maths school nz

Poor Kids Do Worse at School? Here’s a Novel Idea – Fix the Poverty

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

This morning on Radio NZ we see a story about a school in Auckland where parents are so poor their kids can not participate in school sporting activities. This is on the back of an OECD report released  yesterday which hammers home the truth we have been staring at for years – kids who live in families who are poor do worse at school; in this case maths.

About 10% of the most well off 15 year old kids in New Zealand (the top 25% on a socio economic scale) are doing badly in maths, while nearly half (44%) of kids from the poorest families (bottom 25%) are doing badly in maths. A poor kid is 6 times more likely to fail maths than the wealthier kid they don’t get to sit next to. In other great news the only countries doing worse than us on this particular scale are Israel, Poland and Ireland.

The report suggests that we need to make this a priority in our education system, support under achievers, target poor performance and provide more supportive school systems.

But here is the thing- if poverty is the problem why are we only looking for education to provide the fix?

Family Poverty Causes Educational Underachievement

We have written previously why poverty causes poor outcomes for kids – including in education. To recap, families in poverty are stressed and this stress effects the brain development of their children. It also affects the quality of interactions between kids and parents (like getting read to), and it limits the enriching educational experiences outside of school that children need to develop and learn (like visiting a museum).

Research from NZ shows that two kids of the same abilities born into different families will do very differently based on the economic circumstances of the family. A clever kid born into a poor family in New Zealand will never do as well – we are failing to give all kids a fair go.

Educational Programmes Can Fix it But…

As we will discuss in more detail in our upcoming report on Family Poverty, intensive pre school educational programmes improve the educational outcomes of kids from poor families. The catch is they are far more intensive and expensive than preschool as we currently know it in New Zealand, for example they start when high-risk kids are babies and do one on one teaching everyday. So we have to ask is this where we want to spend our money in improving the outcomes of poor kids?

The thing is educational interventions mainly only impact educational outcomes. Yet kids in poverty don’t just do badly in their achievement at school, they have worse health, more behavioral problems, are more likely to be involved in crime, are more likely to be the victims of violence (the list goes on…). Intensive educational programmes are not by and large going to fix these other problems.

Poverty Alleviation has the Biggest Impact

As we will discuss in our report the evidence is very clear that improving the economic circumstances of the poorest families is what has the biggest impact on the most outcomes for kids. The biggest bang for our buck is fixing the poverty.

Of course we need to make the changes in education that the experts are discussing in order to ensure the system gives all kids a fair go. But we can’t rely on schools and the educational system to pick up the pieces for kids growing up in poor households. It is a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We should do what works and move poor families out of poverty so their kids do better in all aspects of their lives, and we all win with improved economic outputs, reduced crime and a healthier, happier society.


Poor Kids Do Worse at School? Here’s a Novel Idea – Fix the Poverty was last modified: February 11th, 2016 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.