The Politics of Truancy in 1992
During April and May 1992, the problem of school truancy received headline treatment in the media. Amongst the claims made were that the rate of school truancy had increased markedly since the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms, that individual schools had neither the time nor the resources to police truancy and that students were “slipping through the cracks” opened up by the reform process. As a result of the media attention, the Ministers of Education and Social Welfare brought out a new policy statement on truancy in mid-1992.
The issue of truancy encapsulates many of the broader problems that schools are encountering as a result of the reform process. Although truancy is, perhaps, the oldest educational problem in New Zealand, a number of factors have combined to make it also a new problem; one that has required new responses. These factors, in brief, are as follows:
- The restructuring of the school system has devolved the responsibility for dealing with truancy to boards of trustees;
- Despite a greatly increased overall retention rate to the senior school, there is some evidence that a small group of relatively young students continue to be alienated from the schooling system, and are persistent truants – and that this alienation may be increasing (Taylor, 1992);
- The raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1993 is likely to increase the level of truancy, as some young people are prevented from leaving school; and
- The new trend of social conservatism, evident in the discourse of parental responsibility, is tending to blame individual families for school truancy.
In a sense, then, the issue of truancy is simply one aspect of a much broader movement in education and throughout the state. Elements of the marketisation of education and its effects are clearly evident: the devolution of state responsibility, the increasing gap between rich and poor (or, in this case, school stayers and the disaffected), and the social authoritarianism which has become a characteristic of the National Government. At the same time, however, the contradictions of the market are also visible in this policy. On the one hand, the state wishes to maintain, and even extend, compulsory schooling, whilst on the other hand the responsibility for non-compliance is firmly vested in the parents, or consumers of education.
Above all, truancy is a social issue. This paper will show that research studies in New Zealand demonstrate that Maori rates of truancy are comparatively high. Truancy is also high amongst the pakeha working class. New methods of dealing with truancy, then, impact most heavily on these groups. The authoritarian “blame the victim” responses being advocated by the state are thus a direct attack on the least powerful groups in our schooling system.
The first part of this paper briefly examines the background to truancy in New Zealand schools, up to and including the changes and effects of the 1989 Education Act, which devolved responsibility for truancy to boards of trustees. The second section examines issues that arise from the new policy, which revolve around the changing role of the state and its effects. The final section examines political responses to truancy in 1992 within the economic and social context, focussing on the effects of the new “rules”. The conclusion will consider the educational implications of the current truancy problem.
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