Opening up opportunities through education
Fri 15 Jun 2012 by Gareth Kiernan in Labour marketSkills

Last week I explored the role that welfare policy plays in New Zealand’s egalitarian society. Welfare is critical as a safety net, but it may also result in some people deciding that living on a benefit is a better or easier option for them than holding down a job.

A solo parent on the DPB currently receives $293.58 per week in the hand, compared to $455.17 if they worked full-time on the minimum wage. Although the extra $162 per week from full-time work seems attractive at first glance, childcare and transport costs are going to eat into the extra income. Money isn’t the whole story – most people derive some level of personal worth from working – but there are obviously some people who do the maths and figure they shouldn’t bother trying to find work.

A key to reducing welfare dependency is getting people to aspire beyond the minimum wage. Employability is built up through a combination of education, experience, and good work history. The last two factors have an element of “chicken and egg” – you can’t get experience without an employer taking a chance on you in the first place. But education is completely independent and gives every person the opportunity to improve their future lot in life.

If we’re concerned with the standard of living of the lowest socioeconomic groups, we’re not going to be focused on tertiary education. We’re talking about core competencies such as reading, writing, and maths – anyone without a reasonable standard of achievement in these areas will struggle to find employment. Educational achievement also indicates a person’s commitment to seeing through a task and helps instil a degree of work ethic as well. Teaching skills around social interaction and social responsibility are among the most important outcomes of the school system.

To enable young parents to further their education outside the mainstream school system, the Ministry of Education funds 18 Teen Parent Units around the country. The TPUs take a holistic approach to learning, focusing not just on academic achievement but on broader life skills as well, and they are generally valued by the students who attend them. But with an estimated 5% of teen parents attending TPUs, they are working with only a small proportion of youth in this space – probably the ones that are more motivated in the first place.

So what about the children of parents who are beneficiaries or are on low incomes? International research generally concludes that the most effective interventions to reduce poverty occur through early childhood education. Effectively setting in place a strong developmental foundation for children at a young age gives them a greater likelihood of higher educational attainment later in life.

The government has significantly increased its funding of early childhood education over recent years, up from $408m to $1.38bn since 2004 (a lift from 7.1% to 16.6% of the total education budget). This increase is a welcome change of focus from the heavy subsidisation of tertiary education, where the money is effectively going towards people who will earn above-average incomes throughout their working lives. But the universality of the government’s early childhood subsidies suggests a lack of thought about where support is most necessary and which children are most at risk of underachieving as a result of their start in life.

It is also important for children and young adults to have people who will inspire them throughout their formative years. Teachers have a vital role to play in connecting with and engaging their students, perhaps most critically at low-decile schools. Should the government provide additional incentives for high-quality teachers to work at these schools? Children at low-decile schools often have a higher incidence of behavioural problems, may come from more difficult home situations, and are sometimes not adequately fed, significantly increasing the social responsibilities for teachers in these schools.

There are two overriding points we must accept if we are serious about maintaining an egalitarian society. First, some groups within society need to be given more assistance than others, and finding the right mix between a hand-up and a hand-out is not always easy. Second, there will always be a range of individual outcomes from the good to the disappointing – it doesn’t matter whether the assistance is in the form of simple welfare payments or more targeted educational programmes.

Realistically, children’s opportunities will be limited, to some extent, by the socioeconomic wellbeing of their parents. But those limitations should not be so severe that those children are consigned to a life of poverty as well. Equipping the parents, engaging the children, and giving both the ability to aspire beyond the reality of today are vital if New Zealand is to stay true to its egalitarian ideals.

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