The soaring cost of living is fuelling an education crisis for children in poverty, schools are warning. Teachers fear an increasing number of students will turn up too hungry to learn as schools return for the year, with others missing altogether as uniforms, stationery, and devices become luxuries.
The situation is being exacerbated in areas hard hit by flooding in the upper North Island. Many families who were already struggling have lost everything, with schools rallying to help with food and shelter. KidsCan is working with its partner schools to provide extra food and clothing to those affected.
“Schools tell us they are now dealing with a ‘cost of learning’ crisis, with students’ education suffering as their families struggle to stay afloat,” KidsCan CEO Julie Chapman says. “That’s something we must urgently address. These are the children who need education the most, because it’s their best chance of getting out of poverty.
“The floods bring a layer of misery that vulnerable families just did not need. They were already overwhelmed by soaring costs – now some have lost everything. Schools are rallying to support them, and we are working with staff to help get them back on their feet.”
KidsCan, which supports nearly nine hundred schools nationwide with food and clothing, has seen a sharp rise in need. The charity helps feed around 49,000 children a day – up 10,000 year-on-year. Thousands more children in 48 schools are waiting for help. In a survey of its partner schools, more than five hundred detailed the considerable challenges they are facing this year.
“A large chunk of our kids are working part-time to help their family out,” one wrote. “They come to school tired, stressed and often late, which means they are not in the headspace to learn.”
Some schools noted rising transience, as spiralling rents forced families out of their homes and into cheaper towns: “Schooling vs survival – and the kids miss out,” a principal wrote.
Principals say the role of schools has changed since the Covid-19 lockdowns, with pastoral care now as much of a focus as learning for many. Many said they weren’t passing any back-to-school costs on to overwhelmed parents, with no fees, and free uniforms and stationery packs. It meant they could get children in the gate but came at the expense of other teaching resources. Teachers wrote of going op-shopping in their holidays for togs, towels, and sun hats.
“The priority for families is to look after basic needs. Educational needs come well down the list for any available discretionary spending,” another wrote. Instead, their school was applying to trusts to help fund these.
“The difference between students who start the year with the tools for learning, and those who don’t, is becoming starker,” Chapman says. “Kids in poverty see that they are missing out, and that has an impact on their self-esteem and their motivation to learn.”
Schools surveyed said it was vital that children attend from the start of the school year, when routines and friendships are formed, giving them a crucial feeling of belonging. It also meant they could get support from KidsCan and other agencies immediately, as many would have survived on little food over the holidays.
“A lot will be aware they have no shoes, no breakfast, or money is tight. We need to support them with what we can, so they don’t feel embarrassed returning to school. We also have students of concern, it’s important that we assess these students needs quickly and connect to the support systems in place,” one principal wrote.
The increase in demand for KidsCan support coincided with a drop in the number of regular givers, who are having to tighten their own budgets. The charity’s own costs are increasing, with food prices up as much as 19% on the previous year. The cost of providing jackets and shoes has also risen 20%.
“It’s a tough start to 2023 – made even worse by the weather. More children need our help, but fewer people have spare money to donate. We have 48 schools waiting for support, where thousands of children are struggling without the essentials. If you can afford it, please help us reach them as soon as possible,” Chapman says.