Kids at Mangere Central school turn up at 8am because there's nothing to do at home or their parents have gone to work. At school, they can at least kick a ball round the school yard for an hour. Pupils at King's School turn up in their smart maroon and grey uniforms at 8am because that's when their day starts. They stay there until 3.40pm - an extra eight hours and 20 minutes a week that headmaster Tony Sissons says is essential to provide the extras needed for an all-round education for Year 1 to Year 8.

Those extras include swimming lessons, sports coaching, athletics, French lessons, music and art lessons, woodwork, media studies...the options seem endless.

At King's the school pool is covered and heated, the courts are all-weather turf, the indoor sports dome huge. Every child in the school learns to play an instrument. Every child learns to swim well. Every child learns to speak French. Every child learns to play a sport and does PE.

Anxiously watching all this are the parents in middle and low-income New Zealand, who send their children to the local state primary, intermediate and secondary schools. Middle New Zealand recognises the gaps in the school curriculum and digs deep to make up the difference privately. And so start the after-school swimming lessons, music lessons, speech and drama groups, ballet, karate and sailing lessons, Playball, gymnastics, athletics and sport.

All that comes at a price - hundreds, in many cases thousands, of dollars extra a year for fees and gear. Not to mention the ferrying of children to and from lessons and sporting activities.

Compare that to kids at low-decile primary schools, and from low socio-economic families. Most will never learn to swim properly, if at all. They won't learn to play a musical instrument, learn a new language, or play sport at the weekend simply because their parents can't afford the fees - or they're working shift work, are busy at home with large families or they're not interested.

The average Kiwi family, already juggling large mortgages, rising costs and credit-card debt, is struggling to meet the user-pays fees for extra-curricular activities.

In Auckland it costs parents, on average, between $500 and $600 a year to give a youngster a once-weekly swimming lesson at a reputable programme through the school terms.

Progress is often slow. As Sissons says: "You won't learn to swim once a week." And, he adds, youngsters certainly won't learn to swim in two weeks - in some cases the entire amount provided by primary schools in the first term.

Although the Ministry of Education was unwilling to provide anyone to speak for this story, an emailed statement said the New Zealand curriculum ensured all students were provided with "rich and varied opportunities for participating ..."

Physical education and health, arts, technology and learning languages were all very important parts of the curriculum, the statement said. Schools had to help students to learn "fundamental aquatics skills" by the end of year 6 but recognised that most schools did not have an on-site pool to do this.

The ministry said extra funding for low decile schools, and initiatives such as Kiwisports, Stage Challenge and Rockquest, helped schools provide education beyond the basics. But, in reality, the school day and resources are largely taken up with the basics-the three Rs-and anything else is once-over-lightly.

In one sense, very low-decile schools are slightly better off because of the extra funding they get from the ministry. It's the schools in the middle deciles that struggle with funding and parents who can't afford to pay for extras.

Mangere Central principal Maria Heron is openly relieved that she doesn't have to run a higher decile school and face endless rounds of fundraising. Her decile 2 school is "heavily subsidised" and neither the teachers nor parents fundraise. She'd rather her teachers concentrate on student achievement. Heron took over the school eight years ago, after an appalling ERO report saw a commissioner called in. Heron was headhunted from Otahuhu Primary to help sort out the mess.

That mess included a school pool, built in the 60s, filled with rubbish and supermarket trolleys.

Realising the pool was a rare asset, Heron applied for Lotteries Board money to do up the pool. She kicked the glue sniffers out of the changing sheds and installed an electric fence to keep out trouble.

She acknowledges that low-decile funding and Lotteries Commission grants help subsidise school trips, camps and sporting activities that families would otherwise not be able to pay for.

But outside school hours, Heron worries that many of her pupils get very little stimulation or extra-curricular activities. Often, she says, they are sitting at home on quite small properties.

"I honestly think it contributes to obesity. Kids can't just get on skateboards and play up and down the streets like we used to. It's not safe. There are youth gangs out there."

The pupils "love it" if the school offers after-school sports and activities, she says, and they don't like the holidays.

