Heather Roy

28 February 2018

I’ve been waiting for this announcement from Labour. The guillotine has been hovering since the new government took power last year. Labour have announced that Aspire Scholarships are to be axed. It is only fitting that this scholarship scheme, that provided opportunity to so many students who deserved it, receives a fitting eulogy.

Aspire Scholarships were my baby. As Associate Minister of Education I had to fight hard in 2009 for budget funding to get them established. Then, the cost was $2.5 million per year from the Education budget of around $14 billion a year. Today the cost has increased to just $4 miilion a year. A drop in the bucket to provide 50 students a year from underprivileged backgrounds with an education at a private school. John Key was my best supporter – he recognized and valued the opportunity this initiative would provide to students from very low income families to have a shot at a better education. A chance they were unlikely to have any other way.

Aspire Scholarships were one of the things I was proudest of achieving as a Minister in the National-ACT government. The criteria were tight so that only those from low income homes were eligible. And choice was key – students and their parents could chose the school and the school wasn’t compelled to enrol them. I knew the Scholarships would only work if there was genuine goodwill and ambition from student and school. I’ve kept some of the many letters I received from students thanking me for giving them a better chance for their futures.

Erick Wright’s story is indicative of what I set out to achieve with the scholarships.

“I’m now a filmmaker living in Vancouver, doing freelance animation and producing short films, and I don’t think there’s any way that could be happening if I didn’t stumble upon this scholarship. The Aspire scholarship was absolutely one of the best things to happen to lil’ kid Erick,” he said.

As a 15-year-old from Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty, which Wright described as “an impoverished area”, winning the scholarship and attending St Peter’s School in Cambridge meant he didn’t end up “perpetuating the cycle”.

“I got out. With Aspire I was given enough momentum to break through that barrier of ‘small town kid living in a small town’. I went to a homestay in a different town, specifically to attend my new private school. I got to experience living in a functioning family, in a nice house. I got to experience a good school, a good extra-curriculum system. I learnt to play instruments, I lived in a healthier town. All of that contributed to my success,” he said.

Erick’s is a perfect example of how government can actually influence the future direction of young people. Ending poverty doesn’t come about by just throwing money at poor people. Initiatives like this help lay the groundwork for a better life. Erick and many, many others are living testament to this.

All this current talk of ending poverty, better educational achievement is just that … talk. My only regret is that I couldn’t convince the budget holders in 2009 to invest more money in the scheme.

Aspire Scholarships – you served New Zealand teenagers from low socio-economic backgrounds well for a decade. We can be proud of what has been achieved.  Funerals are a time to recognize achievements and the Aspire Scholarship family will, I know, celebrate by going on to lead productive and rewarding lives and do New Zealand proud.