Figures bandied about by officials suggest that a $30,000 investment in early intervention education will save the government around $150,000 down the track.

Yet officials are also clear that there will be no new funding for the early intervention, and in fact the Ministry of Education may have less to spend.

Last term, the ministry’s National Director Special Education, Dr David Wales, addressed NZEI’s Special Education Needs Reference Group about the update of services underway.

Wales said that different ways of working would free up resources and he wants to get the new model working well before looking at roles and funding. Wales envisages strengthened collaboration and an early triage system to ensure quick decisions and early action plans. This would save money because most intervention is less costly, the sooner it happens.

“But we already have an early triage system. We already collaborate and we already ‘work smart’. The problem is we simply do not have enough staff to meet need,” responded one member, who did not want to be named.

“It’s ridiculous to suggest that we can save money in the future by helping children early on, but then not fund the roles to do that now. We’re already well over-stretched in our efforts.”

Figures released to EA under the Official Information Act (OIA) show that early intervention cases have risen from 683 a year in 2011 to 879 in 2015. In 2015 there were also 298 cases allocated to the new Intensive Wraparound Service.

Squeezed by the cap

Special education specialist staff remain subject to a government cap on public service staffing, despite clearly being “frontline” services. Former and current education ministry heads Karen Sewell and Peter Hughes have both lobbied for the cap to be lifted, according to OIA documents, but staff shortages remain. When staff leave it takes months or even years to get permission to replace them, and funding is sitting in the Budget unused because staff can’t be replaced.

Meanwhile, a little more money was released in Budget 2016 to the Intensive Wraparound Service, for children in years 3-10. Another $16.5 million in Ongoing Resourcing Scheme funding over the next four years includes funds for specialist help that special education staff provide.

But if the cap is not lifted, it will be difficult to assist these children. And this money does not target the pre-schoolers that Wales wants to receive earlier intervention.

Early Childhood Council CEO Peter Reynolds said the Budget had delivered “not a penny for children in early childhood education [with special education needs]”.

He said a recent survey of early childhood centres had revealed 59 percent of centres waiting, on average, more than three months for assistance with the assessment of children, and almost a quarter waiting more than six months.

Educators are also concerned at reports that the new CYFS agency will take as much as $200m from Vote Education, which will undermine the ministry’s ability to provide a universal Special Education service.

This money will be targeted, by way of “social investment”, to children identified by data, but early indications are that there is very little overlap between these children and the children who currently receive, or who are waiting for, support from the ministry.

The question then remains – under the new system would a child like Alfroi, and his family, be able to access help?

 

“It’s nice to see families gain confidence”

Alfroi (above left) will turn five soon and head off to school just like any other child from his central Auckland centre. But just a year ago he was showing frustration at his inability to communicate. So his parents and teachers contacted Special Education at the Ministry of Education for help.

Early intervention teacher Katherine Reilly (pictured here with teacher Nisha Rani, centre) worked alongside his parents and teachers to create a practical plan. Through an in-depth conversation, she helped the family identify what they wanted to work on. “It’s really nice to see families gain confidence in supporting their child’s learning,” says Reilly.

She finds the role very rewarding, every day is different, and she enjoys the partnership with others including speech language therapists, occupational therapists and education support workers. After completing a Bachelors of Education in Early Childhood Studies in Ireland, Reilly moved to New Zealand where she completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching.

As an Early Intervention Teacher, she supports families and educators of children with a variety of learning needs, ranging from autism and Down Syndrome to behavioural issues and developmental delay.