We need to support the whole family when tackling truancy.

All of us would agree that education is vitally important for our children and young people’s future outcomes. It’s also true that good attendance at school is directly linked to good results.

It was therefore good to hear our State Government considering measures to reduce truancy in parliament this week. They are looking at family intervention and family conferencing as a measure to cut down on truancy levels. The Education Minister, John Gardener said this Bill is about ensuring our children are in school and believes that by introducing this bill we will see ‘stronger school communities and better educated children’ and it was really pleasing to hear that on the spot fining of parents is not part of this government’s truancy strategy. Any fines issues will be through the courts and as a last resort.

I was also pleased to hear that the Department for Education will get better at collecting data about truancy. In this way we will be able to ascertain the extent of the problem, particularly vis a vis the concerns of restricted attendance, suspension and exclusions that many community members have expressed to me. The issues of truancy and non-attendance are complex at the individual child and family level and collectively as a community.

Solutions lie beyond the classroom and school and require integrated practical supports that promote better engagement between schools and parents. These solutions should address education barriers including homelessness, violence and mental health, and should support and encourage parents’ re-engagement in their children’s learning.

Family Conferencing is one element of a complete package of support, although to be effective these conferences should be ‘offered’ as a problem solving exercise. Given the often strained and difficult relationships between families and schools, family conferences have the potential to drive a bigger wedge between family and education. For many families who are struggling day to day, they need to feel supported, encouraged and motivated to support their children to attend school.

Whilst each family’s situation is unique there are often common themes that impact on a parents own ability to get children to school, often due to physical and mental health issues, addictions and intellectual disability. For others, low income makes it difficult to provide resources like uniforms, clean clothes, food, excursions etc. For other families that have experienced domestic violence and abuse or for children who have parents for whom they are carers, the fear of other children finding out about their home-life or leaving mum or dad alone can be a factor. For families who are homeless, the continual moving around and staying temporarily with people can make attending school very difficult. There are also families with chaotic lives, where education is not valued and/or prioritised. Many of these families have long histories of intergenerational trauma.

The new approach to family intervention being promoted by Minister Gardner provides a great opportunity for us to do something different and very practical. We need hands on family focussed programs that are intense in nature, provide a trusted support person who can act as a broker between the school and family and do whatever is needed to support children to get to school. This might include getting kids up and ready for school and transporting them to school. It could take on the form of supporting school staff to respond to children’s behaviour and individual needs and assist parents with other needs like housing, literacy, counselling or financial support.

Truancy is complex and there are often many underlying issues. The child might be afraid to go to school because of bullying or learning needs, but a lot of times the parent has run out of strategies to get their child to go to school.

A whole family approach focused on whatever it takes to get children and young people to school and manage them at school over the long term is the game changer we need.

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Friday 22nd June 2018