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Skipping school for just one day affects NAPLAN results, study finds

Date

Amy McNeilage

School of life: Leonie Percy, her son Lael, and partner Jarko Laukkanen.

School of life: Leonie Percy, her son Lael, and partner Jarko Laukkanen. Photo: James Alcock

Missing just one day of school has negative consequences for a student’s academic achievement, the first major study linking poor attendance to lower NAPLAN results has found.

And school attendance patterns established as early as year 1 can predict how often a student will show up to class right through high school, according to the research.

The average public school student in NSW misses almost three weeks of school each year. Australia is alarmingly slack when it comes to school attendance, with high school students skipping more days of school than almost any other developed country.

No safe level of school absence: (From left) Jarkko Laukkanen, Lael and Leonie Percy.

No safe level of school absence: (From left) Jarkko Laukkanen, Lael and Leonie Percy. Photo: James Alcock

On Monday, the harmful effects of that absenteeism will be exposed by the results of a study to be presented at the Australian Council for Educational Research’s annual conference.

An analysis of the attendance records and NAPLAN results of more than 400,000 students from Western Australia found any absence from school leads to a decline in academic performance.

The study dispels the belief there is a safe level of absence students can get away with before their grades will suffer.

“We were able to show that actually every day counts and days that you’re missing in year 3 and year 5, we can detect that all the way through to year 9,” the report's co-author, Stephen Zubrick, from the University of Western Australia, said.

“A 10-day period of unauthorised absence in a year is sufficient to drop a child about a band in the NAPLAN testing.”

Year 3 numeracy achievement in 2012 declined by 1.6 NAPLAN points for every unauthorised day of absence in the first two terms of that year.

The most startling finding,  Professor Zubrick said, was that students arrive in year 1 “with their school attendance careers already in their pockets”.

“For most children, year 1 sets the pattern for what school attendance will look like in the future,” Professor Zubrick said. “You’re learning more than reading and writing. You’re learning to show up.”

Absence was found to have a greater impact on writing than it did on numeracy and reading.

While poor attendance is a problem across the socio-economic spectrum, families in affluent areas often interrupt schooling for overseas holidays.

Professor Zubrick insists his message is not about finger wagging or guilt trips, but says “we do need to recognise that when a child is standing on the Eiffel Tower, so to speak, they may be learning a lot about the world but they’re not necessarily learning everything they’d be learning at school.”

The average attendance rate for NSW public school students in 2013 was 92.6 per cent - about 14 days off per year - and has been relatively consistent over the past decade. Attendance is much poorer among high school students with the average student missing 20 days per year.

Julie Townsend, the headmistress of St Catherine’s School in Waverley, said the girls' school had a “very strict” attendance policy and did not consider a family holiday to be an appropriate reason for missing school.

“We [tell parents] that we only teach for about 185 days a year and we expect that they take their holidays during the very generous holiday period,” she said. “If the parents go - and that’s just happened this week - we call them in and we talk about the breakdown of our relationship and that our values aren’t aligned. We take a very hard line on it.”

She said acceptable grounds for leave could include compassionate reasons, health complications or the commitments of elite athletes.

In a major international survey of 15 year olds, conducted by the OECD in 2012, almost one-third of Australian students said they had skipped at least one day of school in the previous two weeks.

That means Australian students skip school more frequently than any other developed country except Turkey and Italy. In high-performing countries such as Japan and Korea that figure was less than two per cent. 

The NSW Education Department’s school attendance policy states principals have the authority to grant students exemptions from school for up to 100 days per year. Reasons can include family holidays if they are “in the best educational interests of the child”, employment in the entertainment industry or participation in elite sporting events.

Ross Tarlinton, the headmaster of St Joseph's College, said it was always his priority to maximise a student’s attendance but he would make exceptions for ill-health, family or sporting commitments and occasionally travel.

“I had a boy who went with his father who was doing some pro bono medical work in a Third World country for a short period of time to have that experience and I let him go,” he said. "That boy came back so rich for the experience. ”

The head of SCEGGS Darlinghurst, Jenny Allum, said understanding that you have to show up even when something else might be more desirable is an important life lesson.

“School isn’t something you normally or mostly do. It’s something you always do,'' she said.

''If you’re making a commitment to something else over school, boy that better be important.”

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