Schools Supporting students in poverty

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 8 months ago.
  • 31 Jul 2023

“There’s a belief that disadvantage is in particular pockets, but actually it’s in every area,” says State Schools Relief CEO Sue Karzis. “Parents can be employed and still find it really hard to find money for uniform and educational resources. Teachers may need to rethink what disadvantage might look like, especially in the current climate.”

State Schools Relief (SSR) delivers support to around one in 10 students across Victoria, providing uniforms, shoes, bags, swimming attire, calculators, sportswear, textbooks, and work wear for students doing VCAL. SSR has already witnessed a steep increase in the need for assistance this year, and urges teachers to contact them if they have any concerns about a student or family possibly needing help.

“February this year was the biggest month we’ve ever had, with more than 12,000 requests for support.” By contrast, last year there were 67,000 requests for support across the whole year. “We’ve done close to 60,000 this year already,” Sue says.

A survey of students who have accessed SSR support reported their self-esteem went up by 73% as a result. “It’s more than just a uniform; it’s what it is doing for that young person’s sense of self,” she points out. “We can make a big difference.”

SSR provides public school students with help when they are in situations that include unemployment, illness, financial difficulties, homelessness, bereavement, and domestic violence. “Domestic violence has increased markedly. Often the two go together – with financial stress comes an increase in domestic violence. Homelessness is an increased problem too,” says Sue.

James Murphy is the assistant principal at Newcomb Secondary College, where two-thirds of the cohort sits in the lowest socio-economic quartile. He recognises the many forms that hardship can take within a school community. “Disadvantage never looks quite the same when comparing any two students,” James explains. “It’s quite nuanced and has many presentations and guises.

“Parents can be employed and still find it really hard to find money for uniform and educational resources.”

Sue Karzis

“Sometimes, poverty manifests as a young person seeming tired or distracted in class, with not much educational engagement. Or it might present itself as misbehaviour or a disproportionately emotive response to a reasonable request from a teacher. It might be an empty seat – a young person not being at school because they are taking care of a younger sibling or a parent dealing with complex mental health issues; or maybe there is not enough fuel in the car and insufficient funds on the Myki.

“But then, students with inter-generational trauma are sometimes the ones with 100% attendance because school’s a safe place.”

James talks about the importance of having a holistic understanding of the learner as someone with uniquely personal circumstances. “When we have some familiarity with their circumstances – knowing what they are leaving that day and going home to – it means we can adapt their learning, create student support and structures around that. With a holistic approach, we can allocate key personnel to the students, knowing who needs referrals or might need a check-in or should be steered towards the breakfast club.”

Providing a program for a community experiencing financial hardship and complex backgrounds does not have to come at the expense of having high expectations around educational engagement. “It’s not a binary,” James says. “The healthiest approach is to see them as inextricably tied. Understanding poverty and trauma is not about making excuses; it’s about understanding barriers to learning.”

He is passionate about maintaining an unwavering focus on a student’s best outcomes. “Quite a few of the young people who have passed through their secondary school journey with us have gone on to work with young people themselves, as youth workers, social workers and teachers, including half a dozen who have come back to teach with us, some of whom were the first in their families to complete secondary school,” James says, adding: “That’s been quite an inspirational journey to be part of.”to complete secondary school,” James says, adding: “That’s been quite an inspirational journey to be part of.”

Resources for students

Teachers can find help for students needing uniforms at

State Schools Relief relies on regular donations to respond to immediate requests for assistance. Its website contains ideas for school fundraisers, and individuals can donate directly at

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