Legislative Council: Wednesday, November 16, 2022


Student Absenteeism

The Hon. S.L. GAME (21:55): I move:

1. That a select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into and report on government and non-government school student attendance with reference to:

(a) the causes and solutions of student absenteeism from schools across aspects of the school community, such as:

(i) the identification of causes of absenteeism from school;

(ii) the effectiveness of programs, policies, or systems responsible for reversing persistent absence from school;

(iii) the impact on educational outcomes for children persistently absent from school;

(iv) the impact on teachers, school and teaching of those persistently absent students;

(v) the effectiveness of breakfast and lunch programs on attendance at school;

(vi) the capacity of teachers to get children assessed for disabilities and disorders; and

(vii) the effectiveness of schools to deal with bullying of students by others in the school community.

(b) the social issues impacting on children and families which may be adding to absenteeism, including those issues which cannot be impacted by intra-school programs or policies, such as:

(i) the identification of 'ghost children' who disappear from the education system, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic;

(ii) the oversight of children being home schooled;

(iii) the mental health and physical wellbeing of children who are persistently absent from school; including impacts from social media; and

(iv) the relationship between sexual or physical abuse and neglect on persistent absence from school.

2. That this council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.

I move this motion with the utmost urgency. There has never before been a thorough investigative committee to look at the causes of and solutions to student absenteeism. I am alarmed and distressed that there are schools with an ongoing 40 per cent absenteeism problem. I am concerned that there is not enough support for schools to deal with this chronic absenteeism. The only support education leaders are telling me about is mandated reporting measures, which is actually creating more work for teachers.

I am concerned that this lack of support is helping to fuel the teacher shortage. It is turning teachers into social workers and putting them at physical risk by them seeing no alternative than visiting students' houses to find out what is going on. Most importantly, I am absolutely alarmed about the welfare of these missing children. This is a child protection and welfare issue. It is a consequence of bullying and the toxic influence of social media on our children's lives.

Only last week, I read that South Australian schools had 411 serious bullying cases in 2021. We are throwing money at mental health and resilience and yet the situation continues to decline. There is a lagging legacy of absenteeism in our state schools, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As stated, some schools have reported to me that they have consistent absenteeism levels of over 40 per cent. A blanket pay rise to teachers will not solve this problem.

School leaders have indicated that more truancy officers would instead be more helpful. I advocated this directly to the Minister for Education and I was glad to read over the weekend that three more truancy officers will now be hired by the department, but for the government to state that there are currently 34 full-time truancy officers is misleading. These workers do double duty: most of them are social workers, not dedicated to dealing solely with truancy. There are over 600 state schools in South Australia, and the government must be transparent as to how many full-time equivalent workers are dedicated to truancy, not social work, not other areas of school support, just absenteeism.

Importantly, we must investigate whether or not this is the best avenue for reporting absenteeism to the department. Is the truancy hotline an effective tool? Does it cause any actionable outcome for teachers and students? How can it bring better support for school leaders concerned about student welfare? I want teachers' feedback on their interaction with the truancy hotline. A select committee would be an ideal opportunity for this to occur.

The government is also spending an untold amount on Crown solicitors to prosecute three parents for $5,000 each for withholding their children from school. This does not add up. If it has reached the stage of court proceedings and the parents are still not complying, different tactics are required.

In the United Kingdom, steps have been taken to identify and reconnect with the hundreds of thousands of 'ghost children' who disappeared from the schooling system completely during the pandemic, told to study from home yet they have never returned. We need similar measures here to ensure that children are alive, safe and accounted for. It involves a registry to track attendance and provide a safety net for vulnerable pupils at risk of disappearing from school roll calls.

My office has applied under freedom of information regulations to understand the exact picture of student absenteeism. There needs to be clear data regarding absenteeism, exclusion and suspension of students, especially as it pertains to children at risk, like those under the guardianship of the Department for Child Protection. Principals are telling me this needs to occur urgently. Calls to the child reporting line are logged, but there is no notification returning to the school. The student just remains absent without explanation or advice as to their whereabouts or wellbeing.

Need I remind this parliament of the recent deaths of six-year-old Charlie and seven-year-old Makai? Both these children had multiple absentee alerts raised by their respective schools. Were these reports investigated by the education department's truancy hotline or by the Department for Child Protection thoroughly? We shall see after the investigation into these deaths concludes.

Thirteen-year-old Zhane Chilcott, who died by suicide while in residential care, had chronic school absenteeism recorded during his time in that care home. These alerts made up a long list of missed interventions for Zhane, as noted in the investigation into his death. The school reported it persistently. Why are there no mechanisms triggered in response?

What is clear is that schools are a daily checkpoint—an opportunity to check on the welfare and wellbeing of children and young people, both by staff and their student peers. When there is chronic absenteeism, behavioural, emotional or physical declines in a child go unnoticed. Intervention is unable to happen. There is no doubt a complex range of issues as to why some students are habitually not attending or not able to attend their studies.

What we must ensure is students are getting appropriate hours of curriculum-led education, teachers are able to focus on their classroom and teach without worrying about the wellbeing and safety of missing students, and parents and guardians are equipped with sufficient basic resources to ensure their child can attend school safely. There is no point in worrying about a child's NAPLAN scores if the school is not even sure that the child is safe. A teacher is not going to stress a child with tests and training if that child has spent the last month sleeping in a car and living on one meal a day. Parent-teacher interviews are not going to occur if the parent has deliberately hindered that child from attending for months on end.

There has not been a parliamentary review on the issues affecting absenteeism, yet regular attendance at school is crucial to educational outcomes. There is an obvious intersection between the Department for Education and the Department for Child Protection and the division of Human Services. This must be investigated openly and with full cross-departmental consultation. Interdepartmental communication, correlation and responsibility is exactly why a parliamentary select committee is required. It cannot be addressed just by the Department for Education alone. It requires a broader scope, and I press everyone here to consider this as a priority. I commend the motion to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.