Editorial: Nobody's 'playing' truant

Truancy is declining in Southland. This is far more than a victory against childish mischief and larrikinism.

It's not even just that truancy is an identified driver of crime. It's worse than that.

It represents a disconnect from more than school. A path to isolation rather than a refuge from it. Or, sometimes, a path to a bonding with some highly unhealthy sub-communities.

Of 46 schools in Southland, only 35 frequent-truant referrals were received by the district truancy service in 2012. That's 22 fewer than the previous year.

Truancy officers aren't sucking up whatever praise is going. They, in turn, are commending the schools for their proactive approach, not just through quick-reaction techniques like texting parents sharpishly when pupils don't turn up to class, but also through the much more challenging tasks of keeping pupils engaged in school activities and programmes.

You don't need a terribly long memory to recall an altogether over-delicate approach to truancy, such as the 2003 call from the New Zealand Educational Institute for principals not to talk to the news media about procedures for checking the whereabouts of absent pupils. This on "compassionate grounds".

Back then, what's more, the law did not even require schools to contact parents on the day a child was unexplainedly absent; merely to record that absence. A thuddingly stupid approach.

In hindsight it was a key move in 2006 to set up that the Invercargill Student Support Network. It was a co-operative programme in which secondary schools, the police and other agencies connected ina single multi-disciplinary service.

Importantly, it kicked in not just once kids started being missing in action, but from the stage where there was a risk of them being suspended. It developed individualised plans, focusing on each pupil's strengths, and ensured a case manager provided family support, and helped access other community help as needed.

When, in 2007, a Southland parent faced a court charge after her son missed more than 100 half days of school, it was believed to be only the third such prosecution in five years. But things were getting edgy nationwide by 2009. Not only had the Government strengthened the penalties for prosecuted parents, but southern Judge Kevin Phillips was transferring truancy prosecutions from the Invercargill Youth Court to district court jurisdiction so the issue would receive more scrutiny in the public domain.

Then came a nationwide programme with a $200 million project charged, the Government said, with rescuing 30,000 teenagers from truancy, violence in schools and drop-out status.

Ministry restructuring of truancy services nationwide had the Southland model looking vulnerable, but the local support network, which encompassed rural areas as well as the city, has meshed - apparently well - with the reforms.

Another benefit is that there now appears to be more co-ordinated monitoring, and therefore intervention, in cases of "non-enrolled" truancy, where pupils have left one school without joining another within 20 days.

A perfect system now? Of course not. But the stakes are so high here that indicators of improvement are to be welcomed.

The Southland Times