The terrible toll of transience on our schools and students

Last year, nearly half the 167 kids enrolled at Hamilton East School had left by the end of the year: not counting Year 6 leavers. If this wasn’t disruptive enough,…

Last year, nearly half the 167 kids enrolled at Hamilton East School had left by the end of the year: not counting Year 6 leavers. If this wasn’t disruptive enough, 92 new students – none of them new entrants – joined the school throughout the year.

Principal Pippa Wright says even after just a month of school this year, there’d been 50 further enrolments; and 33 students had left already.

“The size of the team: we try not to but we sometimes have to change the school organisation after a month. We have Year 4, 5 and 6 together in three classes, because at least that gives us places to put new arrivals.”

Three or four school changes are not unusual. Sose Annandale, principal at Porirua’s Russell School, had an eight-year-old last year who’d attended nine schools. Some students leave and re-enter the same school multiple times.

Figures released by the Ministry of Education under the Official Information Act show that, on average in 2013, Decile 1 primary schools experienced transience (that is, arrivals and departures other than at the beginning or end of the year) of 52.8 percent of their roll” compared with 29.4 percent in Decile 10 schools.

The evidence is clear: transience is a big problem for low-decile schools. Its causes, while not so clear, are generally associated with poverty.

“There are lots of reasons they move,” says Wright in Hamilton East. “Change of family circumstances, new relationships, change of custody arrangements. Women’s Refuge is nearby, so students might be with us for a few months until they’re relocated. Often families stay with whanau because they’ve nowhere else to stay, and eventually they’re kicked out. Some state house tenants get offered a better house. Some are skipping rent.”

Kay Saville-Smith, from the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Assessment (CRESA), says children in low-decile schools are more likely to be living in rental accommodation, “so they face insecure tenure. In the 2006 Census, the median tenancy for everyone was two years. Sometimes tenancies are lost because landlords sell up and move on. Over a fifth of landlords are landlords for a year or less.

“Many kids in low decile schools are literally moving about because they can’t sustain access to decent housing. That didn’t happen 30-40 years ago: then, families [were] being transferred from job to job.”

Effects on achievement

It seems intuitive that constant changes of school would affect children’s learning. Yet the research suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. While there are many international studies drawing a link between transience and under-achievement, most are problematic in that they fail to control for other possible causal factors; the effects of poverty are multiple, cumulative and play out in different ways.

The few research studies which have included such controls, including a University of Warwick survey of 3000 students aged 7-11, found no significant difference in achievement between transient and non-transient children. Furthermore, a five-year study of 20 schools by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) which didn’t control for other factors, still “could not find evidence of a significant link between high mobility and lowered educational achievement”.

Researchers Jane Gilbert and Ally Bull acknowledged that frequent movement probably indicates “deeper-level issues that could have a disadvantaging effect. This distinction – between frequent movement as a cause of educational disadvantage and its link with other factors that could affect a child’s ability to learn – is important.”

Big problems for schools

The researchers all agree on one thing, however: transience causes major problems for schools. It’s even possible that one reason transience doesn’t appear to affect students academically is that schools work so hard to mitigate against its effects. But that hard work is costing them dearly” in more ways than one.

First, there’s the financial burden: Wright says she has to budget for at least an hour of admin time per family for new enrolments; the school often has to fund stationery; many textbooks and library books are lost to leavers every year; the school provides a bus and children often leave without paying. These costs, while individually small, add up quickly when multiplied by 90-odd students.

Then there’s all the extra time spent by teachers” assessing students, discussing entry information with parents, setting up students with books and welcoming them into the classroom – and by the deputy principal or principal (showing parents around the school, and seeking information from the previous school).

“All the staff, including office and support staff, also spend a lot of time getting to know new families and passing on that information: we’re expected to know our students.”

There are other issues: “Some transient children are streetwise but lack oral language, the ability to talk about things. They have behaviours that keep them safe but not necessarily everybody else. So we have to quickly school them up in how we do things here” we call it the Hamilton East Way – so they have some sort of structure to base their behaviour on.”

The school uses rituals to build belonging, including a class pōwhiri every time a new child joins the school” “which could be a few times a week”.

Accessing support takes months

Because transient children frequently have high needs” academic, behavioural and otherwise – teachers spend many meeting hours discussing how to support them. Accessing the extra support often required can take several months.

“We have children with lists of previous as long as your arm” four children with a solo dad who go and stay with relatives until they get kicked out, then go to stay with other relatives, and change schools every time,” says Wright. “Poverty is often aligned with the inability to learn or engage because of all the other things going on. So we try to put in support for them and then they’ll move again. Accessing any extra support for children takes longer than a couple of months.”

Marc Dombroski is principal at Northcote’s Onepoto School, a small Decile 1 school with high transience.

