Disadvantage remains a major dictator of underachievement in schools. Poor children pass at rates well below below their wealthy peers, with a gulf in opportunities afforded to students at either end of the decile spectrum despite efforts to address the disparity. With poverty affecting one in four children, educators say it’s time to act, before another generation are consigned to the cycle.

• Children at schools in poor areas continue to lag far behind their wealthy peers, with rising pass rates making only a small dent in the gap.
• The 'long tail of underachievement' persists despite 25 years' work, including more than 80 initiatives since 2000.
• And educators fear the increasing polarisation of rich and poor schools could see the gulf remain.
• Papakura High School prefect Phoenix Pule'anga says he uses others' perceptions as motivation to achieve: 'I want to prove them wrong ...'
• A three-part Herald series begins today.

Children at schools in poor areas are still lagging far behind their wealthy peers, with rising pass rates making but a small dent in the achievement gap, latest data shows.

The "long tail of underachievement" persists despite 25 years' work, including more than 80 initiatives aimed at "priority students" since 2000.

Educators fear that the increasing polarisation of rich and poor schools, and proposed funding changes, could see the gulf remain if equity isn't better addressed - both in schools, and in wider society - where one in four children now live in poverty.


Today is the first of a three-day Herald series about the effects of hardship on student achievement, including a day-in-the-life of a low-decile school, a look at 15 years of policy, including successful interventions.

It will reveal that some current policies, such as the PB4L initiative, are clearly helping disadvantaged children, while other programmes have been dropped due to changing political direction, or cost, despite their popularity and success.

An analysis of the opportunities at decile 1 and decile 10 will show a vast disparity - where at 1, only a quarter of children could afford a school camp, while at the other, large groups of children were taking overseas trips. Research showed high-decile schools were more likely to have quality buildings, a wide range of extra-curricular activities, a wealth of IT and experienced, stable, staffing. They have the ability to raise enough funds to have $1000 more per child than low decile schools, despite targeted funding.

"It's criminal, we've got generations of kids now that theoretically have a free education but not the same education as in another suburb," said Dr Vicki Carpenter, author of Twelve Thousand Hours: Education and Poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Sector experts have called on politicians to try to reach some kind of cross-party agreement targeting children living in poverty, to reverse inter-generational deprivation.

Ideas included allowing changes more time to bed in; paying teachers more to work in low-decile schools; and embedding social responsibility into legislation in the same way as fiscal responsibility.

"Every government comes in and wants to make a quick fix. But if you do that you run the risk of papering over the cracks, and that's what's happening now," said Papatoetoe High School principal Peter Gall.

"It's about equity, not equality. People say everyone in New Zealand has the same chance, but bullshit they have. Equity means we should be doing things differently for disadvantaged students, because they have less."


Statistics from 2014 showed that although overall achievement levels were rising, particularly for Maori and Pasifika, children at deciles 1-3 were four times as likely to leave with no qualifications as those at deciles 8-10.

The achievement gap between rich and poor at NCEA Level 2 was 25 percentage points, a five point reduction since 2009. The gap of 30 points remained unchanged at Level 3. Just 17 per cent of low decile children got University Entrance, compared to 60 percent of high decile.

Massey University education professor John O'Neill said studies had shown students' home background, including factors like transience, dysfunction and a lack of resources were responsible for up to 80 per cent of a child's school success.

Education Minister Hekia Parata quoted different figures, saying only 18 per cent of the difference in student achievement can be accounted for by socio-economic factors. She said one OECD study found other factors collectively had a much greater impact including the quality of teaching, performance expectations, school leadership and positive relationships between parents and teachers that focus on learning.

"Socio-economic status is a factor in student achievement, however, as countless successful New Zealanders who have risen from humble origins have shown, decile is not destiny in this country."

Students fight hunger, crime and perception

The bell rings out over a drizzly spring morning at a high school somewhere in South Auckland. A trail of teenagers are dawdling towards the gates, unfazed by the time or rain.


