Educators reach breaking point

Violent behaviour in primary school-aged children is becoming more severe and more frequent. In some cases violent incidents have increased by 39 percent since 2013. Some educators are at their…

Violent behaviour in primary school-aged children is becoming more severe and more frequent. In some cases violent incidents have increased by 39 percent since 2013. Some educators are at their wit’s end. The Ministry says it is responding to the increasing request s for help from schools and is putting more money into severe behaviour funding and support. But what can be done to fix this problem and keep educators safe? Kate Drury reports.

Earlier this year when Northland principals considered suspending troubled children until they had the money and resources to support them, a debate raged.

NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart – herself principal at May Road School in Mt Roskill in Auckland – said more children were growing up in massively stressed homes because of rising inequity and poverty, and schools were not resourced to adequately mentor and manage the hurt and angry students in their classrooms.

The President of Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association, Pat Newman, said he seriously considered recommending to principals that they suspend children with severe behavioural needs when they can’t get the necessary support or services. He said the crisis numbers of children suffering trauma at home and health and behaviour issues is now a matter of health and safety for staff and other children.

For a number of years, an MoE staffing cap meant long waiting lists for children to see learning support field staff such as psychologists, speech therapists, behavioural therapists and early intervention specialists.

At support staff paid union meetings around New Zealand earlier in the year, support staff said that schools were cutting support staff hours and jobs to balance their budgets, even as the need for greater support for our students is growing.

One school’s experience

Chris Dibben has been a teacher for 36 years and a principal for 15 years, and says in that time he has seen more children with increasingly high and complex needs.

He is a passionate principal and is reluctant to use the word “violent”. He says, however, that there are now more kids who will “hit out” and more students who have complex needs including those with trauma and medical diagnoses such as ADHD, foetal alcohol syndrome and attachment issues. Some of the stories are heart-breaking.

Dibben is principal at Tawhero Primary School – a decile one school in Whanganui and says it is not just a problem of lower decile schools but poverty and disadvantage also have a role to play.

He uses the example of kids who are moved around between family members, who cling to the teachers and just want to be wanted. The school has a transcience rate of 48 percent.

“There is poverty – not of just material goods and food – but also of care and wellbeing. Lots of these kids are moved around and have transient and attachment issues. Some have little contact with their parents.”

Schools are playing a much more pastoral role now and watching kids’ wellbeing.

The main problem is, he says, is funding and resourcing. Some schools such as Tawhero get a reputation for be accepting and welcoming of kids with higher needs and become “a magnet” – this however puts more pressure on the school.

“I will grab anything [resources] I can for our kids.

“Some of these kids are a danger to themselves and others.

“I can’t exclude kids..where do they go? I had to stand down a five year old after he had been here two weeks. …if he went to another school he would probably be excluded.

“It is hard for a five year old to talk and convey how they are feeling but we try to do that.”

But he also needs to take care of the health and safety of the staff – their physical as well as their emotional wellbeing and workloads.

And this means a lot more funding and resourcing –  but it is getting increasingly difficult to get enough, according to Dibben.

Tawhero School has 160 pupils and is the lead school for RTLB cluster 25 and the RT Lit. It has a Pasifika early childhood centre on site, a weekly early childhood playgroup and a parents’/ community room where adults participate in a variety of activities including literacy and learning programmes. Tawhero is considered a community school.

He says government policy needs to change – a lift on the cap on the MOE staffing because more specialists are needed, lower ratios in classrooms and a boosted operations grant to cover the cost of more support staff.

A full time SENCO would also be beneficial.

“We need more people on the ground.”

He is unsure yet how the Ministry’s proposal of targeted funding (for children fitting the “at-risk” criteria) would work in his school.

He sent an email to the Ministry to raise awareness of the issue and as a call for help,  saying the school needed more skilled support staff.

He told the Ministry in the email:

“Our operational grant funding is always exhausted even before the year’s end as we need to employ support staff to best meet the needs of all our students…

“I am currently at the point of having to express to prospective parents that if the children do not have appropriate resourcing and support we do not have the capacity to best meet their child’s needs effectively. This is considering the children we already have enrolled and how we are already heavily involved in meeting these children’s high needs.

Dibben says schools need to be more open and transparent about what they are facing and this is happening more now with recent publicity.

 Ministry responds

Evidence from the Ministry of Education shows that challenging behaviour issues in primary-aged children has increased at a huge rate – for example, in reasons for stand-downs for year 1-8 students reveals  a 39 percent increase of physical assaults on staff from 2013-2016 from 362 to 594. (see more graphs on

Education Aotearoa requested information from the Ministry of Education about support requested, and given, to schools from the Interim Response Fund, Severe Behaviour Service Support and numbers of stand-downs.

