Using behavioural insights to reduce unjustified school absences

Publication Details

This report summarises key findings of the Behavioural Insights Team’s (BIT) scoping study on students’ unjustified non-attendance in New Zealand schools. It also suggests strategies that could be trialled to raise students’ school attendance.

Author(s): Lee McCauley and Nathan Chappell, The Behavioural Insights Team; Ministry of Education

Date Published: September 2018

Executive Summary

Earlier this year, the Ministry commissioned a study on unjustified absences from school.

The aim was to identify ideas to support schools in working with students and their families/whānau to increase students’ school attendance. The BIT work included:

  • analysing the Ministry’s attendance reports and attendance data (2011-2017)
  • reviewing behavioural science literature on attendance
  • school visits and interviews with 13 educationalists in three high schools and one attendance officer in the Wellington area.

The attendance data showed that students’ unjustified non-attendance in New Zealand schools increases from year level to year level. Non-attendance in early education often continues in later years.  This highlights the importance of identifying and addressing non-attendance early.

School decile is highlighted as the biggest single predictor of non-attendance. The results also show that unjustified absences are higher for Māori than for Pākehā students, even after controlling for school decile.  This suggests that the unjustified absences have complex causes beyond socio-economic differences.

The interview results suggest that family and student involvement in school are important  for good attendance and academic achievement. International studies have also shown that family and community involvement can help reduce student non-attendance.

Another key result is that some kura are among the schools with the lowest absence rates, after controlling for student characteristics. Reciprocity and ‘social framing’ are at the core of Māori and Polynesian cultures’ worldview.  Strategies incorporating these values may be especially effective in increasing school attendance for Māori and Pacific students.

To increase student attendance, the study suggests seven strategies that could be trialled: providing specific feedback on attendance to families, sending text messages to nominated ‘study supporters’, and using reciprocity and social framing in key moments to increase parents’/whānau involvement; teaching students skills to encourage wellbeing, using compromise and cooperation, using ‘implementation intentions’, and scheduling fun classes at strategic times to raise student involvement.

The study also suggests several possible focus areas for further work.

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