A ‘third way’ approach to truancy

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletters
12 May, 2023

New Zealand’s much-publicised truancy problem is not easy to get a handle on. Should we go for the carrot or the stick?

On the ‘carrot’ side of the ledger, some American commentators have suggested paying students to turn up to school. But here in New Zealand, the government has opted for the ‘stick’ approach, announcing $74M to pay for new attendance officers. ACT wants to use a bigger stick and issue on-the-spot fines to the parents of truant students.

But some of our innovative secondary schools have devised a clever, ‘third way’, approach to the problem. Their solution is to change the definition of school attendance.

Inspired by home-based learning during COVID lockdowns, they are implementing ‘working-from-home’ days for their students. This is a stroke of genius.

On working-from-home days, students do not have to attend school to be counted as attending. On those days, there is always full attendance.

Some parents may worry that their children will spend working-from-home days on their PlayStations or social media. What they don’t understand is that this is a feature, not a bug. In today’s classrooms, teachers are not supposed to teach anyway. Students direct their own learning.

A look at the New Zealand Curriculum shows us why parents have nothing to worry about.

The curriculum emphasises ‘key competencies’ more than old-fashioned subjects. We are told that young people need key competencies for life in the 21st century. They include things like managing themselves and relating to others.

It’s easy to see why personal management and social skills feature so prominently in a 21st century curriculum. But the way some critics talk, anyone would think that human beings had been organising themselves and interacting with one another from time immemorial.

There’s no better way for teenagers to learn self-management than to make key learning decisions for themselves on their working-from-home days. Which game to play? Which posts to like? These are difficult choices. But young people must learn to take responsibility for life’s crucial decisions.

And what better way to learn about relationships than by posting selfies or chatting with friends on Instagram? The future, after all, is online.

Yes, working-from-home days are perfect for 21st century learning. They side-line teachers and put student agency in the forefront. They foster the key competencies.

And if every day was a working-from-home day, we would have no truancy at all.

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