Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Student Absenteeism is High in Australia

Wednesday February 22, 2017

Student absenteeism is a well-documented factor in poor performance at school. Students who skip school, skip classes and arrive late for school tend to have lower test scores [OECD, PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices, 2013, p. 60].

It is likely to be a factor behind the high proportion of Australian students who do not achieve expected international standards in reading, mathematics and science. Data from PISA 2015 show that a much higher percentage of Australian students skipped a day of school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA test than in other high performing countries and the OECD average.

In 2015, 29% of Australian students skipped a day of school compared to 2% in Japan and Korea, 3% in Taiwan, 14% in Singapore, 18% in Canada, and the average of 20% across OECD countries [OECD, PISA 2015 Results (Volume II): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools, 2016, Table II.3.4].
The percentage skipping school in Australia was the 7th highest out of 35 OECD countries. There was a small decline in the percentage between 2012 and 2015.

Skipping a day of school is much more common in low socio-economic status (SES) than high SES schools in Australia. In 2015, 34% of students in low SES schools skipped a day of school at least once prior to the PISA test compared to 24% in high SES schools. However, both rates are very high by OECD standards – the low SES rate was the 6th highest in the OECD and the high SES rate was the 7th highest. The rates were also high across rural, town and city schools and for public and private schools, but with much less variation than between low and high SES schools. The respective percentages were 28%, 31%, 28%, 20% and 27%.

In Australia, students who had skipped a whole day of school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA assessment scored 35 points (about one year of learning) lower in the science assessment than students who had not skipped a day of school. This was lower than the average for the OECD and several high performing countries.

Fewer Australian students skip classes than the average for the OECD. Sixteen per cent of Australian students skipped some classes at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA assessment compared to 26% in the OECD [OECD 2016: Table II.3.5]. Twenty per cent of students in low SES schools skipped some classes compared to 14% in high SES schools and 19% of public school students skipped some classes compared to 13% in private schools. The rates for rural, town and city schools were similar – 19%, 16% and 16% respectively.

Australian students who skipped some classes at least once in in the two weeks prior to the PISA assessment scored 47 points (about one and a half year of learning) lower in the science assessment than students who had not skipped a class. This was higher than the average for the OECD and several high performing countries.

The data also show that 41% of students in Australia arrived late for school at least once in the two weeks preceding the PISA test [OECD 2016: Table II.3.6]. This was lower than the average for the OECD but higher than in high performing countries such as Finland, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Students who arrived late at least once increased by six percentage points between 2012 and 2015.

Arriving late for school is much more common in low SES than high SES schools in Australia. In 2015, 47% of students in low SES schools arrived late at least once compared to 37% of high SES students. More students in public schools arrived late than in private schools – 44% compared to 37%. Significantly larger percentages of students in town and city schools arrived late than in rural schools – 40%, 42% and 34% respectively.

Students who arrived late for school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA test scored 33 points (about one year of learning) lower in science than students who did not arrive late. This was higher than the average for the OECD.

These figures suggest that student absenteeism is a significant factor in the large achievement gaps between low and high SES students and a likely factor in the decline in performance amongst low SES students over the last decade.

However, improving school attendance is complicated and difficult because there are many reasons why students skip school. They include fear of bullying or harassment, drug or alcohol dependency, caring for a parent or sibling, family stress, frequent change of residence, behavioural difficulties, or simply boredom and lack of engagement in school.

Trevor Cobbold

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