Hundreds of kids dropping off school rolls
Hundreds of Waikato children disappear from the education system each year after failing to be enrolled in school - and, in some cases, authorities have no idea where they are.
A total of 675 non-enrolled truancy cases involving Waikato students were investigated and closed by the Ministry of Education last year.
A majority were at secondary level, but more than 100 involved children missing from primary schools.
The figures do not include open investigations, or cases where the ministry has failed to find the absent student or their family.
"In these cases we may need to involve the Police or Child, Youth and Family or Work and Income to try and locate the family," the ministry says.
The figures, made public under the Official Information Act, show there was a decline in non-enrolled truancy cases in the Waikato last year from 834 in 2011.
However, Waikato's unexplained absence rate remains higher than the national average and was the third highest in the country last year behind Northland and Gisborne, according to the Attendance in New Zealand Schools report, released this month.
The region's frequent truant rate - the number of students who had three or more absences during the survey week - was also above the national average.
Rhode Street School principal Shane Ngatai said his school did not have a high truancy rate, but he has been involved with non-enrolled truancy cases.
"We had one particular chap who had been out of school for nearly six months. He just basically fell off the radar," he said.
"The Ministry had no forwarding address and no way to find this particular child until his dad actually walked in with him one day and said ‘can you please enrol my son'."
The boy had been removed from another school during his parents' custody battle and was missing from the education system until he arrived at Rhode Street.
Many non-enrolled cases involved children from broken or transient families, or stemmed from financial difficulty, he said, but warned that children absent from primary schools were missing their most important years of education.
"For some it's habitual, it's within the family. The parents didn't value education themselves when they went to school.
"A lot of these non-attendees are perpetual reoffenders."
Waikato Integrated Attendance Service team leader Jim Church, who has been working as a truancy officer for 19 years, said he has more than 100 non-enrolled truancy cases that are still open.
He starts by tracking down the families, sometimes with the help of police and other social agencies, but said there were rare cases where missing students could not be found.
"There are a few that we have not been able to locate at this stage."
Mr Church said the new attendance service, which started in January, provided greater support for young people and their families and he was confident the truancy rate would drop.
"I don't think I've spoken to a whanau yet that's totally resistant," he said. "They're all out there, I believe, wanting the best for their young people."
However, with a team of seven covering the whole region, he said the biggest challenge was resourcing.
"In saying that, we're doing a good job with what we've got."
Melville High School principal Clive Hamill said the new attendance service had been working well for urban schools, but his colleagues in rural areas were not receiving the same level of support.
Number of non-enrolled truancy cases closed in Waikato 2012
Primary year 1-8: 75
Primary year 1-6: 37
Intermediate year 7-8: 24
Secondary year 9-15: 424
A non-enrolled case is generated 20 days after a student leaves one school and does not enrol in another school. The numbers exclude all cases where the student was later found to be enrolled in school, is exempt from enrolment, is home-schooled, or has moved overseas.