Cost of living a barrier to school attendance

Increased pressure on household budgets is impacting school attendance and engagement in the schooling process, a new report has revealed.

A national Community Attitudes Survey released on May 2, 2023 has revealed most Australians believe cost-of-living pressures pose a greater threat to child poverty than COVID-19 and have made it harder for students experiencing poverty to progress with their education.

Released by children’s education charity The Smith Family, the report found more than 80 percent of those surveyed agreed that addressing child poverty should be a top priority for Australia.

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Poverty has a significant impact on children’s academic performance, achievement, and overall school experience. With 1.2 million young Australians currently experiencing disadvantage, the national children’s education charity said students are struggling to keep up at school with cost-of-living pressures impacting their learning. 

The Smith Family’s latest survey also found Australians believe the current cost-of-living crisis is having a much broader impact than COVID-19. 

View the full report here

The survey comes as the Bureau of Statistics reports an alarming increase in the number of children experiencing homelessness, with housing instability having a significant impact on a student’s ability to engage with learning. Nearly a quarter (23.0%) of the 122,494 people experiencing homelessness in the last Census were aged from 12 to 24 years (28,204 young Australians).  
Students and families have regularly reported to Smith Family staff their concerns regarding cost-of-living increases, particularly in relation to housing, petrol, and food.

© trekandphoto, Adobe Stock

Rental pressures have contributed to families having to move, often large distances, and there has been an increased reporting of families living in insecure housing, including caravans. Such instability can significantly disrupt a child’s learning journey, both academically and socially and result in poorer life outcomes. Research shows the negative impact of student mobility on academic achievement with it also increasing the likelihood of students dropping out of school (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation 2016). 

And for those students who do attend school, increasing costs may mean they do not have the correct uniform items, or necessary tools for learning including text books, stationery and devices. Ensuring students have access to nutritious food before and during a school day is also a struggle for some families. A healthy diet has links to improved concentration and in turn, academic performance.

Engagement in a full and complete educational experience may also be hampered, with students  unable to participate in co-curricular activities. Equipment including sport uniforms, musical instruments and extra learning materials may be beyond the budget of some families. For these students, the benefits of co-curricular activities, including the development of soft skills like time management, working in a team and thinking creatively cannot be explored.

CEO of The Smith Family Doug Taylor said as more families are pushed to the brink, a family’s ability to afford everything needed for their child’s education will collapse due to the pressure to put food on the table, pay utilities, and put petrol in the tank this winter.

In some instances, teachers are helping to bridge this gap, reaching into their own pockets to ensure students have access to the resources they need. This, however, is not sustainable, and places increased pressure on already stressed teachers.

© Philip Steury, Adobe Stock

“Everyone is feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. But it is not felt equally. We operate in over 760 schools nationally and work with 60,000 children, so our teams on the ground get to see the effects of poverty on a child’s education on a daily basis,” Mr Taylor said. 

“We’re seeing how families experiencing disadvantage are having to make difficult choices about how they spend their limited resources. Children are missing out on things like excursions, books, and digital devices and the extra learning programs and support they might need. And sadly, without the things they need for their learning, they are at risk of falling behind at school.

“We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and it simply doesn’t add up that Australian children are missing out on the chance to succeed at school because of family poverty.

“And while this survey shows there is a broad understanding in the community about poverty and its impacts, we are now calling for that community awareness to translate into more Australians taking action to help.  

“We are hugely thankful for the support of our donors to date, but now we are asking the wider Australian community to transform their awareness about poverty, into tangible help. By supporting The Smith Family’s 2023 Winter Appeal, we can help more children in need to access our programs so they can create better futures for themselves,” said Mr. Taylor. 

“When we give a child a chance to learn today, they can change their tomorrow for the better. The ripple effect goes beyond the child, to positively impact their family, their community, and society as a whole – all benefit,” Mr Taylor said. 

Every dollar raised will enable more children to access The Smith Family’s proven learning and mentoring programs and help bridge the digital divide by ensuring all students have access to the digital learning essentials they need. 

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