How principals can tackle child poverty

How principals can tackle child poverty

A new report has a light on poverty and disadvantage as experienced by young people across Australia.

The new report, titled: ‘Material deprivation and social exclusion among young Australians: a child-focused approach’, is a collaboration between the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at UNSW, the NSW Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People, The Smith Family and the NSW Department of Education.

The research involved focus groups and a survey with children and young people in Years 7 to 10 in NSW, conducted through government high schools and financially disadvantaged students on The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program.

A number of the items young people identified in the research as being essential for all young Australians relate to school and education, such as a computer and internet access, the clothes they need for school and going on school trips or excursions at least once a term.

“From an educators’ perspective, child poverty matters, because it impacts negatively on young people’s sense of wellbeing, positivity about the future and engagement with education,” Anne Hampshire, The Smith Family’s Head of Research and Advocacy, told The Educator.

“The research reaffirms the importance of education funding being targeted and based on individual student need.” 

How principals can help

A large number of children indicated that they don’t enjoy school or feel part of their school community. Drawing from the research, Hampshire pointed to several things that Australia’s school leaders can do to address this issue and turn it around.

“The research shows the link between deprivation and enjoyment of school and feeling part of the school community,” Hampshire said.

“Young people who experienced severe deprivation – defined by this research as missing out on three or more of the 18 items young people said were essential – were less likely to enjoy school, feel part of the community or feel they were doing well at school.”

As a result, says Hampshire, deprivation makes the work of school leaders harder.

“Working to support digital inclusion for all young people in their school is one thing school leaders could do,” she said.

“Ensuring that all students can participate in school trips or excursions, and doing that in ways which don’t make financially disadvantaged students feel ‘different’ from their peers, can also help. Importantly though, school leaders shouldn’t feel that they need to try and address child poverty alone.”

One of the most important things principals can do, says Hampshire, is to work in partnership with others in their local community and beyond, including non-government organisations, to address child poverty.

Targeted policies needed

Peter Saunders, Research Chair in Social Policy within the SPRC, said addressing poverty at younger ages will have "immediate and longer-term social and economic benefits”.

“The key take-away message from this research is that the main cause of child poverty is the lack of adequate resources at the household level,” Saunders told The Educator.

“It is this lack of resources that explains much of the child deprivation that we observed in the study. The items that children are forced to go without are often relevant to their success at, and enjoyment of, school.”

Saunders said principals have an “important complementary role” to play in ensuring that school policies like charging for school trips or after-school classes and activities do not reinforce the resource constraints already facing financially disadvantaged students.

“We know from other research that children often say they don't want to engage in these kinds of activities because they know that their parents can't afford it. The result is that they often miss out on what they want and need to develop their full potential,” Saunders said.

“Of course, giving this kind of needs-based special treatment must be done in discrete ways that protect the dignity of all students and do not expose them to feelings of stigma or undermine their autonomy.”