NZ's teacher shortage will exacerbate our alarming truancy rate

by The Listener / 04 October, 2018
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If the Government doesn't reward teachers fairly, truancy will only get worse and – as the Fraser High principal tried to say – so will poverty, health and drug outcomes.

Decisions have consequences. If the Government thinks it’s keeping a fiscal problem at bay by refusing to move closer to meeting teachers’ pay demands, it will have a much worse problem before this year is out: more classrooms without teachers.

The teacher shortage is now so acute, some principals predict they’ll soon have to park students in assembly halls for some periods. Whole subjects are already going untaught in some schools because of a growing international shortage of qualified teachers in key subjects.

This will be catastrophic for the “smart economy”. More immediately, it will feed what the Ministry of Education now acknowledges is an urgent, intractable problem: truancy. Already, an alarming 4.5% of school children miss so much school their future options and well-being are severely restricted.

The teacher shortage will not be addressed, as the Government hopes, by funding “extra teacher placements” and luring ex-teachers back with refresher courses. The crisis is growing primarily because, between 2010 and 2016, 40% fewer new people were attracted to the profession and existing teachers are leaving, their pay inadequate for the increasingly challenging role they play.

Other countries, including Australia and Britain, also have chronic shortages, and our teacher salaries are too low to attract them as migrants anyway. We will simply have to pay to bolster the profession. The risk of flow-on wage pressures in the economy pales beside that of a poorly educated future New Zealand.

Highlighting teacher desperation was Fraser High School principal Virginia Crawford’s shock-tactic attempt to dissuade her students from wagging school. Her teachers have to drive around to pick up truants – not their job – and are losing the battle, with a former staff member claiming up to 100  students a day are wagging.

Crawford told students what dismal statistics awaited truants, and she was largely correct. Lack of educational attainment is a reliable predictor of low pay or unemployment, which in turn often contributes to poor nutrition and health, and the temptation of drugs, booze and/or crime. High illiteracy statistics among prison inmates are not coincidental. Crawford included coded references to the vulnerability of truants to gang recruitment and other sorts of predation. Where she went too far was in linking truancy to domestic violence, rape and suicide. These are fates people in any walk of life may face.

Such “tough love” tactics seldom, of course, change behaviour, which is why the ministry is urgently exploring more positive truancy-reduction measures. But some of the public rebuttal of Crawford’s message suggested truancy was a harmless lark.

Let’s get real. New Zealand’s truancy rate is worsening, according to the OECD – not a sign of our youngsters’ superior spirits. Again, decisions have consequences.

To tell youngsters who regularly skip school that they can catch up later or go back and get qualifications when they’re older is so misleading as to be cruel. For most, school is a one-time chance to maximise life’s options and acquire the skills to be a lifelong learner. The time and financial hurdles in getting qualifications later are enormous.

Truancy, confoundingly, has many factors, as teachers well know. They deal with it all: from kids with troubled and transient home lives through to kids who simply can’t stay awake because of too much sleep-disruptive social media screen time. Hunger is, thankfully, no longer the barrier it once was, as most schools now have “breakfast clubs” – often run by, yes, teachers.

The complaint that schools fail to engage kids is spurious. Computer technology, art, kapa haka, drama, fashion, sport – today’s schools offer immensely student-friendly fare. The ministry’s tentative suggestion that “fun” subjects be scheduled first thing and after lunch prompted a reminder from principals that schools are not entertainment venues, even if such schedules were possible in colleges. To reading, writing, science and maths, it’s important to add self-discipline, concentration and the resilience to endure being a bit bored – all necessary skills for work and life.

We expect teachers to do much heavy lifting in our children’s life-skills development, and to engage students with physical and mental-health challenges, and those with families often too distracted by their own overwhelming issues to foster their children’s learning.

But if we don’t reward teachers sufficiently, they too will avoid school, and children will be all the poorer for it.

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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