Inside a weathered pre-fab, a Year 12 English class take their seats. There are posters on one wall reading "You, not Yous", and a row of computers on the other. With just three days of teaching left in the year, most of the students are rushing to finish assessments on "the gangster genre" in the hope of passing NCEA Level 2. About half will. Only a handful will sit exams. It is not the 85 per cent achievement required by government. But then, a quarter of children at this school arrive, at age 13, with the reading levels expected of 9-year-olds.

As the clock ticks towards interval, the kids are absorbed in analysing the lessons from the gangster films - namely, that everyone dies. A trio of boys at the back play on their phones. The teacher sighs. "That lot checked out a long time ago. You can try and try and try ... but they resist being taught. It's heartbreaking." He points out some others. One boy lives with his grandmother and 17 other kids. A boy in a cap is very bright, but refuses to show it in front of his peers.

Others come to school hungry, without uniform. Many have been touched by crime. Earlier this year, one girl found out in the middle of a class that her father had been shot by police.

Hazel*, 16, got into fight after fight as a junior student, and was only saved from expulsion by a compassionate principal and her marks - which were good despite an abysmal attendance record. These days, she comes to school almost 80 per cent of the time, except when she is sick or her mum needs help with siblings. Or, like that day earlier this year, when catastrophe strikes. Her family rang and told her "just like it was a normal, daily thing", she says. She spent the rest of that day between the police station and the hospital, desperately trying to see if her dad was okay.

You can find the same kind of stories borne from hardship in almost any low-decile school across the country. Some of the worst are about neglect and abuse. The most frustrating are about state incompetence. One principal told how a child whose sister died in a horrific homicide arrived at his school with no warning. Staff knew she had "something going on", but only found out her full history when the Child, Youth and Family file finally turned up - 18 months later.

Achievement figures from the lower deciles are stark. Students are below the norm when they start school at age 5, and are still below when they enter high school. They are four times as likely to end up with no qualifications as those from more affluent schools, and have higher rates of truancy and transience. Though five-year NCEA pass rates are up, they remain 25 percentage points below those in the high deciles. Just 17 per cent of these kids will get University Entrance, compared to 60 per cent of kids at the rich schools across town. And if the kids are Maori and Pasifika, which disproportionate numbers are, their outcomes sink further.


Often, their results see the schools maligned as "failing". But it is clear many of the schools are slogging their guts out, battling amid communities ravaged by deprivation. Poverty**, which affects 285,000 New Zealand children, or one in four, is well-known as a correlate to achievement. In the book Twelve Thousand Hours: Education and Poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand, Massey University academics Ivan Snook and John O'Neill have concluded home background is responsible for up to 80 per cent of a child's school success.

The influencing factors are depressing: frequent changes of school; chronic ill health; inadequate food and clothes; lack of good parenting; limited access to books; and family dysfunction. Poverty affects resources, values, attitudes and behaviour. The associated stress, neglect or trauma of deprivation can impact cognitive development. In one bleak example, a study found low-socioeconomic children who scored highly on tests aged 22 months were overtaken by kids from high-socioeconomic families by the time they started school.

The government's research agrees. "The evidence also suggests that parental income during the early years of childhood can affect children's achievement throughout their primary schooling," the Best Evidence Synthesis says. "Children from low income families tend to score lower than other children on some competencies at age 10 years - regardless of whether the family income improves during the children's primary school years."

None of these findings are new, except the urgency around addressing poverty seems to be increasing. New Zealand childhood poverty rates have almost doubled since the 1980s. "The poverty being experienced now by families is too destructive to be ignored or tolerated," writes Dr Vicki Carpenter is Twelve Thousand Hours. She tells the Herald it is vital to address underlying issues. "The white middle-class doesn't have a monopoly on intelligence. If there is a whole resource of young people we're not taking to their potential, then New Zealand is going to miss out."

