Don’t blame the COVID pandemic for truancy.
Sliding attendance of Australia’s school students is a symptom of greater structural problems facing the education system. This makes turning it around a more pivotal but also more difficult task than in the past.
The latest Productivity Commission data shows that over the past two years, around 45 per cent of students miss a day of school per fortnight — a rate that has approximately doubled from the long-term average.
By international standards, Australian students have already compared unfavourably; especially compared to peers in several East Asian education school systems.
These trends are surprising for several reasons. First, while declining attendance has historically been limited to disadvantaged students, it is now impacting a wider distribution.
Over several years, small declines in attendance have been recorded, but this has almost exclusively been for students in the lowest quartile of educational advantage, while better off students have seen stable attendance levels. However, since 2022, all socio-educational groups have suffered near uniform declines.
And second, declining attendance didn’t take place during the pandemic but in its aftermath. Though many experts anticipated a pandemic of truancy during the home-based learning era — as was observed in other developed countries — this wasn’t the case in Australia.
The attendance rate in 2021 was near identical to the attendance level in 2019. Instead, the collapse in attendance was recorded in 2022 and 2023 has shown a sustained low level. This issue is of material importance for schools and education policymakers.
Not only does school absence result in missed time in the classroom on a given day, it also disrupts patterns of teaching and learning.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a close link between students’ attendance and many other educational and related outcomes — including the likelihood of dropping out of school, experiencing unemployment, and engagement with the justice system.
Importantly, research suggests it’s not just the overall number of absent days that is associated with achievement, but the reason why students are absent. Namely, regular ‘unauthorised’ absences — those generally for reasons other than illness — are most strongly related to poor outcomes, largely because this is potentially symptomatic of wider disengagement or behavioural concerns.
Three key drivers may mean that recent truancy trends could become permanent features of the education system rather than temporary blips on the scorecard.
First, increasing numbers of school truants are school refusers.
Over recent years, school refusal has skyrocketed into mainstream education practice and policy. Though the sector hasn’t yet conclusively defined ‘school refusal’, the Senate education committee recently handed down a report into the increasing rates of school refusers students who limit their engagement and attendance with schooling, largely because of mental health or related concerns.
As wider societal trends in mental health continue to grow, there is a risk that school refusal becomes more entrenched and normalised.
Second, parents have become more tolerant of truancy.
The recently-retired education watchdog in England, Amanda Spielman, made headlines over her conclusion that the social contract between parents and schools has been fractured. She rightly points to reduced stigma over truancy largely coming from parents —don’t blame the COVID pandemic for truancy particularly for so-called ‘middle class reasons’, such as taking time off for family holidays.
Troublingly, she warned that the partnership between the home and school is fragile, was built and consolidated slowly, and could take many years to restore.
Third, governments have failed to value attendance as a key outcome.
Though the role of outcome targets has been touted as a key objective of renegotiated agreements between Canberra and the states, this has recently become increasingly muted.
A report prepared for Education Minister Jason Clare recently recommended explicit attendance targets that would return this outcome to the historical average. However, last week’s first agreement on the new terms of funding conspicuously delayed the commitment to targets entirely.
Moreover, in some states — most notably in NSW — previous attendance targets for each schools have since been watered down. In addition, although the 2014 Closing the Gap targets had a focus on school attendance, but by the 2020 revision the attendance target was dropped.
The failure of school systems to successfully meet expected attendance levels is especially jarring given the current major debate dominating education policy that is almost solely dominated by lobbying for ever-increasing resourcing.
That is because, while the amount of public funding into the system is higher and growing faster than any other time in recent history, it is also overseeing historically low attendance. Put crudely, more money is not only not only producing poorer results, but also resulting in fewer students in class in the first place.
Educators and policymakers must confront these factors to ensure we do not come to tolerate permanently lower attendance rates as we arguably have for historically poor achievement levels over the past two decades.
There are many challenges facing Australia’s education system and confronting educators and policymakers. Arguably, there’s nothing more essential than simply having students attending school to give them the best shot at learning.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Pixabay.