Group calls for action on poverty

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 22/07/2014

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Schools picking up the slack in dealing with social welfare problems among their pupils is a "recipe for burnout", a Christchurch principal says.

Linwood Avenue School principal Gerard Direen spoke yesterday to an action group of social welfare and education representatives, gathered to try to spark changes in policy on the housing needs of vulnerable families.

Government agencies were "failing today's kids", he said.

Schools were "stretched to cope" with changing behaviour and needs among pupils, including aggressive and violent behaviour.

A queue of children needed counselling and the school's social worker load in the first half of 2014 alone was higher than ever before, Direen said. "It's demanding stuff for classrooms' teachers."

About a third of his pupils admitted having homes that were "draughty, cold, and had doors that don't close".

Children were at risk within about six homes with more than 10 occupants. A mother lived in a car with four children for more than four weeks before agencies stepped in to help.

"That example says we're not as capable as we need to be for dealing with some of the highest needs," Direen said.

Christchurch schools were dealing with an extra workload as a result of stress among families and the preparation needed ahead of school quake repairs, he said.

"For three years now in a school such as ours, [teachers are] expected to operate at a higher level than they have previously. It is a recipe for burnout."

Public health nurse services in the city were given no additional resources and children were slipping through the gaps, Direen said.

His school had gone from having about a 15 per cent mid-year roll turnover to about 40 per cent since the quakes, with transient families bouncing around the city in search of adequate housing.

He wanted to see weekly health clinics and in-school housing clinics to connect families with homes, along with child-friendly facilities in the east, and Red Cross and housing initiatives extended.

Salvation Army social policy worker Sue Hay said Christchurch's vulnerable families were losing out in a game of "musical chairs" around few affordable homes.

Rent going up once repairs on their homes were complete was "not sustainable".

"We're getting close to absolute poverty," she said.

Rent in Aranui had increased between 29 and 36 per cent, and in Hornby by 25 to 40 per cent.

"That's hard for working families, let alone those on a benefit," Hay said.

University of Auckland principal investigator Claire Meehan said the "very little" housing research there was did not discuss the needs of vulnerable groups. Her research group hoped to "make things happen".

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Information gathered from the action groups, particularly in the worst-affected cities of Christchurch and Auckland, will be presented to politicians in Wellington next month.

- The Press

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