Question: School Absenteeism


Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:33 ): My question is to the Minister for Education and Child Development. How is the Department for Education capturing data on truancy or chronic absenteeism in our schools, and how many chronically truant children do we have in our public school system? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:34): As the member is aware, that data is collected at a school level and managed primarily at a school level, unless the school requests assistance from central office largely in the form of whether or not a prosecution might be prepared. As members may be aware, we have now filed our first prosecution in a number of years, and there are another two cases that we are considering. I will be bringing out into the public for consultation before the end of the year a piece of legislation that will also address chronic absenteeism. 

I would like to point out that, as any member who has heard me on the radio will know, I think the absence of prosecutions is a problem for managing chronic truancy because it implies that it is impossible to have a prosecution. In part, we will test that through the cases that are currently under consideration and the one that is already in the court system. We will be able to respond with legislative changes, as I said, with the draft that will be out later this year. 

It is also important to bear in mind that there are many ways to deal with chronic truancy. Prosecution is but one and one that will be useful probably only in rare circumstances. In a large part, what is required, and what the department has been doing assiduously in the last several years, is beefing up its capacity to work with families. As we know, truancy is usually an indicator of other things going wrong in the family. Not only does that then lead to child protection considerations explicitly by Families SA but also for the schools. 

The work done through the attendance officers and the Aboriginal education workers has been useful and has seen an increase in attendance across the state. Also, some of the 60 wellbeing practitioners have started, and the remainder start at the beginning of term 4. They will be able to work with families in a way that is more productive and considered than has been able to be done to date. We have seen already some good impacts with that kind of work. We will see still more once we have the wellbeing practitioners fully operational. 

I expect that the majority of children in the situation of being chronically absent will be able to be addressed through that mechanism. As members are aware, I want to have the clear capacity to prosecute where necessary. I anticipate that the draft bill will also include the capacity for the department to require family care meetings on the basis of chronic absenteeism and also that the department would be able to issue expiation notices in order to push parents along. 

There are a number of different responses, bearing in mind that it is fewer than 3 per cent on any given day who are absent without explanation and likely much fewer than that who are chronically absent. We have been improving the measures of attendance across the schools because it is important information for the schools. It is also important at a systemic level to understand not only where there is chronic truancy that probably is an indicator of problems in the family but also casual absence, where parents are not sufficiently valuing kids getting to school every single day. 

We do need to make sure that we are consistently sending out the message that every single day of school makes a difference to a kid. There should be no excuses and no, 'Just take a break; it doesn't matter, you can take some time off.' School matters, and we need to be really consistent in that message. 

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:37 ): In relation to that answer, in which the minister stated that the data for truancy or chronic absenteeism is not captured at a system-wide level but only at the school level, and then later in the same answer identified that 3 per cent of students are absent without explanation—and this is a figure she has used publicly—is the minister able to identify how the department captures that figure of 3 per cent and what levels of data provision are provided at a central level? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:38): I will bring back a detailed answer for the member and the house to understand the system. In part, that is because we are improving and changing it at present. While each individual student is only tracked at a school level, and the awareness of how many cumulative days that child has been absent is known at the school level, we do have mechanisms to report through on attendance in schools across the system. 

The categories are a little blunt—so, the category of unexplained absence. As a parent, I confess that two or three times in the time my children have been at school I have been asked to provide an explanation, because between my partner and myself we have managed not to remember to tell the school about a medical appointment— 

Mr Gardner: Will that get you an expiation notice? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: I hope I won't be subject to an expiation notice; it would sharpen my attention, though, wouldn't it? Making sure that we clear out that kind of noise and to know who is actually in trouble is best done at the school-by-school level, so I am comfortable with that. As we improve the data collection, we will be able to have a much better picture at a system level of chronic absenteeism, albeit that it still ought to be handled largely through the school processes.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:39 ): Supplementary: what data does the department capture at a broad level? Does the department capture information relating to the number of children absent from school because of illness and, indeed, because of other unexplained absences? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:40): Yes, and I will make sure that the more detailed answer to the previous question and to this are put into one answer for the house. My memory is that there are very broad categories of explained personal reasons, illness, but I will ensure that that is accurate and provide it to the house. I don't have that entirely clearly in my head.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:40 ): I refer again to the minister's previous answer in which she identified that there is one case before the courts of a parent being prosecuted and two under consideration. Can the minister please clarify this figure, given that in public she has identified two prosecutions before the courts? Has a case been withdrawn? The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:40): No, it's that one has gone ahead. So, there were two. There are now three altogether; one has gone ahead. We have issued whatever the— Mr Gardner: But only one has gone ahead? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: One has gone ahead at present, the second one is in the pipeline and the third one has come to our attention.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:41 ): Given the minister's announcements in March of the government's plans to identify all schools where attendance rates have dropped, how many schools have seen attendance rates drop this year? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:41): I will have to bring that answer back.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:41 ): Given the minister's promise in March that the government would identify all schools in which attendance rates for Indigenous students were below 80 per cent, how many schools have attendance rates for Indigenous students below 80 per cent in South Australia? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:41): Again, I will have to take that on notice; I don't carry that level of information with me in the chamber.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:41 ): Supplementary: in relation to that answer and the previous answer, does the department in fact have those figures, or is the department undergoing a process of now seeking those figures by writing to all schools to check on their attendance data? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:41): I will clarify that. I believe that the department does have the data, but I will clarify that we have it for absolutely all schools.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:42 ): How many of the child wellbeing practitioners, the 60 that were promised to begin this year, are currently in place in South Australian schools? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:42): I am going to have to take that on notice because I can't— 

An honourable member: Have there been some? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: There certainly have been some. The vast majority of them are starting in term 4, which is after our break, which is the school holidays break. I think it's around 10, but I will confirm the number that have already started.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:42 ): Supplementary: do those child wellbeing practitioners have authority to act under section 72 of the Education Act in relation to truancy matters? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:43): I will have to confirm whether they have those powers or whether they are able to act on behalf of those who do have those powers.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:43 ): Supplementary: how many of those attendance officers, better known as truancy officers, who do have the power under the act to undertake duties in relation to truancy, does the department currently employ? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:43): I will have to refamiliarise myself with those figures. I think it is 22, but I will confirm that is the case. It has certainly been a stable number for a reasonable period of time now, supplemented by the 60 wellbeing practitioners.

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 14:43 ): A final supplementary: in relation to the minister's promises in relation to truancy and, in particular, the policy announcement in the Friday Advertiser a couple of weeks ago, can the minister identify when the government took that decision to seek to increase the fine to $5,000 and introduce a system of expiation notices, given that when we discussed this matter in estimates the minister suggested that maybe the expiation notices were not going to go ahead? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (14:44): I think what I suggested in estimates was that the expiation notices might well form part of a draft piece of legislation but weren't necessarily set in stone because we do want to do consultation on that. 

This piece of legislation has been in the pipeline for some time, and all of those features have been part of that. What I am interested in is which are going to be the most effective. My view is that we put them all into the draft piece of legislation and hear back, and also go through the prosecutions that are currently under consideration, or are currently live, and see where we land in order to have the best possible legislative framework for attendance, generally, and specifically for prosecutions.