This election, we’re looking at the key issues affecting young voters, breaking down stats on the reality of the situation, what young voters think about it, and later, once they’re all announced, the policies from different parties on the issue.

Let’s look at school absence. 

If you don’t go to school your parents will get fined - if ACT has its way in Government. Party leader David Seymour’s proposal, which he says will solve our truancy crisis, has caused a stir.

Re: News journalist Anna Harcourt’s breakdown of ACT’s policy on our TikTok got over 240,000 views and nearly a thousand comments. 

“My daughter has a 53% attendance rate. As a result of her extreme anxiety. How is fining me going to help?,” one person commented.

“Kind of a joke if some of the truancy is related to poverty, I can imagine it becoming a mess to prove things like illness,” another person said.

Currently, parents can only be fined for a student's lack of attendance after a court conviction, but ACT wants it to be more like a speeding ticket where the parents can be fined on the spot. 

“Only one family has been handed a fine for their children’s truancy in five years under s244 of the Education and Training Act 2020. Where’s the accountability for parents?,” Seymour said in the policy breakdown.

“New Zealand is not passing enough knowledge from one generation to the next to maintain first-world status.”

So how bad is school attendance in New Zealand?

Attendance is getting slightly better in 2023, but we are still behind pre-pandemic levels (and way behind other similar countries).

School attendance was at 70% in 2015, but then declined to just 40% in 2022.

In term one of 2023, the most recent data available, attendance is back up to 59.5%.

By the Ministry of Education’s definition, a student has 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.

In February of this year, the Labour government announced $74 million for a truancy package to improve school attendance, including creating 82 ‘attendance officer’ roles. The aim is to reach 70% of students regularly attending school by 2024 and 75% by 2026.

Attendance was falling before Covid-19

The last four years have been significantly disruptive for students, with Covid-19 lockdowns, teacher strikes and extreme weather events. But attendance has been falling since 2015 - before all of this kicked off. 

And when we compare New Zealand’s attendance with other countries - we can see there is a systemic issue.

A comparison by the Ministry of Education found New Zealand’s attendance is lower than in Australia, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Source: Ministry of Education

So why are so many students skipping school?

The Ministry of Education says the main reason for absence in 2023 is “medical reasons” - noting how Covid-19, and other illnesses, are keeping both students and staff at home.

However, research by the Education Evaluation Centre found many more complex reasons impact a student’s attendance. 

Learning factors

Learners with emotional and behavioural challenges were found to be up to seven times more likely to have unjustified absences from school than those with low to moderate challenges.

This means the degree to which basic needs are being met, relationships between teachers and peers and feeling safe and successful at school are huge contributors.

New Zealand’s high rates of mental illness in young people was also found to be impacting student’s attendance. 

Family factors

Ministry of Education research found that family function, “including disadvantage, dysfunction, or conflictual home environments”, is the strongest predictor of school truancy.

Falling attendance may also reflect families struggling to manage the cost of living. TVNZ journalist Indira Stewart found students at Tamaki College were working up to 47 hours a week to help support their families.

The research also found New Zealand has a relatively low earnings premium for education - this means the difference in earnings for different levels of education - so starting work early can be seen as more attractive compared to continuing with education. 


Bullying in schools is another reason for absences, the research found. Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of bullying in the OECD. 

In 2019, 46% of primary-age students and 31% of secondary-age students reported having been bullied at their current school.

Parents’ attitudes

The same report by the Education Evaluation Centre found parents' attitudes and leniency for school attendance also play a major role in attendance.

It found 41% of parents were comfortable with their child missing a week or more of school a term.

Nearly half of parents would keep their child out of school for mental health challenges and more than a third would keep their child out of school to avoid bullying.

Māori and Pasifika parents are more likely to keep their child out of school due to bullying, illness, and mental health challenges.

Ministry of Education data shows schools across all deciles have declining absences - however, the drop has been most significant for low-decile schools, and Māori and Pasifika students. 

So is it a crisis?

Re: News spoke with some high school students about this and found some students do not see New Zealand’s low attendance as a crisis because students can work from home. 

“I feel like now that Covid-19 has happened, people think they can do work at home because they assign work for home now,” one student said.

“It’s not a crisis I don’t think. Because people who are ‘truant’, are still doing their work.”

However, the headmaster at St Peter's College in Auckland James Bentley says these students do not see what teachers see.

“Students only see what is happening in their school, and their school might be fine, their social group might be fine. But the stats across the country do not lie. There’s no question, it's absolutely a crisis.”

Absences are impacting people’s learning

Bentley says it’s clear absences are impacting students' learning. 

“We're seeing a growing problem of students coming into the secondary system from primary schools, who are well below where they need to be because they have had four years of interruptions,” he says.

And for high schoolers, the number of students leaving school with NCEA Level 2 or above in 2022 was at the lowest level in a decade.

In 2022, 75.0% of all school leavers attained NCEA Level 2 or above. This is a 4.1% decrease from 2021.

Source: Ministry of Education.

“Our academic performance, as a country, is declining,” Bentley says. “Unfortunately, there's going to be ramifications on that in the future when we have an uneducated workforce.”

Bentley says he doesn’t blame students for this, it is the system that is not working.

“The biggest problem we have is we need to have a really good quality teaching supply. We don't have that. And so every school is crying out for good teachers to fill the gaps.”

At the same time, he says parents are struggling to cope at home, which means “getting the kids to school, unfortunately, is something that has slipped”.

“Schools need to be given the resources to work with families to get the kids into school. I don't think fining them is the way to go."

‘School attendance needs a cross-party solution’

Bentley says despite political parties saying education is a priority, it has become a “football that's been kicked around for many, many years”.

Instead, he wants politicians to agree on a cross-party approach to solve the issue.

“Parties actually need to sit down and speak to schools and see what we can offer because a lot of schools have really good ideas that could be used, but I don't think that's been tapped into.”

Keep an eye on Re: News in the weeks before the election - we’ll wrap up the key education policies each party will announce. 

And check out our other election coverage:

On trans rights, here’s stats on the situation, and what young voters think

On cost of living, here’s stats on the situation, and what young voters think.

On climate change, here’s stats on the situation, and what young voters think.

On dental health, here’s stats on the situation, and what young voters think.

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