Children deserve more

Last updated 06:45 29/01/2014

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Politicians' promises to invest in our children are good but do not go far enough, writes Children's Commissioner Russell Wills.

This week the Greens, Labour and National each released policies for children.

I think it's great that as the economy improves and the Government's books start to look healthier, all parties are talking about investing in our children. As a nation there is no better investment.

The Greens' policy is for health and social "hubs" in low decile schools. Some schools already have very effective hubs. Decile one Victory School in Nelson for example has doctor, nurse and midwife clinics, Work and Income, social work and several volunteer groups operating out of the school. Roll turnover has decreased substantially, one professional told me, "because there is a reason to stay".

Not surprisingly, student achievement has also improved.

Bringing services together under one roof makes sense to parents. Their costs getting to services are reduced and they are more likely to get their needs met. The Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty (EAG) that reported to me in 2012 were strong supporters of schools as hubs.

National will improve teacher quality by paying excellent teachers and principals to mentor teachers and principals who want help to improve standards and student achievement.

Again, this makes good sense. In nearly every study published, teacher quality was the single most important determinant of student achievement in the education system - much more so than class size. It also means excellent teachers remain in the classroom, rather than having to be promoted to management roles many don't want.

Labour's proposal is for a universal child payment of $60 for every newborn baby whose parents are on less than $150,000, continuing after 12 months to three years for those on low and medium incomes. Again, this was a suggestion of the EAG. There are strong reasons for a child payment to be made universal; the payment gets to everyone because you don't have to apply, administration costs are low and most parents of newborns are at the lowest earning point in their lives, so the payment makes a significant difference to most. This is why we have a universal superannuation payment.

Labour also propose extending free early childhood education to 25 hours and more well child visits, which I think are good investments.

I'm less convinced about paid parental leave, as it is a substantial cost and advantages better off families. The economy is improving and this allows some limited opportunity to invest.

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However there will still have to be hard choices. The science is clear that the youngest children in the poorest families are most harmed by poverty. In my view this means any new investment should prioritise our youngest and poorest children.

Other parties, such as NZ First and the Maori Party, have also indicated that child poverty is on their agenda. I will be interested to hear how the minor parties plan to invest in our children when they release their manifestos.

So - why now, and how should we react?

Parties typically float controversial policies early in an election year to test our reaction. If we are supportive we can expect to see more. If we are lukewarm or unsupportive, expect these proposals to quietly disappear or be watered down.

I think most of these proposals are very good and will make a significant difference to many children. The first three years are when children's brains develop most quickly. Poverty damages that early development, leaving lifelong damage and contributing to ill health, learning and behavioural problems, unemployment, drug and alcohol problems, mental illness and criminality in adulthood, so it costs all of us.

So please talk about these proposals at work, in families and with friends. Write to your MP and say you want to see more for the poorest and youngest children in their party's policies. When the pollsters call, tell them too.

We can also say that our children need and deserve more than this.

What no party has said yet is that they will have a comprehensive plan to reduce child poverty and its effects. The plan should include legislation holding the next and future governments accountable for targeted reductions in child poverty.

This could be the year when children are the winners in the political contest of ideas. But it will only happen if we make it so.

For more on child poverty go to www.childpoverty.co.nz.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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