They'll ask if they can come to school in the holidays or on the weekend."

While weekend sport is available at a reasonable cost in Manukau, children need someone to take an interest in them, get them organised and provide transport. Often they don't have that, she says.

Heron, like other principals, realises there is a limit to what a school can offer. Apart from ukeleles, the children don't learn musical instruments. There isn't the money.

However, the predominantly Maori and Pacific Island pupils do play volleyball, rugby, netball, cricket and tennis - on courts across the road from the school.

Tony Sissons thinks it's so important for all 700 King's boys to be involved in sport that he hired former All Black Andrew Blowers to run a remedial phys-ed programme in the school. Much like remedial reading, Blowers gives reluctant athletes extra coaching to make sure they take part. While he acknowledges King's has a huge advantage in having specialist phys-ed teachers, Sissons says he'd like to see more teachers involved in sports coaching at their schools.

"We know that children learn through relationships and I think sport is a wonderful way of developing relationships with children. Children will learn the teacher before they learn the subject, so I think it's a real shame if teachers are not creating an engagement outside the core curriculum."

He's a great believer in weekend sports.

"I think playing sport for a club in the weekend is really important, and I don't think you can just say the school will do it all."

But he questions the high cost for junior players in some clubs. "Where are those fees going to?"

He wonders aloud if the juniors are subsidising the senior games.

On the North Shore, at the start of another school day, the 108 children at Onepoto Primary School are leaving the cluster of shabby state houses that surround the grounds and filtering into the playground. Within minutes, balls-donated by a group of PhD students who studied the school - are being kicked, bounced and

thrown by a cheerful bunch of kids. Nearby, a group of elderly folk practise tai chi under a wooden pagoda built by Northcote Rotary.

Deputy principal Marc Dombroski, a teacher for 33 years, says he can't think of anywhere he'd rather teach. "It's a joy to teach children who get pleasure out of small things. They are very appreciative. They are not spoilt. I've had a few unpleasant experiences with higher decile schools."

But while the sounds in the Northcote playground are friendly right now, the school gets its share of fights. These Are kids who are used to seeing violence in some homes, alcohol abuse, drug addiction.They're used to their parents working shifts, they're used to moving on when the debts get too large. Dombroski says Onepoto is lucky.

Its decile 1 funding, an ex-pupil benefactor and various sponsors mean the school has a van to transport children to sports games and pay for uniforms. They've had five weeks of swimming lessons. ("I'd love to have a swimming pool here," he says.)

Rotary donated some guitars and Dombroski teaches the instrument at lunchtime. He also plays guitar for the kapa haka group. Other teachers teach sport at lunchtimes and after school.

He's had two keyboards donated and the children are starting to write their own music and lyrics. Dombroski makes no apology for taking the extra Government funding.

"It's through no fault of their own that these kids are not able to have the opportunities that others get. We're incredibly appreciative of all the support we get and we make sure it's used well."

Not far away in Hillcrest, the decile rating leaps to 9 at Willow Park Primary, a sprawling school of 586 children in bright, well-maintained classrooms. This school is surrounded by quiet suburban streets where an average four-bedroom home won't sell for much under $500,000 or $600,000. Willow Park has a school pool, built 25 years ago, where kids learn to swim three to four times a week, every second week, during the first school term.

They learn water safety there in term four. The school has recently installed solar heating and a heat pump. When the Herald on Sunday visits, the school grounds are crowded with shiny bikes - evidence of the school triathlon.

At this school, the "donations" get paid by parents. At Onepoto, they're lucky to collect $1000 in donations from all the parents put together.

And most Willow Park parents can afford the sports fees and after-school activities, although even they are finding it tough.

Co-deputy principal Tracey Harnett says families increasingly have two parents in fulltime work.

"Dad's got to be earning a stonking amount of money to afford for mum to stay home," she says. Even families where the main income earner is earning $90,000 a year will still need a secondary income to meet mortgage payments in this area.

Paul Nixon, a PE teacher at Hamilton Boys' High who coaches the football and softball teams, laments a "user-pays society" that limits access to sport for some children. "I think at that age it's very important to play sport.