“Often the ones who are transient are the ones who are in the greatest need. And it takes an amazing amount of time to get all the wheels rolling, to get assistance for these kids. Then quite often when you do get programmes going for them, they’re gone – and it doesn’t always follow that that help goes with them.”

Flawed systems

There are no easy solutions to transience, but the five low-decile school principals interviewed by EA believe there are some flawed systems exacerbating the problem.

The first is that vital information about children is not being handed on in a timely fashion – if at all.

Dombroski describes a student who’d been living with his grandmother after being removed from his parents’ home. “We’d just managed to get a young Māori mentor to work with him on a daily basis” that all fell apart when the grandmother became sick and the boy was removed again to a relative outside Auckland. His problems then seem to have escalated.

“The principal at the new school rang me, and even though that boy had had involvement with multiple agencies, nothing had been revealed to him about that boy. The school only found out [there were issues] because he started playing up.

“Often there are so many agencies involved – and yet not one person was following that child, who had a history going back to when he first started school. He enrolled with us in year 6 and there was just no information. We didn’t even know he came with funding. There’s a whole raft of things that are often miscommunicated.”

Social Workers in Schools “shutting books”

The second key problem area is apparent ambiguity around the responsibilities of Social Workers in Schools (SWiS), who provide school-based early intervention services. Some principals say overworked SWiS are “shutting their books” on children who leave the school to which the SWiS is contracted.

The Ministry of Education says when a child leaves a school, the SWiS must contact the SWiS in the new school, if the school has one: if it doesn’t, the previous SWiS can continue to work with the child and family for up to six months. If a child transfers to a distant school, “good practice dictates” the SWiS should pass over information to the SWiS at the new school if the school has one; if not, the previous SWiS could contact a social service agency in the new area, and make a referral: “This however, is not compulsory.”

Sose Annandale says she “has never had a handover” from a previous school’s SWiS. She believes multiple, competing SWiS providers have no incentive to share information.

Not enough information on ENROL

A third problem is the limited information available through ENROL. The electronic enrolment system provides basic enrolment information, and has flags like “Attendance issues” or “Behaviour issues”. But it holds no information as to any special needs, social problems or difficult family circumstances the child might have, nor any support programmes that might have been (or still be) in place” including any CYFS involvement. Principals must phone the previous school to get this information” and sometimes, the school before the previous school.

Finlayson Park School principal Shirley Maihi (QSM) says with often multiple schools to contact, the trail quickly runs cold.

Her Manurewa school has 1000-odd students and around 57 percent transience. She says prior to ENROL, when a child left the school, hard copies of all their data” academic, social, special needs, specialist documentation” would immediately be sent to the new school.

“The biggest problem with ENROL is the time lag really. We can test children for reading or maths ability but it’s the involvement in other programmes that we need to find out in more depth: are they still on that specialist program, have they been referred or not yet picked up, is there intervention by truancy service or CYFS or Police; a whole range of things that don’t appear until we actually make that phone contact.”


Maihi can’t see why ENROL couldn’t be modified to allow for all vital information relating to a student to be included. In 2010, she was interviewed for a New Zealand Herald article on transience. Then-Minister of Education Anne Tolley said “in an age of technology, it was˜absolutely nuts’ that such information was not easily accessible to schools. ‘We are looking at how we can make that information much more accessible,’ said Tolley.” Four years on, nothing seems to have changed.

Pippa Wright in Hamilton East believes further in-depth research is needed into transience. Could there be a way of tracking transient families, and ensuring that wraparound services follow children wherever they go?

Annandale in Porirua thinks the Ministry could offer some sort of financial relief to schools with high transiency for support teachers, “so they could have these kids checked and assessed quickly to get them on board. Even simple things – like if they’re ESOL, finding out how much funding they’ve had: are they entitled to funding, have they used it all up?”

Some way of improving communication between agencies would help, says Dombroski in Northcote, and he’d love more teacher aide help. “A lot of these kids just need a little bit of one-to-one.”

For Annandale, though, government policy is at the root of the problem. “They should ask themselves, why are people moving every five minutes? The big thing is housing” Housing New Zealand is checking all its houses in Porirua for earthquake safety: what’s happening around helping people find houses near their school?”

We asked the Ministry of Education if there were any plans to increase support for schools with high transience. They responded: “A number of additional supports have been provided to schools to assist them in meeting the needs of these students, for example, the new Attendance Service; expansion of the Positive Behaviour for Learning initiatives; an improved and more pro-active RTLB service and the Ministry of Social Development’s expansion of the Social Workers in Schools programme.”

Paradoxically, Dombroski sometimes feels it’s the non-transient children who are losing out.

“The ones who stay on are missing out because the transient ones are getting the attention and the resources: reading recovery, or places in different groups. We run a program for kids who are grieving for parents in jail or a separation or death; non-violence programmes, mentors, there are only so many places in these programmes.”