Special needs education in the spotlight

Imagine being told that your child won’t receive the education they need.

You know they’re going to struggle in a classroom in which they can’t understand, communicate or relate to others on the same level and that their educational experience will be severely impacted.

It’s a scenario reminiscent of Soviet–era orphanages, but we’re talking about New Zealand schools and Kiwi families who have kids struggling with special needs – especially dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism.

Anna’s story

Palmerston North mum and teacher Anna Wilder’s  8-year-old son Evan* has Down syndrome, dyspraxia and medical needs that make his condition complex.

“For me, having a child with special needs is quite an adventure. It’s a wonderful journey on many levels. The difficult thing is not the fact that he has a special need or the fact that he has medical problems or learning difficulties; it’s often navigating the hospital system or the education system and accessing support for his needs.”

Anna’s local kindergarten and school discouraged her from enrolling Evan, but she believed the best thing was for him to attend the same school as his older brother and two sisters. However, Evan was six-and-a-half before he got full-time school hours because the school didn’t have enough funding to supply a full-time teacher aide. Anna and the school lobbied the Ministry of Education and eventually got an increase in hours, but the school has to top-up the shortfall.

“I’m an advocate for my son, but it’s a disheartening feeling that other people are looking at him as draining money that could be used on other things, that other children who need help but not necessarily to the same level as him could be missing out.”

Anna said that as a teacher she understood why others would view her son as a burden, but she still believed inclusion was important for Evan and the rest of his class.

“The ideal of inclusion is a great one but if the resources aren’t filtered in, how do you actually manage it? “

Right to education

Evan’s case is acute, but not unusual. The Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand estimates that 70,000 Kiwi primary and secondary school kids, or one in every 10, have dyslexia. The World Health Organisation estimates that 6 per cent of children world-wide have dyspraxia, and the Ministry of Health attributes Autism Spectrum Disorder to 1% of the population.

No New Zealand school is allowed to decline a child an education, whatever their needs. But the concern is that a significant amount of these kids are falling through the cracks according to Gisbourne-based Awapuni school principal David Langford.

“More often than not they don’t fit in with the precise frameworks that the Ministry of Education or the government plan.  Those frameworks are set and they don’t often fit with specific needs either in the duration of the intervention, the intensity of the intervention, the timing of the intervention. It never, ever hits the sweet spot with someone ever.”

For example, Langford says children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder don’t receive funding at all unless their behaviour is extreme and dangerous. Awapuni School has in the past had up to 25 kids on their roll of 300 that fit that description. The situation was so extreme that the school’s Board of Trustees opted to self-fund a full-time specialist teacher of special needs at a cost of more than $70,000 a year.

Langford believes that schools have an ethical responsibility of inclusion, but that the under-resourcing of special needs education put an unrealistic burden onto schools.

What are we doing for special needs education?

That’s not to say that New Zealand isn’t doing anything.

A quick search of the Ministry of Education’s website shows established pathways for requesting assistance from early intervention services right through to individual education plans and ongoing resources.

The government’s $10.8 billion education fund for the 2015-2016 year includes an extra $62.9 million over the next four years to better assist children with special education needs. It also includes $39.5 million to provide Ongoing Resource Scheme (ORS) support (specialists such as psychologists and speech-language therapists) and $23.3 million for extra in-class teacher aide support for those who don’t qualify for ORS support.

But schools are still struggling to cope and now the government is taking notice.

The Science and Education Select Committee last October commissioned an inquiry into support and services for primary and secondary students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders. It’s examining where the gaps are, whether there is enough funding and whether that funding is being distributed in the best way. The Committee received 535 submissions and 179 attended the hearing in Wellington in December. The submissions make grim reading.

Karori West School principal Janice Shramka and deputy principal Janice Jones attended the hearing to speak in support of New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa’s (NZEI) submission. They told the Committee that there are huge waiting lists for students with special needs and in many cases schools are left to cope with little or no support.

In one case at Karori West, a 5-year-old boy with severe needs languished for six months on a wait list for speech language therapy because the Ministry of Education did not have enough staff.
It was only through extreme pressure on the Ministry, they said, that the boy eventually got the help he needed by queue jumping.

An 11-year-old boy with severely disruptive behaviour wasn’t as fortunate. The school strongly advocated for him, but at the time of the hearing he had yet to have a visit from an educational psychologist.

Where the investment’s needed

NZEI’s submission to the Committee outlined the need for more investment in trained experts such as education psychologists and speech language therapists. On top of that, in-house special education needs coordinators need more investment into their role: it’s usually undertaken by a senior teacher who doesn’t receive extra training or time to advocate on behalf of children with special needs.

Additionally, they’re recommending investment in secure, ongoing employment for teachers’ aides and Ministry-employed support workers, coupled with better pay rates and more secure employment conditions .

Moving forward

But all of that depends on money.

Science and Education Select Committee chairman Dr Jian Yang  told Family Times that spending on special needs education has already increased by about 26 percent since 2008. About two-thirds of that funding is spent directly by schools. He said the government wanted to ensure the best use of current funds to obtain the highest return on investment.

The Select Committee is now waiting on a Ministry of Education report summarising the submissions, suggestions and recommendations at the time of writing this article. Following that, the Committee will draft its own report to present to the House of Parliament, which the government has to respond to. There is no deadline for any of those actions.

The Human Rights Commission has cautioned the Select Committee, reminding it that failure to provide adequate educational support for children and young people with learning difficulties can result in lifelong disadvantage. That includes barriers to entering the workforce and obtaining well remunerated employment as well as disproportionately high rates of contact with the criminal justice system and incarceration.

That’s a sobering thought when it’s your child says Anna.

“It’s a human right for each child to be educated to their full potential, so while I see other people looking at my son and thinking that he is possibly not going to learn to the level of another child, he has every right to learn to his potential.”

*Real names not used to protect privacy.