Failure to help the one in four children said to be living in poverty could see the country crippled by crime, unemployment and unhealthy, unhappy adults.
A new policy paper released today by the Child Poverty Action Group calls for compulsory education policies aimed at addressing children's disadvantages outside the school gates to help their chances inside the classroom and later in life.
The report outlines how the school system is failing to help students overcome poverty and socio-economic disadvantage, as children from impoverished backgrounds struggle to keep up.
However, Education Minister Hekia Parata said the Government was working to address such issues inside and outside of schools.
The report's author, Professor John O'Neill of Palmerston North, who is the associate director of research at Massey University's Institute of Education, said more than 285,000 New Zealand children, or one in four, lived in poverty.
More could be done to reduce inequalities, to help build better futures. Students' abilities and aspirations were influenced by factors both in and out of school, but a child's daily circumstances played an important role. Meeting poverty-stricken students' immediate needs would improve their educational outcomes and their futures, O'Neill said.
"We can't just stand by and say it's up to parents to do more, it's up to teachers to do more, it's up to families to sort themselves out; we have to say for these children, those who exist in poverty, we'll put services in place," he said.
"Otherwise it's not fair and we're not giving them the best chance at life and sooner or later we'll regret it. Health statistics will be worse, mental health statistics will be worse, crime statistics will be worse, unemployment will rise - we ignore child poverty at our own peril."
There was an opportunity to level the playing field for the country's poorest children through public education policies, and a "moral responsibility" to do so, he said.
The report recommends 10 policies aimed at lifting the educational achievement of deprived Kiwi kids, including a reduction in class sizes for low decile primary schools, decile 1 to 4 schools being developed as community hubs to provide education, health, parenting, budgeting, community law and social services, and providing free lunch and breakfast in low decile schools.
Manawatu Principals' Association president David Reardon said the education system was working to capacity, and new options needed to be introduced and explored.
However, the report's recommendations needed to be carefully considered given current policies were not making "any significant difference".
"One thing alone may not make the difference by itself."
NZEI Te Ru Roa Manawatu branch president Liam Rutherford said it was heartening to see talk returning to ensure a "quality public education system".
Parata, who spoke to Manawatu school leaders in Palmerston North about various education issues this week, said the Government was working on four factors to help all children throughout New Zealand.
"The two in school is the quality of teaching and leadership and the two out of school are the strength of the parents' involvement in their child's learning and the expectations of community - we are working on all four of those."
- Manawatu Standard
Will Aaron Cruden's omission hurt or help the All Blacks?Related story: Senior All Blacks 'pretty disappointed' in Cruden