A recent Ministry of Education report showed only 40% of students attended school regularly in the second term of 2022.

Politicians, educators, and commentators all jumped in to debate why this is.

But do you know who we haven’t heard from? The students.

So we reached out to students in the Re: News audience to ask why they think attendance was this low. 

By the Ministry’s definition, a student had to attend 90% of classes during the term to have regular attendance. This means you would only have to miss four days in a 10-week term to fall outside of this.

While this is arguably a low threshold, the number of people meeting it has dropped a lot in the last decade. By this definition, attendance was almost 75% in 2011, 60% in 2020, and now less than 40% in 2022.

Students from across Aotearoa reached out to us to give their insights into the falling school attendance rates. Many were thrilled to be asked, instead of just talked about.

“We, as high school students, are being used as a political tool which right-sided politicians are using to trick people into thinking the youth are stupid and lazy. Instead of calling us names and using us, they should actually be helping us,” wrote a Year 13 student from Palmerston North.

Covid has disrupted everything

Term two this year was the peak of the Omicron outbreak in Aotearoa, causing many students to miss school due to being Covid-positive and/or having to isolate when their families were.

A parent said the fear of Covid has also impacted students’ willingness to go to school.

“My teen is paranoid about getting or giving Covid. [He] stays home every time he is even a bit unwell because he doesn't want to get others sick. That's the vast majority of his absences in the past two years.”

Many said the pandemic has disrupted their education and their engagement with school.

One student wrote: “Covid has really fucked everyone over. Year 13s this year have had every year of NCEA affected by Covid and it is so tiring. It’s so hard to stay focused at school and it feels so easy to skip class or stay home.”

A shift to online learning

By far, the largest response from students was saying the pandemic had changed the way they want to engage with school.

The pandemic led to schools introducing ways to attend classes, study, and complete assignments online at home, and many people said they found this a much more productive way to learn.

A Year 12 student wrote they have bad attendance but good grades because they have largely continued working from home since the pandemic.

“[Covid made me realise] how unproductive some parts of the school day are. It used to be that you couldn't really pass without going to school everyday, but now teachers post everything online and most things can be completed online, making the drudgery of getting up early, going to school in uniform, having to sit through lessons etc… feel a lot less worth it.”

Many people echoed this, saying they felt like they have more energy to learn when they don’t have to expend it getting up early, commuting, and dealing with the “overstimulating, loud classroom environments”.

“Even as a student who cares a lot about my grades, I often find myself spacing out in class and not learning anyways. I think the way school is structured is outdated and inefficient, and should be more flexible,” one student wrote.

Even though students have been asked to return to school since the pandemic, many said the bulk of their work has remained in the same digital forms they adopted during Covid.

“Me and my friends have spent entire school days on Chromebooks and wondered ‘why am I here at all?’”

Mental health crisis

The other major theme was young people saying they weren't attending school regularly because of their mental health.

Many people wrote that they struggled with depression, anxiety, and burnout, and that their schools had not provided the support they needed to deal with it.

One student who recently finished school wrote:“I suffered from severe anxiety and undiagnosed ADHD and did not get the support I needed from school. I was too anxious to attend - this led to bullying and getting picked on by teachers which made me hate going even more. I would say for every school year, I was present only 50% of days and missed Year 10 completely. Schooling is not accessible for many with mental health issues and disabilities.”

Students told Re: News Covid had made the mental health of many students worse, and the gaps in mental health support more glaring.

“It’s becoming increasingly worse for young people in the country and, without a mental health system that actually helps, it becomes incredibly draining and hard for students to do anything.”

One student said on top of this, they see a “widespread nihilism and disillusionment” among young people because of the state of the world and the pressures of social media.

“When students have little faith that things will work out or that anything truly matters, they become unmotivated.” 

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