Truancy officers dumped in the recent Ministry of Education revamp of the service say they are victims of racism. The new service - with ministry annual funding increased from $5.1m to $9.1m - rolled out from October last year. It combines The District Truancy Service (DTS) and the Non-Enrolled Truancy Service (NETS) into one integrated Attendance Service, cutting the former 79 agencies to 18.
Around half of the 150 truancy officers previously employed around New Zealand have lost their jobs. Stephan Dyer, formerly the truancy officer and manager for the Central District Truancy and the South Taranaki District Truancy Service, says the decision is as bad as (teachers' payroll debacle) Novopay.
Dyer teamed with the YMCA, which was also submitting for the new contract, but missed out. The ministry told him: "... the evaluation considered that your proposal failed to demonstrate your cultural capability for Maori and Pasifika."
Absolute rubbish, says Dyer. "I've lived on a marae. And Taranaki has a 50-50 (Maori-European) attendance problem with very few Pasifika. Most families I worked with said they would rather work with me because they don't get on with their local iwi."
The new contract has been given to given to Tu Tama Wahine O Taranaki. The kaupapa Maori service provides counselling, social work and family violence education programmes for men, women and children.
Dyer ran the Taranaki truancy services for 12 years with the help of two part-timers, dealing with around 100 youngsters every term. He says a truancy officer should be someone who knows the entire community. "We have now lost that. I feel this country is getting extremely racist. A lot of jobs have been lost because experienced and caring people were not seen as culturally aware enough."
"It is sad this contract has been given to an organisation which has little understanding or sympathy with European culture. I offered my files to them and was told they didn't want them. They also said they would not be employing current truancy people. My passion was truancy. Half of truancy officers have lost their jobs. Some won't work with new providers out of principal," he says.
Dyer is working as an interim woodwork teacher at Stratford High School.
The central aim of the ministry's truancy services overhaul is highlighted in its revised five-year Ka Hikitia (Maori education strategy) target: To decrease the Maori frequent truant rate from 2.8% in 2009 to 2.0% in 2015. Maori and Pasifika students continue to have approximately double the rate of unjustified absence when compared with European and Asian students.
Outlining its rationale prior to the revamp of the truancy services the MoE stated: "The ministry is aligning the new service to national priorities and targets by being more responsive to priority groups who are over-represented in the unjustified absence and non-achievement statistics e.g., Maori and Pasifika learners, years 9-13 learners, low-decile schools."
But shocked former truancy officers are baffled by why so much expertise, experience and community relationships have been tossed aside in the process.
The Christchurch District Truancy Services (CDTS) was ditched after 15 years for Te Ora Hau, a network of faith-based Maori youth and community development organisations.
CDTS chairwoman Christine Kokay agrees with the ministry's creation of an integrated truancy system. "But it didn't even consult with us.
"The (application) process became a free-for-all. But you have to play the game and jump through the hoops," says Kokay, the former deputy principal at Riccarton High School.
The CDTS was told by the ministry it was not as strong (as some other applicants) at supporting Maori and Pasifika students.
"None of our officers was Maori or Pacific Islander, but we dealt with a lot of ethnicities, including refugees and Asians," says Kokay. "We had a strong case and a highly-skilled, experienced team, plus a good relationship and links with, schools, police and community groups. These people are terribly upset."
The Christchurch service was the largest provider of truancy services in New Zealand, covering more than 100 schools and, says Kokay, had good results. "(New provider) Te Ora Hau has no experience in truancy. I think the CDTS application was a lost cause. It could be racism in reverse."
Former police officer Andy Parr worked with CDTS for 12 years. He believes the service missed out on the new contract because it didn't have enough Maori and Pasifika bias. "But I have dealt with Maori and Pasifika families and it hasn't been a problem. A lot of schools have told me they can't believe what's happened."
Pat Hay was also with CDTS for 12 years after working at the High Court. "I wanted to be the ambulance at the top rather than bottom of the cliff. Our five officers had a combined 44 years' experience. We had a very successful service and never had an increase in truancy referrals, unlike some other regions."
Hay says institutional knowledge and community contacts have been thrown away. "A huge percentage of lost contracts have gone to Maori providers. We worked with all ethnicities. The Ministry of Education didn't talk to any schools in Christchurch. We were gob smacked. It was just bizarre. We are all passionate about what we did and suddenly we had nothing."
The reasons for truancy, says Hay, are a moving feast. "Some kids are just naughty, some have mental health issues and some have needy parents."
Another now unemployed truancy officer claims the application process was "very vague with a sole focus on Maori. But most of the children we dealt with were pakeha. We treated all children and ethnicities as equals. A big percentage of truancy cases are kids from lower socio-economic circumstances. They are in exactly the same boat as Maori and Pasifika children - at the bottom of the heap. Maori-based Christian organisations have mainly youth workers. But it's very different working alongside an often very difficult student. You can't be friend and a mentor then suddenly move over the divide to become their truancy officer, essentially policing them."
In Christchurch, Hornby High School's Karen Wheeler says she was not contacted by the ministry prior to the changes but says she likes the approach of new provider Te Ora Hau: "Perhaps the (former) service was a little out of date for the youth of today."
Te Ora Hau's manager Jono Campbell says there are a lot of preconceptions about his organisation: "Our approach works with all kids, not just Maori."
Campbell says Te Ora Hau has six workers assigned to truancy. "We take a broad approach and tend to look at the whole environment, including family, when dealing with truancy."
A weeklong survey in 2011 revealed around 29,000 students were unjustifiably absent from school. The total unjustified absence rate was higher in secondary schools (5.4% for Year 7-15 and 7.3% for Year 9-15). This compared to 2.3% for primary, contributing and intermediate schools. Absences increased rapidly from Year 9 to Year 13.
Says a former truancy officer: "I don't know now what will happen to these kids. It really saddens me."
The MoE did not respond to our attempts to contact a ministry spokesperson on truancy.