QUESTION: School Absenteeism Member for Florey

The Hon. J.A.W. GARDNER (Morialta—Minister for Education) (15:02): I thank the member for Florey for her question. I am aware that this is a concern that she has maintained for some time since, indeed, the prosecution of two families last year. That was the first time I heard her raise this question. I would actually support the work done by the previous minister for education and the answers she gave at that time, which were, of course, that those families did benefit to the extent that those children are now spending a lot more time at school than they were prior. Her specific question is in relation to what work goes in prior to a fine being levelled under the government's approach to truancy.

The legislation that is going to be in the house before very long identifies a series of measures that take place, particularly in what is called family conferencing. Family conferencing is tremendously important. It is an opportunity, at the lead of one of our attendance officers, for a child who is not attending school habitually or chronically—truant, if you like—to be brought in with their family to the school to work with the school principal, to work with the attendance officer, to work with whatever other structures may need to be in place, whatever other government or non-government service providers may need to be in place, to address the issues as to why that child is not attending school.

It is tremendously important that they do attend school. Consequently, the family conferencing mechanism is tremendously important in the first instance. This is something that happens after schools have often done a lot of work to try to get the student to attend schools in the first instance. There may or may not be interactions with other service providers, government or non-government, along the way as well.

The only circumstance in which it is proposed under the government's proposed new legislation to be introduced shortly—or, indeed, under the present legislation, which does enable the opportunity—for prosecution to take place is as a last resort after all efforts have been undertaken to try to get that student back to school. It's particularly in relation to family conferencing to try to get that family to engage with the family conference. Only in circumstances where that family is unwilling to engage at all with the family conference, or not in any serious way, would any prosecution be contemplated.

It is worth identifying—and this is where I draw back to the experience of last year—that the sheer fact of having had a court appearance in the judicial system is an interaction that has led to those families, and particularly those children, being at school more than they were. It's not actually about the punitive mechanism of the fine but the quantum of the fine being increased from $500, at the moment, to $5,000, as will be proposed. This is only going to be the second increase, as I understand, in several decades.

It's to ensure that there is a mechanism that will get the attention of any family that doesn't propose to take seriously their responsibility to ensure that their child is at school, which is one that I am sure every member of this house would take very seriously. It's worth noting that, at least in one of the examples where there was a prosecution last year, there were multiple cases of truancy identified. Indeed, I think there were several counts in one of the cases. It is therefore requisite on the prosecution to prove that there were multiple periods of non-attendance, rather than the one non-attendance.

I think that the new legislation to be proposed by the government will have a significant positive impact on the lives of the families in question because, more importantly than anything else, our focus is on getting those kids to school.


Ms BEDFORD (Florey) (15:06): Supplementary: those two cases aside, minister, is there any proof at all, or any evidence, to show that those two prosecutions and convictions made any difference to the truancy rate?

The Hon. J.A.W. GARDNER (Morialta—Minister for Education) (15:06): The member asks about the result of those two cases and the truancy rate itself. Regarding the truancy rate itself, the measure that is most commonly talked about is that identified in the annual census, which is a labour intensive process that the department, along with schools, has to undertake to identify the number of students who are truant. It is a regular figure that often comes up, that students not at school on the census date without explanation—that they are sick or in danger of infection, that they are reasonably required to care for a family member or indeed that the responsible person for them has informed the school of the child's absence within five days—is in the ballpark of 3 per cent, as I recall, and that figure has been the figure for a number of years.

That figure equates to some thousands of students, but that doesn't mean that all those students are necessarily habitually or chronically truant or not attending. On that one day, a number of them will be absent for a day. Some of them will be absent for that day amongst others in a term. There may be other unexplained issues at that time, but it also captures far too many students who are habitually and chronically truant, and that is a significant imposition on their future happiness, wellbeing, success and indeed that of their families and communities.