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On Seymour, truancy, and how not to address a serious problem.

October 30th, 2022

ACT’s recently-released truancy policy is, even by the spectacularly dismal standards of most of David Seymour’s thought-dumps, quite inspirationally ridiculous. Nobody is denying that education is quite vitally important. But nobody who actually works in education would agree that ACT’s ideas for addressing attendance concerns would do anything to actually improve the these concerns. 

Seymour would like to impose infringement notices for parents whose children don’t attend school on quite the terms he would approve of. The policy ACT have published doesn’t include a number, so we’ll have to assume they’ll be comparable to the amounts that police can levy for speeding fines, which is what the policy likens these penalties to. And let’s not forget—a fine is only a punishment if you can’t afford it. For the wealthy, a fine is just another expense. Booking the family’s annual trip to Hawaii? Just add truancy fines as an other line in the budget, between the nasty flowered shirts and the business-class air fares. But for the parents of decile-1 schools that this policy purports to address, even the $30 which is the lowest current speeding fine is a substantial financial blow, one that quite possibly won’t get paid, which then serves only to lead the family further into the criminal-justice maze from which it becomes harder and harder to escape. 

So let’s not criminalise a problem needlessly, especially not before we’ve made an honest and fair attempt to understand it first. Seymour’s reactionary policy wants children found out of school returned to school by roving teams of truancy police. But has Seymour ever stopped to ask why those children might be out of school? 

I doubt it, but I have. I had to. I taught in a decile-1 south Auckland high school for eight years, and every day I was expected by my management to phone parents and find out why children in my classes had been absent that day. But it often wasn’t parents who were raising, or caring for, these children. It was often grandparents, or aunties, or big sisters—not, incidentally, the parents who Christopher Luxon says “had the kid, it’s your responsibility to make sure they have the education you never had.” 

And there were reasons—reasons that clearly don’t occur to David Seymour—why children weren’t in school. A child whose uniform was ripped, the family couldn’t afford a new one, and the child would be put in detention for being out of uniform. A child who was unwell, but didn’t have a sick note because the family couldn’t afford a visit to the GP. A child who missed the first lesson of the morning because she was dropping her little brothers off at primary school. A child who couldn’t get to school because it was pouring with rain and the family had no petrol for the car. There are myriad reasons, mainly revolving round the fact that the families of decile-1 schools live, by definition, in poverty that the Member for Epsom has no comprehension of. And as a result, those schools, and their students and families, have problems that require massively more nuanced thinking than David Seymour has shown himself capable of to date. 

He fails, for example, to take into account, the children who simply don’t need to be in school right now. Please believe me when I tell you that many children are simply not in an emotional or psychological place, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months at a time, to be in a classroom. You’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that for a small, but very significant, number of children, the classroom is the wrong place to be, and time away from school is better for them, better for their classmates and their learning, and better for the health and safety of everyone who has to share a classroom with them. 

Seymour does offer some financial support to schools, to be used to hire truancy officers who can whip children into school. He clearly doesn’t realise that this would duplicate the mahi of the attendance officers many schools already hire. And he clearly doesn’t realise that the money he wants to spend there might well be better spent on making low-decile schools a more attractive place for students to be. As a teacher, I hated coming to a school with roofs that leaked after a light rain, a heating system that failed annually and left me teaching in a classroom that registered only eight degrees Celsius, corridors so mouldy they were making students and teachers sick. 

Make schools attractive. Invest the money in building—not renovating, but building from scratch—schools that kids can feel welcome and wanted in. 

And try—go on, David, just try it—to pivot from the punitive and the criminalising to actually understanding the problem. It’s less viscerally satisfying, and it might not get the voters of Remuera frothing with righteous indignation at those wagging guttersnipes and their feckless parents. But it might just actually start to solve the problem. 

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