The issue of student absenteeism is again gaining the attention of government and community activists, but this time it’s with a difference.
As opposed to student attendance being seen as an economic driver as it has so often been seen as the past, it is now defined as a student welfare issue and a community safety and wellness issue, thanks to Point Powerline (Focus on root causes for downtown safety: advocacy group, Feb. 13).
Kudos to the two most recent ministers of education for picking up this issue and making it a priority in a study task force and the education review.
While there is little disagreement about the presumed benefits of children’s regular attendance at school, seemingly few education systems outside the totalitarian world have been able to achieve full and regular attendance. This in spite of the fact education is considered a universal human right and all governments have compulsory school attendance in their legislation.
The issue has variously been described as an implementation problem, a home problem, a school problem and a peer-group problem, with plenty of blame to go around. It is, of course, all of the above, none of which are solely to blame and all of which require significant supports, active (sometimes radical) interventions and concerted commitment by all parties involved.
What probably is true that it is more an issue requiring collaborative action than further blame or political pronouncements and policies.
The first task is to make sure children do not get lost in the system — a concern most urgent for those who move from school to school or between school systems. For example, most urban schools now contact the homes when students do not show up, but this is more difficult if there is no phone or if the student is not registered. Our tracking systems are haphazard, and follow-up from sending schools virtually non-existent.
The fault is not entirely with the system, as some children experience a great many moves, sometimes within the same year, and schools are not always informed when a family has moved or where they have moved to. When that happens, too often children simply disappear from the radar because the effort to find them appears hopeless. This situation obviously needs addressing and, with today’s technologies, should be fixable.
Second, when children — particularly pre-teens and early teens, which is when most children opt out if they are going to — are absent, there needs to be immediate follow-up to determine the reasons and rectify the situations which are causing them to be absent. The longer the time between regular attendance, the less likely young people of this age will return to and stay in school.
The reasons vary as much as the children — lack of success in school, discipline and punishment as the consequence for being absent or late, or peer group pressure from others in the same circumstances, to name a few.
Third, and I appreciate the premier’s open frustration with this concern — one which this government has begun to address in its children-in-care system — is the issue of social-services territories. Schools, public health, social workers, probation officers and social assistance agencie have been reluctant to share information about children and families with each other, meaning each of them is disadvantaged by having only partial information about important matters.
While we need to be careful about protecting people’s privacy, children’s welfare and well-being — as in child protection — should trump most perceived privacy concerns. For that matter, each of these agencies already acts that way independently; current attempts to encourage open sharing and collaborative efforts are simply not meeting the mark.
Finally, no solution will work without the involvement of, and attention paid to, the caregivers of the children missing school and to the children themselves. This is primarily an adult issue, as children should not have the option not to attend as they generally do not understand or acknowledge the long-term consequences of their actions, but children must be involved in the solution.
My experience has been that they are very open about their non-attendance — revealing troubling home situations, feeling unwelcome or unsuccessful in school, recognizing their learning difficulties, and diagnosing their own fears and anxieties about matters like acceptance and bullying. This may be the hardest challenge of all.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the current efforts will bring a measure of attention and success we have not experienced to date. Hopefully, those systems that experience success will be willing to share their stories with others. And hopefully we will, for the sake of children and our world, not let children disappear from view, only to surface again in some unpleasant and destructive ways.
John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.
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