Back at school, Hazel is making her way to PE, where she will be assessed (and pass) for a module on leadership skills. She is hypervigilant, scanning for people she'd rather avoid. "Before, if I heard someone talking about me I'd want to fight them, now I just laugh at them," she says. Her change in attitude comes partly from the close bond she's formed with staff at the school, and partly from the determination to prove wrong those who called her "a failure". "People say, no one in that school passes. But people do. I passed my Level 1." After her marks were confirmed, Hazel updated her Facebook status. It read: "Sorry to those who doubted me".

Perception weighs heavily on these South Auckland students. They are at pains to point out that - like research suggests - although their lives aren't like the kids from wealthy areas, it doesn't mean they won't succeed. The students in Hazel's class have dreams - to be a physio, a teacher, a naval officer - strengths, and many achievements. But no one notices the positives, they say, pointing to negative examples in the media.


One of those was a fight between girls from Manurewa High School this year. Afterwards, Year 12 student Sulani Helg wrote to media asking them to stop. Sulani, an articulate student with a Samoan background, has felt the sting of a stereotype countless times. Once, a Pakeha woman congratulated her for "speaking so well". She shakes her head. "It was a typical New Zealander astonished by a brown kid who spoke proper English."

Sulani Helg, 16, a Year 12 student at Manurewa High School, is frustrated by negative stereotypes. Photo / Nick Reed
Sulani Helg, 16, a Year 12 student at Manurewa High School, is frustrated by negative stereotypes. Photo / Nick Reed

Sulani says South Auckland is not as bad as people think. "I suppose that society is unwilling to realise that what they assume or think, is just a single story."

Papakura High School prefect and hip hop dancer Phoenix Pule'anga, 18, says he tries to use others' perceptions of his home town, Otara, as motivation. "When I was young, we would go on inter-school trips and the high decile schools would look at us differently. So I want to prove them wrong, not to feel that anymore. But there are a lot of kids out there that feel like they're unworthy."

For principals, advocating for the kids can be a balancing act between perpetuating stereotypes and getting what students need. "When you talk about it, you get told it's deficit thinking," says Manurewa High School's Salvatore Gargiulo. "It's not. It's about resources. Saying a kid needs more help with English because they might not speak it at home is not saying they're not as good as anyone else."

School is almost out. Hazel has had a good day. The principal has chosen her photography board to hang outside his office. It caps off a successful year - last week, she got an award for behaviour, "my first one since my happy birthday certificate when I was 5", and a prize at sports awards. Her family life is more stable, and she is confident of passing Level 2. Afterwards, she wants to study law. "I've told my dad, I'll go to university and do my time - that's what it is, because who wants to spend five more years studying? And he will go to jail and do his time. And at the end we both have a good outcome." She wants her father to come and live with her. "We can go to the park and play happy families." She laughs at herself, and then smiles, hopefully.

*Not her real name.


**Poverty here is defined as children who live in homes where the household income is below 60 per cent of the median, after deducting housing costs.

Pass marks

• One in 10 students who left high school last year did so without gaining an NCEA qualification.

• Children who go to a decile 1-3 school are four times more likely to leave with no qualifications than those at decile 8-10.

• In the past five years, Maori and Pasifika achievement rates at Level 2 have increased by 13 per cent and 15 per cent respectively, to 56 and 71 per cent.

• Pakeha achievement at Level 2 is 81 per cent. Asian is 89 per cent.

• At low decile schools, the Level 2 pass rate is 64 per cent. At high decile schools it's 89. The gap between the proportion of children achieving NCEA Level 2 at low and high deciles is 25 percentage points. In 2009 it was 30 percentage points.


• At Level 3, that gap is 30 percentage points and has remained unchanged in five years.

• Last year, only 17 per cent of low-decile children got UE, compared to 60 per cent of those who went to high-decile schools.

The series
Today: A day in the lower deciles: We go inside some of our poorest schools
Tomorrow: The long tail of the long tail: Why does the underachievement gap persist?
Friday: What is working: A simple idea helping bring families and schools together.