Breakfast newsreader Indira Stewart says, from her lived experience, simply asking struggling families to prioritise their children’s school attendance isn’t always realistic.
On today's Breakfast show on TVNZ1, Secretary for Education Iona Holsted said a “reset” of the expectations placed on parents was needed, with regular school attendance having dropped since 2015.
Holsted said truancy was highest among lower-income families, meaning the Ministry of Education knew it had "a system problem".
"Poor people’s lives are complex, but fundamentally, regardless of that, parents need to prioritise their children going to school in the first instance."
After the interview, Stewart said: "With all due respect to Iona, and she says parents need to prioritise their children going to school, if you have a family member who is sick and dying and another parent who has just been laid off because of Covid, of course you want your babies to go to school.
"But, it’s not even a thought of how you’re going to do that."
She said she’d seen it happen in her family and community while growing up.
"My family, we took on a lot of kids coming into our house because their parents weren’t in that position.
"You pass your children on to other people. No parent wants to do that because you’re looking within your village to find that support to make sure that your children can get that education.
"These people don’t have choices, that’s what it comes down to. It’s not that you don’t want to prioritise … you don’t have a choice."
Stewart said this meant children can end up taking on a heavy burden “out of a love for their families”.
It echoes comments made by Aorere College head girl Aigagalefili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i made in August. She said that throughout the pandemic, she had seen students sacrifice their schooling in order to seek employment and help support their families.
Fepulea’i-Tapua’i said the issues of education inequality had existed prior to the pandemic, but the virus had just placed a “magnifying glass” on them.
"There was a big misconception that there was a choice, that you always have a choice to stay at school."
She added: "Before Covid-19, all it could take for a student to realise that their family was struggling was just one medical emergency or maybe just one parent being laid off, but now we're getting a lot more of these type of cases. It is the biggest act of sacrifice and love.
"No child wants to watch their parent have to struggle when they know they could do something and I think that is the situation for a lot of students."
Holsted today said earnings data for people aged 16 to 18 don’t show that more young people are leaving school during Covid-19 to work.
She said Covid-19 would exacerbate pre-pandemic truancy “in some situations”.
“We’ve got a systemic problem. The opportunity exists going forward to reset the expectations on parents, schools and communities.”
Roughly 200 students at New Zealand’s largest decile one school, Manurewa High School, hadn’t returned to the classroom after lockdown in order to help their families financially.
Breakfast host John Campbell also asked Holsted to respond to Fepulea’i-Tapua’i’s comments.
Holsted said she could only report on what the data was showing her. But, she acknowledged national averages could mask individual situations.
“We’ve got the best data at the moment that we can.”