We Need to Think Big

The relationship between poverty and low educational achievement is complex. Education is a basic human right, and everyone should have access to good schools and tertiary training. But it is an oversimplification to say that the way out of poverty is education. People are poor because they don’t have enough money. The quickest and easiest way out of poverty is to make sure people have enough money to live on.

It is true that lack of educational achievement can restrict earning ability in adulthood, but only because we now have a highly competitive job market where wages for unskilled and semiskilled work are kept low because of oversupply of workers both in New Zealand and in countries to which work can be outsourced. And there are a limited number of skilled highly paid jobs. These days even a university degree doesn’t guarantee a good job. Many young graduates head overseas each year because they can’t find work in New Zealand, and those who stay here often end up working in lower paid jobs for which they are over qualified.

On the other hand, living in poverty makes it difficult to get a decent education. Doing well at school relies on children not being tired, having the space and time to do homework and someone at home who has the skills to provide encouragement and assistance. Having a home computer and a broadband internet connection is almost essential to do assignments.

All of these are difficult to achieve in very low income households, which are often cold, damp, and overcrowded, and where older children are required to look after the younger ones while adults work long hours in low paid jobs which don’t have the flexibility and generous working conditions of many high paid jobs.

Many low income suburbs do not have schools close by any more so even getting to school can be difficult and expensive. Moving around to find affordable rental accommodation can mean frequent changes of schools which is also disruptive for students.

Visits from teachers from ‘high achieving schools’ to give teachers in ‘low achieving’ schools a few pointers is unlikely to be much use. The teachers are not the problem. Free school lunches and onsite nurses and social workers will be more helpful. As will extra income for families in the first year of a child’s life. However these are stop gap measures.

The real problem is poverty. We need to think big; every household needs a decent income, through a liveable benefit or a living wage. Only then will every child able to get the most out of the education that is their right.

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