Truancy

Truancy is a scandal, but don’t blame the kids

It may not shock you to learn that regular school attendance is crucial to students’ learning. What is shocking is the extent of truancy and attendance problems in Australian schools.

A recent Productivity Commission report shows that around 1 in 3 Australian school students skip a day of school per fortnight. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found a similar result.

The absentee problem is worse in socio-economically disadvantaged areas and especially in more remote locations, exacerbating existing educational gaps.

Australia compares poorly in international comparisons on attendance. Across the OECD, around 1 in 5 15-year-old students misses a day per fortnight. In the highest-performing school systems, it’s around 1 in 8 — or even as few as 1 in 50 in several East Asian education systems.

Irregular attendance results in not only less time in class learning, but also creates longer-term disconnects in students’ study patterns that are hard for teachers to bridge.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a close link between students’ attendance and many other educational and related outcomes — including likelihood of dropping out of school, unemployment, and engagement with the justice system.

For this reason, turning truancy around is essential to reviving Australia’s educational ambitions. But Australian students skipping school is a symptom, not the cause, of our declining school performance.

The roots of this problem predate the disruption caused by home-based learning as a result of Covid-19.

Although it’s certainly feasible that normalising online schooling might have devalued face-to-face schooling, the data to date don’t show a consistent trend that could verify this thesis.

Some states with virtually no school closures during the height of the pandemic have seen similar trends in attendance to those with greater restrictions. In Victoria, student attendance actually increased from 2019 to 2021.

It’s also difficult to attribute increased absenteeism to more acute socio-economic disadvantage.

While it’s certainly true that exceedingly complex factors do conspire against regular school attendance, there’s no reason to believe that the number of households impacted by these conditions has dramatically increased in recent years.

Historically low unemployment rates and relatively high support payments during recent years may have alleviated, rather than amplified, the number of students in households at risk of persistent truancy.

In fact, OECD analysis shows the major greatest risk factors for low attendance are low achievement, low educational expectations, and poor classroom management. While students’ sense of belonging and their socio-economic status are related to attendance levels, they’re relatively small players in the picture.

Instead, it’s the controllable things within the classroom — not those outside it — that best explain students’ attendance. The good news is this means there are many things we can do to get kids to school.

Highly interactive, guided, and fast-paced instruction is characteristic of Australia’s best classrooms. High quality teaching keeps children engaged and at grade-level expectations. In schools that consistently teach well, students regularly come to school.

Also, in well-run classes there’s minimal disruption, students remain on task, and there’s a well-understood approach toward addressing misbehaviour.

Over the 77 school systems in the most recent PISA international comparison, Australia ranked 70th — making our schools among the most disruptive in the world. At the same time, a large proportion of our graduate teachers say they’re underprepared to manage the classroom.

It’s for this reason that the not-so-secret sauce for turning around flailing attendance is to skill up teachers in delivering quality instruction and managing the room.

Moreover, for disadvantaged schools, CIS analysis has shown that, in many high-performing schools, committed educators and community provide students and families support to address high risk factors. In some schools, very consistent lesson materials mean educators can more readily catch students up when a gap appears.

Skilling up the teacher workforce is among the greatest of education policy’s current challenges, but one that demands the full attention of policymakers. This will require trainee teachers spending more time in the classroom, with training that matches the demands of schools not education academics, and armed with teaching practices aligned with evidence-based practice.

The first foot in the door for educational recovery is that students are regularly in class. If we’re to raise students’ attendance, we must first raise teaching.

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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