Editorial: New approach to truancy

Time is almost up for SASH, the School Attendance Service Hamilton, and other provincial providers of truancy services. The District Truancy Service (run from local schools) and Non-Enrolled Truancy Service, (run by the Ministry of Education) will be replaced next year by an integrated countrywide service.

The change doubtless is aimed at improving an unjustified absence rate of 4 per cent - 29,000 children absent from school a day - which has been relatively steady since 2006. The country is being broken into 18 regions in a restructuring, affecting some 150 truancy officers employed by 76 local schools and not-for-profit organisations.

The size of the Waikato region - now served by several local truancy services - made it unrealistic for any of the existing services to tender for the contract, SASH chief executive Jim Church has been quoted as saying. The National Urban Maori Authority has much more muscle. It has won contracts for truancy services in Hamilton, north-west Auckland and Wellington.

Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh has questioned why the service is being changed, saying - by and large - it has worked well for a number of years. But change was foreshadowed in an evaluation conducted by consultants Martin Jenkins in 2009. The firm's report said many truancy officers were providing a range of social services and it advised the Government to, "review resourcing to allow truancy management services to balance reactive and proactive aspects of their role". The report also called for the establishment of formal partnerships with other agencies that operate in the truancy area ("to establish cohesion across the different agencies") and for clearer mandates and accountabilities.

The Government announced a "fundamental rethink of [our] approach to student attendance, engagement and behaviour" a few months later.

As Mr Church observed, it has taken the ministry until now to come up with a model of how they want the system to work. He was caustically philosophic: "I guess if you have faith in the Minister of Education, you'd say they have made the right decision to implement this new scheme." The Minister is Hekia Parata. In light of her track record this year, and that of her ministry, we have cause to be nervous.