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Barriers to educational success must be removed

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says that distribution of resources to schools must be better targeted to ensure that all children across the decile system have the same access to quality educational opportunities. 

A fully equitable education system is one in which all children have the same chances of success irrespective of their family circumstances and background. While this remains a distant ideal in New Zealand, our Government and the Ministry of Education (MoE) have the responsibility and the means to foster greater social equity among children. This can be achieved by resourcing schools sufficiently and enabling them to provide all the supports that children in poverty need, so they are well-placed to make sound study choices and to achieve at the same rates and in the same areas as their better-off peers.

Where families may not have the necessary knowledge, skill and confidence to negotiate the complexities of NCEA, the schools must have a comprehensive plan for guiding and supporting children to fulfil their best academic potential. This is a service of schools that must be offered genuinely and inclusively to ALL students. As the I Have A Dream Charitable Trust has shown, such approaches are resource-intensive and beyond the capacity of most schools where social, economic and educational disadvantage are concentrated.

Recent media reports reveal some schools are encouraging 'easier pathways' to NCEA Level 2 for Maori and Pasifika students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government’s failure to deter this gaming behaviour is evidence that it’s Better Public Services target of 85% of students achieving NCEA Level 2 by 2017 is taking precedence over the real, long-term needs of students living in poverty.

"It is crucial that the curriculum in academic areas is delivered in a way that is engaging to those for whom these areas aren’t familiar or where the foundation to support academic learning does not exist for them in the home. Thus there is a need for well-trained staff and supportive study pathways planning together with the role modeling, mentoring and coaching that students need to see themselves as successful learners in academic subjects," says Professor John O’Neill, CPAG spokesperson for education.

Setting arbitrary national achievement targets for political purposes without providing the necessary additional staffing resources to support students’ choices of study and career pathways means that students in poverty too often end up making the wrong choices for the wrong reasons, because schools are under extreme pressure from the MoE and Education Review Office (ERO) to meet pass-rate targets while ignoring the real educational needs of students.

"This is a classic example of performativity and its harmful effects", says Professor O’Neill.

"It’s just like the reports some years ago of privatised British trains failing to stop at stations en route to pick up passengers because the rail company’s performance target and was the number of journeys completed on time. Our children in poverty deserve much better, and this takes much more than target-setting."

Under-resourced schools aren’t adequately staffed to manage the diverse, more complex study pathway guidance and support needs of their students in poverty. For some, offering easier credit accumulation pathways appears to be their only viable solution. But this limits opportunities for children at tertiary level and later in life, and therefore contributes to the cycle of inter-generational disadvantage children from low-income families, and Maori or Pasifika backgrounds.

The latest symptom may be unwise NCEA subject and credit choice, but the underlying structural problem of being born into and living in material poverty demands a much more sophisticated response from Government, the MoE and ERO than pressuring secondary schools to meet Better Public Services targets, however well-intentioned they may be.