It's good for social development, to learn to get that enjoyment out of a particular sport."

He's critical of the high cost imposed by some clubs and federations, making it difficult or impossible for children from low-income families to pay.

Two years ago local schools formed the Waikato Secondary Schools Football Council, now running 400 football teams. Each team is charged $160 a year. That compares with $460 being charged by the Waikato Bay of Plenty Football Federation - the reason the secondary schools pulled out.

Eight weeks of coaching with the federation costs $150, he says. With the cost of gear on top of that, and transport, many families just can't afford it. Nixon tries to keep the cost down for his softball teams - they are charged $30.

Hamilton Boys' junior softball team is number 1 ranked in New Zealand.

The senior team is number 2. "And we run our programme on the sniff of an oily rag."

Sparc (Sport and Recreation NZ)says it's aiming to improve access to sport for all children through a series of grants to schools and community-based sports organisations. It wants to get 80 per cent of Kiwi youngsters playing sport on a regular basis through its Kiwisport programme launched in 2009.

In its first year Kiwisport regional partnership funding was approved for projects involving 460,000 children. Over four years $82 million will be invested in school sports and clubs. But Nixon would like to see the Government help out more with the cost of sport.

Without dedicated teachers prepared to give their time and help fund raise, many children will miss out, he says.

"It's not until you get into that elite bracket that you get the funding."

Recognising that most state schools don't have the time, money or expertise to offer an

all-round education, middle and high income earners plough a fair slice of the family budget into making up the difference. Cashing in on that anxiousness are family magazines and newsletters loaded with brightly coloured advertisements offering everything from karate and tennis lessons to gymnastics and sailing.

Apart from the time involved after school, these extra-curricular options don't come cheap.

One Auckland mum, from the eastern suburb of Meadowbank, is paying $900 a year for ballet lessons for her 7 year-old daughter, on top of about $200 for the shoes, leotard and character skirt. Her daughter also does jazz ballet, another $300 a year.

Her 9-year-old son plays junior rugby ($90 a year) and cricket ($120 for the season, plus $60 for the uniform and about $50 for the bat and balls). His piano lessons are $1040 a year; the electric keyboard was $300. Both children have swimming lessons ($600 a year each).

A Glendowie mother was shocked at the $280 cost for her 5-year-old son to play soccer with Eastern Bays Football Club-$140 for a fees, $105 for the club shirt, shorts and socks, and $40 for football boots.

Playball, which teaches basic sports skills to youngsters, is another $360 a year, and $600 a year for swimming lessons.

Acknowledging that many parents simply can't afford those fees, AUT sociology professor Charles Crothers would like to see more facilities like Youthtown and YMCA spread through suburbs within easy reach of all families. "It's not just baby-sitting, it's developing social skills," he says.

He points to the 20 hours of free day-care funding provided by the Government and questions why similar funding cannot go to young schoolage children for sporting and cultural activities.

"This area really is a bit of a dark hole. It shapes the whole of the rest of their life...it helps them to grow as adults."

A sporting chance

Meagan and Ian Roberts spend more than $3000 a year making sure their three sons play sport after school.

Every afternoon but one, Meagan is out running sons Isaac, 11, Mitchell, 9, and Tom, 6, to and from activities. All three boys take weekly swimming lessons - something which is "nonnegotiable".

"It's important that they have strong swimming skills," she says. Apart from the $1720 annual bill for their swimming lessons, the Glendowie mother regularly has to buy new swimming goggles ($25 a pair) because the rubber straps perish.

The Roberts encourage their children to play at least one other sport.

"We want to encourage them to get involved in team-based stuff because of what that teaches you," Roberts says. "Also for health and fitness. That physical outlet is very important, particularly for boys." While sporting activities like netball, softball and Flippa Ball are offered at their school (Churchill Park School, Decile 10), Roberts says her sons prefer different sports to the ones offered - particularly her "sports mad" son Mitchell. Roberts, who has never added up what she spends on after-school activities, describes the $3300 figure as "frightening".

"We already pay $475 for each boy for school fees, and then there's all the fundraising."