It seems from the figures that the anecdotal evidence NZEI Te Riu Roa has gathered from principals and support staff (in a recent survey and from calls to our Membership Support Centre – 0800 number) is borne out by the figures. Most weeks since the beginning of this year an NZEI member has rung our call centre to report an assault by a child on a member. The figure is likely to be a lot higher as many people do not ring for advice and support.

From 2013 until 2016 the number of individual students who received IRF support increased by 30 percent, in the same period of time the number of standdowns increased 24 percent (this includes a 39 percent increase in the “physical assaults on staff” – as a reason for standdown) and a 13 percent increase in children receiving Severe Behaviour Support (case jobs opened) from 2013-2016 – with many more five-year-olds receiving support from this fund.

Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the Ministry of Education says that the Ministry does understand that schools face real challenges supporting children who have complex learning and behavioural needs.

“More primary schools have been coming to us for financial help under the Interim Response Fund, which provides funds to allow principals to quickly respond to a situation when a student’s challenging behaviour reaches crisis point.  We have been increasing our support for those schools.

We are approving a higher proportion of applications from primary schools under the Fund.

It allows the school to put a management plan in place in the short term, while a longer term.

Some principals had reported that they had been told that there was no more money left in the IRF until July 1 this year.

Education Aotearoa put this to the Ministry. Their response, from Katrina Casey again:

“In the 2016/17 financial year the IRF was funded to $4m. This money is distributed across our 10 regional offices on a student population basis at the start of each financial year (1 July).”

She says regions themselves decide how much to allocate for each IRF application based on the severity of the situation, the needs of the individual and their regional budget.

“While regions are expected to manage their IRF allocations, it is recognised that some regions have higher needs than others and may need to spend beyond their fund allocation when there is strong demand for this support.”

She says more applications under the IRF and other services are being approved and more money is being spent.

“Last year we spent about $95 million on behaviour assistance for about 10,000 children. This includes children receiving help from the Severe Behaviour Service and from specialist teachers in learning and behaviour.

 “That increased support will grow further still as a result of more funding for children with behavioural issues was provided in this year’s Budget, with an extra $34.7 million over four years. An extra $15.5 million over four years was budgeted to extend the provision of in-class support, and $4.2m to extend the Incredible Years programme to parents and teachers of autistic children aged two to five.

“Funding for children with additional needs has increased by over 30% since 2009, to around $630 million in 2016/17.”

The Ministry does not hold figures on the workload and referrals to Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) centrally as these are held locally by the Ministry regional offices.

Principals have also told NZEI Te Riu Roa that RTLBs seem to be under-resourced and are doing a good job despite this. Principals were concerned, however, that RTLBs had become a catch-all service with the expectation that they support higher needs learners when those children should be being supported by other groups within the Ministry.

The Ministry says that as well as offering support to schools for children with specific behavioural issues, the programme Positive Behaviour for Learning School-Wide supports schools to improve their culture, systems and practices to support students to make positive behaviour choices.

“It assists nearly 700 schools at a cost of $6.6m per year. We are currently working to increase access to PB4L School-Wide, to make it available to every school.

“We are also testing a new service delivery model for children with additional learning needs in three Communities of Learning  in the Bay of Plenty, that makes accessing support simpler, quicker and easier for all involved.


The way forward

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart says that NZEI Te Riu Roa is meeting with the Ministry to address the issue of increasing levels of, and incidents of, violence in schools.

“We have set them some clear expectations. We want a SENCO in every school – for smaller schools it may have to be shared – and we want front line Ministry staff to be supported.”

She says there also needs to be more specialist staff overall because many of the issues cannot be met without a depth of knowledge and expertise  – and uses the example of addiction issues in families.

She says for extremely violent and challenging behaviour in children, perhaps there needs to be more facilities in which to assess children and then assimilate them back into schools.

And while she says the problem is a symptom of a systemic social issue and comes from a myriad of factors – she does not want to blame caregivers.

“People have very challenging lives themselves and want to do the best for their kids.

“We have a concern that there seems to be a focus from the Ministry on CoLs  – that they are the panacea for everything – but they are not the answer.

“We do not want children missing out.

“This is also a health and safety issue. Our members and the children must be safe at school. “

Stuart also points out the obligations that New Zealand has as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 3 of the UNCROC is centred on the best interests of the child.   It says that the best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to budget, policy and law makers.

Stuart says it is also important that members keep telling NZEI Te Riu Roa their stories.


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