Keeping Young People at School

  • Nick Smith
Education

ANZELA Pre-Conference Summit

Hyatt Regency Hotel, Auckland Wednesday 7 July 1999, 9.25am

I am wrapped to be here today to open this summit 'Keeping Young People at School'.

This is all about crime prevention, about tackling unemployment and its about ensuring every young New Zealander gets an education. It goes to the core of many of the issues that get Paul Holmes, Kim Hill and talkback radio into a lather.

Can I acknowledge the initiators of this summit, Judge Carruthers and congratulate him on his birthday, and can I also acknowledge Judge McElrea and other members of the organising committee.

This morning I want to give a Government perspective to the challenge of keeping young people at school. I want to advance the arguments as to why it's important, what our approach to the problem is, and the programmes we have to put in place to address it.

Before we jump into the issue, we must not lose sight of the big picture. Schools' are for learning. The vast majority of our children never get near being suspended, let alone expelled. These children have rights too. In our efforts to get every youngster at school, let us ensure we do not compromise the learning environment of others.

We must not go soft on discipline. We help no-one by turning a blind eye to bullying. Our challenge is to keep our young people in school without dropping standards. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated. There is a lot of chest beating currently on who can be tougher than tough on law and order. To some degree, this debate misses the point. It's all ambulance at the bottom of the cliff stuff. We have a far greater chance of turning the tide on adolescent crime through keeping our young people at school, than we do in slapping our offenders in jail for longer. You only have to glimpse at a fraction of our inmates files from my former job as Minister of Corrections to see the linkages between school failure, suspensions, and the pathway to serious criminal offending.

It is also an issue about jobs. Perhaps a decade or two ago there was space in society for the uneducated labourer. Today it is not so, and in the new millennium, the uneducated will be even more disadvantaged.

Government's approach to this issue has got to be multi faceted. There is not a single easy solution, but rather we need a package of initiatives if we are going to make a real difference.

There are five key parts to the Governments strategy. The first is early intervention. We need to get alongside youngsters in their early years and try and prevent problems snowballing into suspensions and expulsions in teenage years. Family Start is a joint health, education, welfare initiative in the pre-school years that will make a material difference. The initiative to put social workers in schools is a key intervention in the primary school years. We can't expect our teachers to be experts in the curriculum and social workers at the same time. The 750 Resource Teachers Learning and Behaviour are another key resource aimed particularly at the primary years to intervene early when learning and behaviour problems arise.

The second key strand of the Government's approach is generic prevention strategies. There's the drug education initiative and the special education programmes to eliminate bullying. There is also the joint health, welfare, education initiative of providing better youth mental health services.

The third strand is extra specialist support services for schools. On the truancy front there is both the District Truancy Services and the Non Enrolled Truancy Services into which we're putting over $5.5 million a year. There are also the newly established BEST programmes, standing for Behaviour Education Support Teams, who provide specialist support for students with severe behaviour problems.

The two new major initiatives this year are about providing clear guidance for schools on suspensions, and providing alternatives to school for students for whom the traditional classroom environment cannot be made to work.

The new suspension rules are something of a high-wire act. They attempt to balance the right of the students to an education against the responsibilities of the school to provide a safe learning environment for other pupils. The new rules take effect next Monday and will make a positive difference. They introduce the concept of a stand down as a short, sharp intervention. The rules will ensure that a school thinks about all the options before it suspends a student, and also make plain where the responsibilities lie for providing a student with an ongoing education.

Today I'm also launching a new Ministry of Education publication to give schools and parents guidance on the new rules. The guidelines are as important as the rules themselves. We must not let ourselves be captured by process, and we must always be on the lookout for win-win solutions. We should also seek to resolve issues using the Family Group Conference approach where possible. This document will be invaluable in assisting schools in keeping young people at school.

The second major initiative is the alternative learning centres. I think we need to be realistic and accept that for some teenagers, school just does not work. For some, it's like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Currently hundreds of students slip though the cracks. As a last resort many end up on The Correspondence School roll. But let's get real, students with a severe behaviour problem are not going to get an education from the mail box drop of The Correspondence School.

In this year's Budget we committed nearly $37 million for alternative learning centres. This is a bold initiative. It's about providing a meaningful education for this group of youngsters. Today I'm pleased to announce the first 150 places of which there is a particular focus in Auckland. There will be 40 in Manukau and Papakura, 35 in Waitakere, 20 in the North Shore and a further 20 in Northland. There will be another 450 places available in term one next year, and by the beginning of 2001, we'll have 1800 places.

Behind these centres is a bold vision. We want every single young person of school age in a meaningful education programme. Our goal should not be 95% or 99%. It must be 100%. We cannot afford to have a single teenager in this country on the street. It's an awesome challenge, but together we can do it.