.
The Ministry of Education's Katrina Casey said working with Bay schools to stop the downward trend and get more children attending school regularly was a priority.
However, Casey said the ministry could only do so much.
"Parents need to take attendance at school seriously. It is the parent or caregiver's responsibility to ensure their child attends school if they are not sick or have another legitimate reason to be absent."
Casey said the ministry supported educators, leaders and providers to have higher expectations to ensure students want to attend school and tailored learning to meet the needs of learners of all abilities. That included strengthening school leadership, a localised curriculum and pastoral care.
Locally, that included the Rotorua Working Together group's Engaging Rangatahi in Positive Pathways initiative - known as Pūtake Nui - which worked alongside Te Waiariki Purea Trust and the attendance service.
"Our Māori education adviser is working closely with the central Rotorua schools on an initiative whereby home-visits are undertaken to offer wraparound supports that enable re-engagement with education."
The 2019 Schools Attendance Survey
• The attendance report looks at data generated by the voluntary 2019 Attendance Survey taken during Term 2, between the end of April and the beginning of July.
Definitions of attendance:
• Attendance data was collected for each student for each day of the term. Other information about the student and school were also collected.
• Students who were enrolled for less than 30 half-days during Term 2 have been excluded from this report.
• Students attending regularly are defined as having attended more than 90 per cent of all school time in Term 2, where time is measured in half-days.
Source: Ministry of Education