The statistics published today by the New Zealand Herald showing a demographic shift of European and Asian students to higher decile schools and a corresponding higher concentration of Maori and Pacific students in lower decile schools over the last decade is confirmation of the growing socio-economic divide in this country and that "poverty" is a real rather than imagined issue.

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Lower decile schools do a fantastic job educating our children and are testament to the international research that the biggest "in school effect" on children's achievement is the quality of the principal and teachers. The Education Minister, Hekia Parata, has been rightly passionate about getting this message through to the school sector.

While we applaud their efforts and indeed often remarkable academic results, educators know and the public is acutely aware that poverty is still having a significant and adverse impact on children's learning.

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It is self-evident that a high quality education is undermined when children come from over-crowded damp homes, where constant ill health and poor diet affect concentration and where there is insufficient money for the essential tools of learning such as books and computers.

Naturally those who have the means will gravitate to higher decile schools.

The implications of this poverty fault line in New Zealand schools will be far reaching and severe if not immediately addressed. A healthy and harmonious multicultural society has its foundation in a schooling system where there is a good ethnic mix of children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds working and playing together. This is simply not the reality in many schools in New Zealand today.

We have seen in the United States and England the effects of high concentrations of ethnic groups living together in poverty. These communities including their schools become breeding grounds for despair, resentment and ultimately anti-social behaviour and civil disobedience.

The poverty fault line in New Zealand schools has created a huge divide from those schools who find it necessary to feed children breakfast to those who boast world class sporting and performing arts facilities. Decile funding regrettably has been a blunt and ineffective mechanism in addressing these inequalities.

To his credit, the Prime Minister has now recognised (although belatedly) "poverty" as a priority for his third-term government.

It is a complex issue that will require considerable resolve and resources to fix. If John Key can pull it off, he will have created a lasting positive legacy.

Schools are a minor image of society and a litmus test for many social and economic issues. These statistics have identified a significant poverty fault line in schools creating an ethnic divide.

A good place to start in addressing the issue is a full review of the over bureaucratic and ineffective funding mechanisms for schools and more broadly for the government to fully engage in identifying the causes and solutions to poverty in New Zealand.

Patrick Walsh is a former president of the Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand
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