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Dunne's Weekly: Get The Kids Going Back To School

The debate about the Treaty of Waitangi is running away from the government because ACT is on a mission about its Treaty Principles Bill. Nothing, it seems, is likely to deter it from proceeding, with every attack or criticism appearing to provide more grist to David Seymour’s mill.

National’s reply that it has only agreed to support the Bill as far as its select committee stage looks increasingly plaintive and meaningless. For a start, most people are insufficiently aware of the Parliamentary process to know what that means in practice. All they hear is National’s somewhat confusing message that while it does not agree with the Bill, it will still vote for it being introduced to Parliament.

At present, the focus on ACT’s Bill and National’s limp response are creating the impression that that is all the government is focused on. National desperately needs to break out of the straitjacket it has been trapped in by its coalition partner and start to focus on its own agenda. Otherwise, it will continue to be sidetracked and upstaged by ACT.

Educational achievement could be the circuit breaker National needs. It has already promised to require primary and intermediate schools to teach an hour of reading, writing and maths a day in the belief that will help boost literacy and numeracy levels. But before that policy can have any effect there is a more basic issue that needs to be addressed.

Children need to be at school to learn – and right now, they are not. Figures released by the Ministry of Education show that only 45.9% of students were attending school or kura regularly in Term 3 of 2023. That figure was down marginally from 46% for the same period in 2022, and well down from the 62.3% recorded at the height of the pandemic in 2020. There is surely something seriously wrong with our education system, and the value we place upon it, when most children are not going to school on a regular basis. The highest attendance rate in recent years was a mere 63.1% in 2021, but even that figure is unacceptably low by any reasonable standards.

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There is no getting away from the fact that standards of educational achievement for young people in New Zealand will not improve while so many seem to have opted out from the educational system. The reasons for this may be many and varied, but they are essentially all just excuses. Parents are simply failing their children big-time by not insisting and ensuring that they are at school far more regularly. And educators just seem resigned to accepting this as the new reality. The excuse that the drop-off in recent years has been a consequence of the pandemic is no longer relevant and is now simply a cop-out for parental irresponsibility and government lethargy.

Last week, Prime Minister Luxon drew attention to low Māori school attendance rates at a meeting with iwi leaders. He said it was the responsibility of both iwi leaders and the government to do something about that. But unfortunately, it appeared that he was singling out just Māori children for attention when the low school attendance crisis is widespread across the whole population. And that means the solution must be a whole-of-society one, even if elements of it will need to be targeted to specific areas of need.

Nevertheless, there are clearly special issues affecting Māori children. Just 33.7% of Māori students regularly attended school or kura in Term 3 in 2023, up slightly on the comparable figure for 2022. The government needs to work actively alongside parents and iwi leaders to address those.

Education Minister Erica Stanford says she is “relentlessly focused” on lifting achievement and that tackling truancy and improving attendance rates are high on her list of priorities, including potential changes to reporting and enforcement action. These pledges should be largely welcomed by parents and teachers, but the crisis is urgent, as the latest figures show. The Minister will therefore need to have definitive plans ready to put in place sooner rather than later.

The overwhelming majority of New Zealand parents want the best for their children. Getting more of them going to school more often is a win-win for all concerned. Better education is good for both children and their families and benefits all of society. It is an ambition all can unite around.

At a time when social divisions are at risk of becoming deeper, unity of purpose regarding our children’s educational futures, regardless of their current circumstances, has the potential to bridge some of the gaps now appearing. An active and comprehensive government-led campaign to get the kids back to school to boost their achievement might also help get National off the ACT-baited hook it is currently wriggling on.

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