Paul Moon: History disproves poverty mantra

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Early success stories and immigrant communities prove children from poor backgrounds can do well at school.

Poverty in the early days was no barrier to school success. Photo / Getty Images
Poverty in the early days was no barrier to school success. Photo / Getty Images

The recent small surge in reports recounting child poverty in New Zealand make grim reading, especially as so many of the conditions blighting children's lives can easily be remedied.

However, amid the inevitable hand-wringing that follows the release of these glum accounts, there is one theme that tends to slip through largely unquestioned: that poverty and poor educational attainment are linked.

Although it seems self-evident, this connection is only partly true. There is definitely a correlation but that is not the same as ascribing causation. While the links between poverty and poor performance at school are well documented, the implication that poverty causes educational underachievement does not automatically follow.

A case in point is the recent attention on inadequate housing as being the breeding-ground for many children's failure at school, as well as a catalyst for anti-social behaviour. It is here that the causation argument appears at its most brittle.

Consider reports that have been written about the standard of some of the country's housing.

In Dunedin, for example, in a right-of-way off Filleul St, one report cited a block of terrace houses with outside toilets emptying into an untrapped sewer, giving the area a foul stench, as well as making the location highly unsanitary for the residents.

In some Auckland suburbs, conditions were hardly better according to another researcher, with household waste piling up and putrefying on sections, sewerage leaking on to the streets, rodent infestations erupting, and outbreaks of typhoid, polio, diphtheria, and even the plague being recorded.

Yes, these reports were written in the 1900s, but what is significant is that the children brought up in these squalid circumstances mostly managed to achieve a good standard of basic education, and did not manifest the sort of anti-social behaviour for which poverty is now held up as a cause.

And if you want an illuminating history lesson on poor, inadequately-housed New Zealand communities whose children have performed above the average at school, you need only look at some of our immigrant groups, whose housing during periods of the 20th century was sometimes severely substandard and overcrowded, whose members endured discrimination and often struggled with gaining employment, and where poverty was a constant companion.

Yet the children who endured such miserable conditions often became high achievers in school. Anyone involved with many of our immigrant communities will be familiar with this general narrative. The basic tenets are repeated for various ethnic groups that have made New Zealand their home. Accounts abound of families living in cramped, dingy accommodation, with the barest of amenities and occasionally not even enough food.

According to the current calculus the children of these communities were prime candidates for failure in school.

But what many of these groups did possess was a specific attitude towards education.

Teachers were respected, almost to the point of reverence; education was not only highly valued, it was usually seen as the only lifeline by which the family could pull itself out of its present circumstances.

Homework was made a priority for children, punctual attendance at school had the force of a religious commandment and the responsibility for a child's success lay with that child and their family - there was no suggestion of blaming a "culturally inappropriate education system".

And it was not as though these parents were themselves necessarily highly educated. On the contrary, among some immigrant groups which arrived in New Zealand in the 20th century, educational attainment was sometimes slender, often because the opportunities for schooling in their countries of origin were slim.

Such history can be instructive, and surely, there are solutions to be harnessed from these experiences and approaches?

Yes, let's work on improving housing conditions and ameliorating the worst effects of poverty.

But trotting out the tired mantra about poverty causing poor educational performance - as opposed to being correlated with underachievement in school - does no one a service, least of all those who are in most urgent need right now of solutions.


Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, University College, London.

- NZ Herald

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