In Question Period today I asked the Minister of Education what he is doing to ensure children are in school. Too often children who are not in school are the ones who get into trouble. Children who stay in school are likely to do well. The first recommendation of the recent Children's Advocate's report was that the government be much more effective in ensuring children are attending school.
Absenteeism Reduction in Schools
Children's Advocate Recommendations
Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): Madam Speaker, the children's advocate's report's No. 1 recommendation is to reduce school absenteeism. This is an important recommendation in part because children and youth who are not in school are a primary target for those who want to lure children and youth into using drugs and being sexually exploited.
Reducing absenteeism can help young people get an education, can reduce the use of drugs like meth and can reduce sexual exploitation.
Can the Minister of Education today tell us, on average, how many children are absent from school each day in Manitoba?
Hon. Kelvin Goertzen (Minister of Education and Training): Madam Speaker, the member is not incorrect, nor is the child's advocate. Absenteeism, of course–not only do students do better, of course, when they're in school, but it does have a trickle-down effect when it comes to ensuring that there's protection from those who should be in school who might otherwise be vulnerable when they're not. It has an impact on crime when the attendance rate is better than it currently is.
It is one of the first things that I spoke to my department about, becoming minister. And we are looking at a variety of different ways to improve the absentee rate in Manitoba.
Madam Speaker: The honourable member for River Heights, on a supplementary question.
Mr. Gerrard: Madam Speaker, the children's advocate makes it clear, and I quote: "The Province–that is, the minister–has a responsibility to ensure that children attend school."
How can the Province fulfill its responsibility if the minister doesn't even know the extent of absenteeism in Manitoba? Why is the minister not up to speed on his files? Based on what we know, this number is likely in the thousands.
What is the minister doing today to provide alternatives to expulsions and suspensions of students and to meet his responsibility to ensure children in our province are going to school?
Mr. Goertzen: Madam Speaker, it is one of the first things that I addressed with the department in looking for better data and better information in terms of absenteeism, where it's most impacted in the province, the steps that have been taken to date.
Certainly, of course, we have a review that's happening now with the K-to-12 commission. This issue has been referred to them. But I also know that there are steps that can be taken while we await their good work as well, Madam Speaker. And we are looking at a variety of systemic ways to try to help this problem. There is a number of different pilot projects that are going on, but I do think there needs to be a more systematic approach.
Madam Speaker: The honourable member for River Heights, on a final supplementary.
Mr. Gerrard: Reducing absenteeism in Manitoba is too important to wait for the minister's usual study-and-stall approach. Surely reducing absenteeism is too important to wait for another school year to pass. Indeed, it is too important to wait at all. Much attention has been paid in the last two days to the fact that the children's advocate has identified 17 at-risk children.
I ask today: Are all of these children attending school today? Is the Minister of Education doing his job?
Mr. Goertzen: Certainly we are not waiting, Madam Speaker. There have been pilot projects that have been undertaken, even quite recently; that have been undergone. We know that there is work that is happening in certain divisions like Seven Oaks which has reduced absenteeism. But we are looking at a more systemic approach and how can we ensure that throughout the system there are things that are being done together, but also being done in common that may not be happening now.
I appreciate the member raising this questions because they are important questions. I would not want to 'try' to make politics of this, and I am not suggesting that he is, but there are certainly things that are happening now to try to address what is a very complex problem, Madam Speaker.