Regular school attendance is critical to student success. Poor student attendance has been a significant and longstanding problem in Northland School Division. About one-third of the division’s students remain chronically absent despite many years of reporting on this situation, and despite what was to have been a concerted attempt to deal with attendance following the 2010 Inquiry Team Report. Factors that contribute to poor attendance are numerous and complex.
At the school division and Department of Education levels, the story is simpler; necessary improvements have not been made, despite the need being highlighted in the inquiry report and in commitments made afterward. The division has not produced a workable plan; oversight at all levels, including the department, has failed. Lack of coordination, weaknesses in reporting systems; and the absence of a student-centred approach are all contributors.
One factor stands out—poor attendance is too often accepted as the status quo.
This is not a situation that’s accepted elsewhere in Alberta. Reports and statements by school officials and ministers of education have suggested that poor attendance would not be accepted in Northland School Division either. But it has been. And it still is.
While student attendance problems are wrapped up in other challenges facing northern communities, dealing with non-attendance has not been a priority or thought to be achievable until other problems are solved. A more direct and purposeful approach is available.
Our recommendations deal directly with failures at the institutional level. They call for the department to provide better oversight and the division to develop an effective operational plan.
Because school attendance involves students and their families or caregivers, we consulted the community for views of groups and families directly involved. This approach was necessary to produce an accurate and comprehensive report. It also reflected the principle that our office is accountable to Albertans as well as to Members of the Legislative Assembly. Our community consultations found a strong desire for a better school experience among the people directly affected, and several strong ideas about how to improve things.
What we examined
Our audit objective was to assess if the division has adequate systems to improve student attendance. We examined accountability for attendance results systems and looked at the division’s oversight of its schools and the department’s oversight of the division. We interviewed staff and tested attendance practices at 10 schools across the division, at the division’s central office and at the department.
We also held meetings to discuss student attendance in two communities—Wabasca–Desmarais and Gift Lake. We met with key stakeholders including parents and caregivers, students and former students, teachers and other school staff, administrators, local school board committee members, elders and other community members.
The division’s schools and central office do not have adequate systems to improve student attendance. There is no accountability for attendance results at all levels of the division and by the department. Oversight of attendance improvement by both the department and the division is inadequate.
Why this is important to Albertans
All students in Alberta have a right and a responsibility to attend school and receive an education. The Department of Education has to ensure appropriate systems are in place to make this happen. Attendance systems are not working in Northland School Division. Improving these systems is critical to the future success of the children.