Photo: Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy

Free school lunches is just part of something much, much bigger

Last week saw the publication of the new Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, on which the future of New Zealand quite literally depends, writes Claire Achmad of Barnardos.

Something that has never happened before for children and young people in this country happened last week. Behind the school lunches policy (which you probably heard a lot more about) sits something arguably much more significant. For the first time, a national strategy dedicated to the wellbeing of Aotearoa New Zealand’s children and young people exists, required under law. Its vision: that New Zealand is the best place in the world for children and young people.

But the question for those working with children and young people every day all around the motu – including those most disadvantaged and marginalised – is: “will this strategy lead to real change in the everyday lives of children, young people and their families and whānau?”

For not-for-profit, community-based NGOs like Barnardos, where I work advocating for the needs and rights of children and tamariki, we are strongly of the view that the new Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy (PDF), launched last week by the prime minister and minister for children, needs to lead to real change. We know that for many children and young people, the change needed is urgent.

Recent statistics show that 23% of New Zealand children live in homes experiencing poverty after housing costs are covered. We have the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD. Significant health and educational inequities among children and young people of different abilities and ethnicities are prevalent, especially for our tamariki and rangatahi Māori and Pacific children and young people. We have one of the highest rates of child homicide in the world. Close to half of primary school students report being bullied. These facts alone highlight the scale of change that is needed.

The Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy offers hope as a platform around which government, families and whānau, hapū, iwi, community groups and civil society can coalesce, in an effort to address some of the most pressing challenges facing children and their families and whānau.

The strategy itself, while a government document, explicitly states that collective action will be needed for its implementation to be achieved. However, those working with children and young people from outside government in community-based NGOs know that the government will need to underpin that call for collective action with adequate funding for our sector. This is needed in order to enable the work that needs to be done to continue sustainably and reach more children and young people in need.

The strategy has, encouragingly, been shaped by children and young people, including those in the toughest situations, together with a range of people and organisations important in their lives – their “support crew”, as children and young people refer to them.

The strategy is holistic in nature which is to be welcomed, acknowledging the importance of attending to multidimensional aspects of wellbeing including hinengaro (mind), tinana (body), wairua (spirit), whānau (family), papa kāinga (community) and taiao (environmental), and underpinned by nine principles, including recognising the status of tamariki and rangatahi as tangata whenua owed certain obligations by the Crown under Te Tiriti o Waitangi; that children are entitled to have their rights respected under international treaties such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; and a further fundamental: that children and young people’s wellbeing is interwoven with that of their family and whānau wellbeing.

It is refreshing to see written into government strategy outcomes that speak to getting the basics in children’s lives right, such as aimed-for outcomes that children and young people being loved, safe and nurtured, have what they need, are happy and healthy, learning and developing, feel accepted, respected and connected, and are involved and empowered.

While the strategy is for all children and young people, it places priority focus on reducing child poverty and mitigating the impacts of socioeconomic disadvantage, better supporting children in or at risk of entering the state care system, addressing family and sexual violence, and better supporting those with greater needs, initially focusing on learning support and mental health needs.

The placing of priority in these areas is right. Overall wellbeing is a large goal. But without getting the basics right for children and young people in areas such as their rights to an adequate standard of living, safe and secure care, to be safe from all forms of violence and abuse, and to be included and supported to experience the highest attainable level of health, wellbeing will remain out-of-reach. So, getting it right for children and young people in these areas is the most appropriate place to start and where shifts urgently need to be achieved.

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Making this change happen will not result from a strategy alone; that’s a danger that government must remain alert to. It needs to work with children, young people, their families and whānau, hapū and iwi, children’s NGOs and civil society to develop and implement policies that get to the heart of addressing some of the most entrenched challenges.

It needs to draw on the existing evidence-base as to what makes a difference for children and young people, and implement the recommendations of expert groups it has received clear and practical advice from, such as the Welfare Expert Advisory Group and the Independent Panel reviewing the 2014 family justice reforms. Both have made recommendations highlighting the importance of improving systems settings that are currently leading to negative impacts in children and young people’s everyday lives, and the positive difference these changes will make.

This is the first Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy for New Zealand but won’t be the last; successive governments will be required to develop and implement a strategy of this kind every three years, as a requirement under the Children’s Act 2014. The embedding of such a requirement – which was passed with cross-party parliamentary support – is an important way that the needs and rights of children and young people are starting to be built into our national systems and institutions.

Importantly, the law requires children and young people to be consulted on the strategy. When the first strategy is reviewed in three years’ time, let’s hope that it has been used as a platform to do better by children and young people. By that time, Aotearoa New Zealand must be well down a new path to respecting, protecting and celebrating our children and young people, so that one day this really might be a place where we can truly say it is the best place in the world to be a child.


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