Auckland’s decade-old housing crisis is turning too many school children into transient students, dealing a huge blow to their educational prospects, writes social issues reporter Teuila Fuatai

Each weekday at 5am, nine year old Sione Fonohema is bundled into the car by his parents Rose and Tavo to begin several trips across Auckland. Sione is one of a growing number of “commuter students” at his Onehunga primary school whose families cannot afford to live where they work and go to school.

His parents work three jobs between them and have a weekly rental budget of about $500. They were priced out of Onehunga last year after a decade of living in the area. Sione, their youngest son, is in year four at Te Papapa primary, while eldest son Mosese, 18, is in his final year at Southern Cross Campus.

Despite the long days, which involve travelling between the family’s Otahuhu home and the Onehunga and Penrose area, keeping Sione at Te Papapa is a priority.

“If I had to, I’d bus to get my son to [this] school. He’s doing well here, he’s come a long way,” his mother said.

Sione’s early start is due to his father’s 5.30am clock-in time at a scaffolding job in Penrose. His mother, who has two part time jobs in Onehunga, starts work at 7.15am and Sione stays with her until his school day begins.

Te Papapa has found that the Fonohemas are among a growing number of families who have been forced out of its school’s catchment area because of Auckland’s competitive rental market. As a result, increasing numbers of students are facing lengthy commutes, or being withdrawn from the school altogether.

According to the school’s data, three of every four students who left before completing year six last year moved out of Onehunga because their families found cheaper rental accommodation elsewhere, or had been relocated by Housing New Zealand. A total of 40 students from 21 families were uprooted. The decile-two school, which has been praised as high-achieving by the Education Review Office, has a predominantly Maori and Pasifika roll of 237 students.

For the Fonohemas, support from Te Papapa has been crucial to keeping Sione and Mosese – a former student – as stable as possible. The family’s current three-bedroom home was secured with the help of the school’s social worker. It was the sole property offer received by the family – who spend at least $100 on petrol each week – in about 18 months of house hunting, Rose Fonohema said. Prior to this, they had shuttled between rental properties and the homes of friends’ and relatives.

“We really want this area, but I think my husband and I were just getting stressed out by the booking-to-view [process], getting let-down, or the price of the rent was too high,” she said of the decision to move away from Onehunga. “I needed my kids stabilised and I wanted them to have their own rooms.”

Fluid children”

Robyn Curry, Te Papapa principal, said one of the main challenges for schools dealing with increasing numbers of transitory families unable to secure stable accommodation was the extra learning support needed around “fluid children”.

Shifting schools often, or the stresses around changing and overcrowded living circumstances, made it difficult for children to keep up with learning expectations, Curry said.

While staff at Te Papapa were dedicated to working with these students and families, the significant impact of Auckland’s housing problems – recognised as a “crisis” in 2007 by then opposition leader John Key – on student learning needs to be properly addressed, she said.

“We’re really driven for our kids to do well here so it puts added pressure on everybody because you’re trying to see how can we support these children to accelerate their learning. That takes huge resources, and that’s okay, but of course it impacts on our school data too.”

A study by the Child Poverty Action Group in 2014 into transience in Auckland schools highlighted this:

“Frequently moving house is associated with behavioural problems that the school and teachers have to deal with, and learning difficulties that, in an age of national standards impact on schools’ national standards pass rates,” the study stated.

Therese Luxton, a senior committee member of the Child Poverty Action Group who last year marked her 12th year as an attendance officer in Manurewa, said all students were affected by the growing number of children shifting between schools.

Teachers plan using a unit system, and each unit builds on the previous one, she said. If children have missed out on a unit, it makes it difficult to progress to the next level.

“Teachers are getting kids who aren’t up to speed, and everybody’s suffering because they have to stop for the kids who haven’t been there. The rest of the class gets affected – it’s a domino effect,” Luxton said.

New home, new teacher, new trauma

An earlier study by the Child Poverty Action Group, published in 2002, also examined the wider implications of student transience on communities.

“It appears that transience through schools is concentrated in poorer communities, which typically have lower levels of homeownership and higher levels of rental housing,” the study report stated.

“It is these same groups whose children generally achieve less in educational terms, who are most often at risk of youth unemployment, and most at risk of slipping into criminal activity as teenagers. While transience at primary school, brought about by unstable housing situations, cannot be blamed directly for these outcomes, transience is a contributing factor, and one which can be addressed through better directed and better funded housing policies.”

Both Curry and Luxton also said the impact of unaffordable and unavailable rental housing often meant children did not have a wider support network important for their development.

“Often for the families that are moving, they have their extended family here and they’ve been brought up in Onehunga,” Curry said. “It is so sad when you’re forced to leave some of your supports to move out of an area because there are either very few Housing New Zealand homes, or the rentals are just out of range.”

Luxton said: “It traumatises the children. They have to go and meet a new teacher, go into a new class. And often, it’s not like you can just move out of a house – kids are often billeted out at relatives and they’re not with their [immediate] family.”

Sione’s mother hopes prioritising her kids’ schooling will lead to better opportunities.

She was determined to have her eldest son finish high school this year despite the family’s need for another income. “In some ways, I think I failed him [when he was young] because I used to have to pull him out of school early so I could go to work.”

For now, they are doing their best.

“This is where we’ve been for years,” Fonohema said of Onehunga. “This is where I wanted my kids…[and] now we’re both working and that doesn’t cut it.”

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