Bryce Edwards: Back to school poverty and inequality

Bryce Edwards: Back to school poverty and inequality

Many children were supposed to start back at school today – but how many actually turned up? On an average day in New Zealand schools, only 64 per cent of students show up. Many absences are obviously due to illness, but there are ill-effects from societal problems that are preventing children from getting a basic education.

The attendance figures from the Ministry of Education came out last week for the 2018 school year. According to education reporter Josephine Franks, “the overall regular attendance rate was 63.8 per cent in 2018. That’s up slightly from 2017, when it sat at 63 per cent” – see: One-third of children regularly miss school. This report also says that “chronic absence continued to be more prevalent in lower socio-economic schools”.

A big part of the problem is poverty. The KidsCan charity argues that the cost of getting kids ready for school will prevent some students from attending on the first day. The charity’s chief executive Julie Chapman is reported today as arguing that “Some parents won’t send their children to school because they felt ashamed they can’t make ends meet”. Chapman also says: “Those that do go, start on the back foot because they don’t have the right clothes, and they’re hungry” – see Scott Yeoman and Zoe Hunter’s Tauranga families turn to foodbanks for school lunches.

According to the charity, “data shows that one in every five children in low-decile schools around New Zealand will head back to class this year without enough food.” Commenting on this, Greerton Village School principal Anne Mackintosh says “It is a grim state of affairs and a very sad indictment on what is happening socially, economically and politically to our children, our most vulnerable.” Furthermore, this article reports her believing that “schools had become more of a social agency by ensuring children had the necessities provided by volunteers”.

Another charity, Variety New Zealand, started fundraising last month in conjunction with the New Zealand Herald, so that school kids don’t miss out – see Natalie Akoorie’s Why sponsoring a child through Variety means the difference between learning and not.

Here’s the key part: “When schools return next month at least 240 children won’t have the basic requirements – a school uniform, shoes, a bag, lunch box, stationery, money to go on camp or do sports, field trips and exams. Their peers will be filled with excitement, collecting stationery, meeting new classmates and comparing their Christmas holidays. But the children whose parents cannot afford related school costs – that doesn’t include fees or donations – will either be missing from class altogether or likely dressed in a budget version of uniform with no sun hat, no shoes and no books to write in.”

As Variety chief executive Lorraine Taylor puts it, in New Zealand, “Education is free but access to it isn’t”. This “means children are turning up to school unequipped and feeling like the odd one out… For some, it means the beginning of their school year is delayed.”

The KidsCan charity is also experiencing record demand: “During 2018, KidsCan gave out 5.27 million items of food and clothed 47,350 children in warm jackets across New Zealand. In the past five years, the number of schools the charity supported have almost doubled, from 388 to 742” – see Jacques Steenkamp’s Hungry children won’t show up for new school year, principal says.

According to this article, some schools are being forced to innovate, taking on a role as social agencies. For example, one decile three Pakuranga primary school “has taken a novel approach to the hunger pains; slipping sandwiches and fruit surreptitiously into the schoolbags of students who aren’t able to bring their own.” In addition, “The school also sends food home with certain children in the evenings and on weekends, and help with uniforms and stationery costs.”

But should schools really be expected to play these social service roles in society? Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president Helen Varney raises the question of why the Government isn’t stepping up: “Is this what schools should be doing or should this be something our government should be looking at more closely and providing better services to the families in order to ensure children are coming to school everyday ready to learn?” – see RNZ’s Charity feeds thousands of school children each week.

Commenting on student poverty figures, Varney states: “I think it’s terribly sad. I think there’s something wrong with our society if that number is that high. It’s not acceptable at all but what we’re finding is that schools are having to create a range of initiatives so they meet the need of their community.”

She argues that “schools had become the social hub for communities”, but “providing meals for students each day meant that people were working on that rather than the providing education”. This can’t be avoided, she says: “We all know a child must be well fed, they must sleep well and eat well in order to be able to learn. So if they come to school hungry our first priority is to feed them.” However, “What surprises me now is how many are being supported and that’s a sad indictment on our society today”.

Not all commentators are impressed with such charity. Newstalk ZB talkback host Tim Dower agrees that something is wrong, and points out that “instead of this ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach perhaps that’s where we should be directing our energy” – see: It’s great that KidsCan helps to feed schoolkids – but where are their parents? His approach is to point the finger at parents, with the answer being to show and help them “do the right thing by their children.”

Dower elaborates on the problem: “I can’t help asking where the hell the parents are in all this? And what message do we send when we step in and take over a job that truly is the responsibility of parents? And if we take that responsibility away from the parents are we giving them the idea they don’t need to feed their kids or put shoes on their feet? It’s OK: someone else will step in and do it. There’s been a lot of angry talkback about this and I really get where it’s coming from.”

Another community group, Money Talks, which is “a major financial and budgeting helpline” also says that this year has been particularly bad for families of school-age children in poverty – see 1News’ Kiwi parents feeling financial strain as students prepare to head back to school. The organisation “say they’ve had their busiest week ever as parents face up to the cost of getting their children ready for class.” This news report cites the case of one mother of four who is expecting to have to pay over $1000 to get them ready for school.

Another news report suggests that costs per child can be up to $900 – see Jamie Ensor’s Back to school costs limiting Kiwi kids’ future success – children’s charity. In this, Variety New Zealand’s Lorraine Taylor argues that “Many of the next generation of talented Kiwis won’t be successful due to the insurmountable costs associated with going back to school.” She also says “There are children that just don’t turn up to school on the first day because their parents don’t want to send them unless they have got the right uniform or the right equipment.”

A case study of a Northland primary and secondary school is provided by the Northern Advocate newspaper, examining the required purchases of stationery, uniforms, and digital devices – see: Back to school: Costs overwhelming for struggling families. This news item also reports on a school that has stopped asking for donations from families, but points out that the school’s offerings suffer as a result.

The escalating problem of back-to-school-poverty has brought about a major focus on the costs of uniforms, with allegations that prices are being “racked up” – see Katy Jones’ School uniform costs ‘horrendous’ in NZ, sparking call for government action. This article also reports that the Korowai charitable trust is calling on the Government to help fix the issue.

One simple fix has been proposed by More FM’s Gary McCormick, who says it’s time for the Ministry of Education to get rid of the blazers, and roll out one basic uniform across the country, albeit with different jerseys for different schools – see: Gary McCormick calls for national standardised uniforms for Kiwi kids.

For an in-depth examination of the production, distribution and pricing of school uniforms, it’s well worth reading Adele Redmond’s School uniforms – why do they cost so much?

According to Redmond, “The mark-up on school uniform items often exceeds 100 per cent after passing through importers, embellishers, and retailers. One importer, who supplies fabric to several large uniform companies, says he’s seen a kilt produced from his fabric sold at a 700 per cent mark-up.”

Finally, since virtually every other element of the education system is currently under review, perhaps it’s time to also move on from tradition and embrace diversity and change in terms of what kids wear to school – see the Dominion Post’s excellent editorial, Paying the cost of tradition: Is it time to ditch school uniforms?