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Sergeant Simon Cornish, second right middle row, with members of the Manurewa Youth Engagement team and the Blue Light's Youth Services team at Leabank Primary School where they enjoyed lunch with pupils during their "250 Doors Knocked" initiative in March.

Tackling truancy

Something as easy as a knock on the front door of a house has been able to reopen the doors to education for hundreds of children in South Auckland who have been missing out on school

For a variety of reasons, and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand is facing a truancy problem.

Although truancy is not a criminal offence, there is connection with young people becoming offenders, or victims of crime.

According to the Department of Statistics, in Term 2 of 2021, only 59.7 per cent of pupils nationwide attended school regularly.

In the suburb of Manurewa in 2021, 900 young people aged six to 15 years old, were unenrolled in school. So far this year, that number is 400 and expected to increase in the current school term.

In the face of justifiable fears that truancy in New Zealand is getting out of control, Police and the youth charity Blue Light have joined forces to tackle the problem.

Blue Light holds the Ministry of Education contract for non-enrolled youth for the Counties Manukau area. Along with local police, it has launched a “door-knock” initiative that is making a real and practical difference to the lives of disadvantaged families in South Auckland, and it’s getting kids back into the classroom.

Following joint “door-knock” operations in 2021, when pairs of local police and Blue Light volunteers visited homes in Manurewa, 600 children were “re-engaged” with the school system.

This year, 17 door-knock teams visited 250 homes in one day on March 29.

Youth engagement officer Sergeant Simon Cornish says it’s almost too simple. “The first time we ran the door-knock programme, I couldn’t believe how much positive response we got. I thought it would be harder, but that door knock is gold,” he says.

Previously in a frontline response role in Counties Manukau, Simon switched to his youth engagement role in 2020.

“It’s all been new to me, but it fits into the prevention sphere, and it has been really rewarding to get kids back to school and to deter them from offending. To start at that lower level, making a positive contact and engaging with them, is a lot better than dealing with them after they have made more serious mistakes.”

The reasons for truancy are varied and complex. Blue Light says one of the main factors is because families in insecure housing move a lot. But there are many other reasons – in-school bullying, social anxiety, families not valuing education or having had a bad experience with their local school, family violence and dysfunction.

In the past two years, that list has been joined by the fear of bringing highly infectious Covid-19 variants into multi-generational homes.

“Covid was the big factor this time around,” says Simon. “Families lacking in education themselves were uneasy about sending kids back to school. However, we were able to reassure them about the safety measures in place.”

Simon believes that busy and stretched schools are somewhat limited in what they can do in terms of providing in-home learning devices or getting kids back to school.

“Making that personal connection on the home front with vulnerable families seems to be the key for parents to re-engage their kids with schooling and that’s not always something a teacher or truancy officer can do.

“But when they see a police officer and Blue Light person together, they are always keen to find out what it’s all about.”

In most cases, it’s the kids who are running to the front door eager to meet their visitors.

“The kids get excited when they see us. They wave and come to the door to greet us. They’ve been quite isolated. Many of them remember Blue Light for its discos.

“We get a little pushback, but when we explain what we’re there for, they are more welcoming. We always have a good hit rate for getting kids back to school or some form of education.”

Working with the Ministry of Education, the door-knock teams can access addresses and use the Police database to firm up the details and whether people are still living there.

If families are not at home on the day, the teams leave an information pack and a calling card to get in touch later, and then follow up with a further visit.

They talk to the whole family. “Most of the kids are keen to get back to school, but for many of them it has been so long, it has turned into the norm not to be at school,” Simon says. “Some hadn’t been to school since August last year.”

Others face practical barriers – no uniform, no devices for home learning, no food for lunch – but police can help.

Under the umbrella of a family harm response, the youth engagement officers have the option of accessing the Police Child Flexi Fund to give practical help to these families, free of charge. It might be for school uniforms and bags, or Chromebooks for kids who have never had one before, Simon says.

“Once they get the uniforms and bags, these kids are in education straight away.

“Also, you might imagine that all six-year-olds have a bed, but some of these kids are sleeping on mattresses piled in the lounge. To be able to deliver a proper, brand-spanking new bed that they can call their own… well, that’s life-changing for them.”

He has a stark warning about the problem of truancy if it is not dealt with now. “If we let this spiral out of control, in the next five or six years, we could have horrible effects from these kids not going to school – not only rising crime rates, but their own lack of life skills.”

Blue Light CEO Brendon Crompton says the impact of young people missing out of school is reflected later in life – violence, substance abuse and unemployment.

The link between truancy and crime is established and the number of children going to school has dropped dramatically since the arrival of Covid, but other factors are also at play, as identified by social services groups such as the Strive Community Trust.

A spokesperson told the AM show last month that education will often take second place to the need to put food on the table. As a result, some families looked for income from crime to support the family. In some cases, 11- and 12-year-olds were actually leaving school to look of jobs because they wanted to support their parents.

To be termed “non-enrolled”, young people need to have had an unexplained absence from school for more than 20 consecutive school days. Blue Light gets referrals once children have been away from school for about a term as there is a lag between school non-enrollments going to the ministry and the ministry updating its database.

Simon says the success of the operation in Manurewa has been such that he is hoping it will be rolled out districtwide. A second door knock in Manurewa is planned for May 13.

“Through this initiative to make home visits, we have had the opportunity to talk to whānau face-to-face and rekindle opportunities, with many taking up the opportunity of the support offered to get their tamariki and rangatahi re-enrolled in school.”

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