On any given day 29,000 students skip school – the equivalent of Blenheim's entire population missing from class.
And serial truants, who may be bunking school to smoke drugs, babysit younger siblings or help with household chores, are already on the road to prison or welfare dependency, a prominent principal says.
Two Palmerston North teens the Sunday Star-Times spoke to admitted they regularly missed school because they were too hung over or stoned. And, when they were in class, they felt bored.
Sam* said he had regularly skipped school since the age of 13.
"[School] was boring and dumb and I didn't know what to do," he said. "I just wanted to get stoned and hang out with my mates."
Now 14, he said since joining an alternative education centre he was attending class because the lessons were interesting.
His fate could have been different if he continued on the truancy track, he said.
"I would have dropped out of school. I would have got into more trouble and probably been locked up."
Peter*, 14, also admitted to skipping a few classes a week because school was boring.
"Sometimes you get stoned, sometimes you can't be bothered and sometimes you're hung over from the night before."
The latest Ministry of Education truancy report revealed 10 per cent of children miss school each day.
The Government injected $4 million to battle truancy two years ago, but it made only a minor dent in truancy rates.
The funding equated to a thousand fewer students skipping school compared with 2010. In some areas truancy actually increased, and the Maori and Pacific Island truancy rates remain double those of the rest of the school population.
Students attending schools in deprived areas or poorer regions were more likely to be truants.
Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh said parents sometimes encouraged children as young as 8 to skip classes. "Children are staying home to look after siblings or do housework and other activities in the home," he said.
"Some have to make the beds, get the breakfast ready and do the shopping."
Often these families live transient lifestyles, making it difficult for schools and social agencies to track them.
The longer students spend outside the classroom, the more likely they are to end up illiterate, welfare dependent and living a life of crime, he said.
"In areas where there's high truancy we need more resources in the form of truancy officers who are well-known in the community."
A Mangere school was having success after hiring a Samoan truancy officer who could visit homes and encourage children to return to school, he said.
In the case of Sam and Peter, the teens were now attending class more often since swapping mainstream school for the Highbury Whanau Centre in Palmerston North.
Whanau Centre co-ordinator Anjali Butler said she dealt with chronic truants who often came from high-risk families.
"It is not an uncommon theme to have drugs and alcohol in their life from a young age – often well before they get to high school."
Many arrive at high school unable to cope with education and they get lost within the system, she said.
The centre forms a relationship with students' whanau and tries to combat wider social issues, such as alcohol addiction or family support.
"It's not a matter of picking them up and chucking them back in schools, because they'll just walk out again."
The students who fall through the gaps usually appear in the system later as teen pregnancies or criminals, she said.
Education Minister Hekia Parata said rather than throwing more funding at truancy officers, the community had to take responsibility.
"Parents and communities are the lead people responsible for their children being at school. Principals and boards are responsible for offering an engaging programme."
Parata said the Government's investment into decreasing truancy was a long-term project and it was battling the issue at a number of levels, including monitoring attendance electronically and prosecuting parents.
"I'm completely happy with the investments we've made."
* The Sunday Star-Times has not used the teens' real names because of their ages.
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