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How poverty stops children making the most of early childhood education

Early childhood education sets the scene for life, the research tells us. The government recognises this with its 20 hours free programme for three and four year olds. Sadly, some children miss out – often those who could benefit the most.

 Why don’t some parents enrol their children? Whānau Manaaki Kindergartens has been working with families in Porirua to get children enrolled and attending. After three years, almost 100 children have been enrolled but it has not been easy.

Poverty is the main reason children don’t go to early education services. Even with 20 hours free, there are costs of transport, lunches, and warm and waterproof clothes. Bags and lunchboxes may not be available. There is the embarrassment of not being able to afford donations, or running out of nappies before payday.

Sometimes, enrolling children is the easy part –keeping children attending is the challenge, when families face multiple problems. 

The stress of poverty causes takes a toll, with power cuts, eviction notices and other housing issues.  Poverty and poor health go together.  Children don’t see a doctor early, and prescriptions are not filled because of cost. Administering medicine is another issue, and if children don’t recover quickly this undermines attendance.

Many families face problems including family violence, mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependence, drug raids, sexual abuse, other child abuse, gang issues.

Crises such as terminal illness, bereavement, house fires, children being removed by Child Youth and Family, and immigration problems take a toll.  

Many families are reluctant to engage with services because of their experiences with authority figures and officials. It takes work to break down these barriers over time and form trusting relationships.

Families may relate to a large number of services – there are 196 contracts with social agencies in the Porirua area. Despite this, agencies struggle to meet demand, and can take a month to respond to a family in trouble. Families with high and complex needs – up to seven or eight issues at a time– must deal with government agencies such as Housing New Zealand, Work and Income, and Inland Revenue.

Whānau Manaaki Kindergartens has been funded by government through its Engaging Priority Families (EPF) contract to overcome some of these hurdles.

The kindergarten association has a community co-ordinator to introduce families to early childhood services and to support the relationship. Families sometimes feel intimidated by teachers and worry about being judged for their parenting. The community co-ordinator helps sort out other issues so families have the energy and space to focus on early childhood education.  Our community co-ordinator has liaised with twenty separate agencies over these problems.

Some of the children have special education needs – requiring paediatric, psychological or early intervention services. Again, the community co-ordinator helps families navigate relationships so that appointments are made and kept and families understand and trust the need for the service.

Whānau Manaaki operates a transport scheme, with drivers and drivers’ assistants to collect children. Two people are needed so one adult can stay with children in the van while the other goes to the house.  Drivers are from Porirua and have good community connections.  Over time the driving team forms strong bonds with the children.

Our support for children to transition to school is an integral part of the programme, with follow-up for the first three months of school.  Unofficially, we provide support to keep older children in school as well.

What have we learned from three years of this programme?

  • Poverty is a huge and ongoing problem for many families, reducing the likelihood of sustained regular participation in early childhood education and the benefits it brings.
  • If one family member lives in poverty, chances are that the extended family also suffers poverty and there are not the wider family resources to support individuals.
  • Poverty is endemic and community-wide, it does profound damage to the psyche and spirit of communities and the individuals in them. 
  • Intensive work with families across the many issues caused by poverty is needed if children are to successfully engage in education, both early childhood and school.
  • The effects of poverty are ongoing – and are exacerbated over time rather than getting sorted on a one-off basis.
  • Working with families across the issues they face is intensive and long term work. Short term government contracts are not likely to be successful. 
  • Many families have a myriad of agencies involved in their lives which can bring greater stress rather than solving the problems they have. 

Guest blogger, Amanda Coulston, is the General Manager of Whānau Manaaki Kindergartens.  

Whānau Manaaki Kindergartens have been involved in a three year Engaging Priority Families contract with the Ministry of Education, working with families in Porirua to support participation in early childhood education.