Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Back-to-School a Financial Challenge for the Poor

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, August 31 / 15

Zack Gross

Parents, grandparents and care-givers of school-aged children are in the stores these days as the new school year is about to begin.  It is a time of shopping for clothing, sports equipment, school supplies and electronic devices demanded by our educational and recreational systems or by fashion.  And the economic challenges are tough, whether you live in Manitoba or anywhere else around the world.

While education (and free education to primary school kids) is a recognized human right, the reality is that a number of barriers stand in the way.  The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals have had a noticeable effect in promoting greater educational opportunities for children but there has been a shortfall in funding from governments and donors in the developing world.  Even where kids may show up for school eager to learn, there are sometimes not enough teachers, classrooms, desks, books and supplies to meet their needs.

Thus, teachers often have too many students in a classroom and may not have the training needed to do a good job.  Teachers sometimes are not paid enough or on time, so they may absent themselves from their duties if they find a more dependable source of income.  A teacher I met in East Africa last year told me that some days two hundred students would show up for him to teach – a few more than the twenty-something students that Canadian teachers prefer per classroom!

Schools are often very basic buildings with no amenities, not even running water or bathrooms.  Some classes just meet under a large tree or in a yard.  Texts are outdated, shared by multiple students and sometimes irrelevant, donated from countries far away.  Workbooks, pencils and other materials are not available.  There are 93 million children with disabilities in the world and in some countries 95% of them don’t attend school due to discrimination, lack of accessibility or lack of lack of trained teachers and appropriate teaching methods.

Gender discrimination often means that girls are second choice in families to get an education, although this is changing in many countries.  Much is yet to be done to ensure that girls have more options than early marriage and child-bearing and keeping house.  The many civil and regional conflicts in the developing world also keep children out of school as they are endangered by the violence and may be refugees internally or forced to flee their countries.

Distance from school is another challenge overseas as there are no bus programs to get kids around.  Children sometimes walk hours, while tired and hungry, to attend programs set up for them.  Hunger causes both physical stunting and slowed brain development, so getting a good education in early years is difficult.  Without good nutrition, generation after generation in a poor family or community may not be able to learn properly.

Ironically, in the poorest countries education is costly compared to what people possess. Here in our wealthier world, primary and secondary public education is mostly free.  Even if students don’t pay for actual schooling, they must cover the cost of uniforms, supplies and exam fees. 

This list of global education challenges facing children is not much different from what kids face here.  The trend in the wealthy world is stark – those who are well off are getting more and better education and finding employment that makes them better off.  Meanwhile, poorer people are only able to go so far in their schooling and end up with jobs that pay far less – or end up only seasonally employed or unemployed!

The cost of education in North America – even though school is technically free – is going up more quickly than the rate of inflation.  High tech gadgets, sports equipment and clothing – all of this puts economic pressure on families and communities.  The reality of coming to school hungry makes children poor learners.  Lack of basic skills due to poor teaching or brain development means students fall behind the average.  Lack of medical, dental, eye and mental health care are factors in failing grades and kids in trouble.

Dysfunctional families, often a result of poverty, are also a factor as is family mobility.  Parent may move around for job opportunities or in seeking support from family.  This also relates to newcomers in our society and the challenge of teaching / learning “good” English.  The final challenge is a lack of enrichment activities – kids getting to libraries to read or music and art lessons to stimulate their creativity or camp to learn social skills.

Those who are working to help families cope in our richer world with high costs suggest that students reuse materials and equipment where they can, swap with younger / older siblings / friends, shop around for deals and sales and make sure to take advantage of any tax breaks.  In the United States, a student drops out of school every 26 seconds in response to the challenges stated above.  But that dooms them to lower (or no) wages in the future.

The cost of education is a challenge around the world for governments, communities and families.  Poverty leads directly to a lack of education which leads to a lack of opportunities throughout life and into the next generation and beyond.  While this is an exciting time with the school year approaching, it can also be a stressful one.


Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.


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