Specialist education staff at the Ministry of Education, who work with some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children, have settled their collective agreement after making a commitment to “work to rule”. This followed excessive workload issues dating back to 2008. The settlement commits to looking at workload. In Christchurch, Kaye Hyams tells EA why it matters so much

What is your background?

I trained as an occupational therapist intending to work in mental health but things didn’t work out that way. On reflection, I had had young people with disabilities around me all my life my mother was a volunteer at the local IHC kindergarten and my sister coached for the Special Olympics.

I started off at what was then Templeton Hospital and was later approached to work at Ferndale Special School. Currently I’m employed by MoE Christchurch working with Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) students in the mainstream.

What is your passion at work?

Like all my colleagues in education, I just love that “Ah ha!” moment when a student grasps a concept.

I love being with students in schools, especially students with multiple needs. A challenging area of work, which I enjoy, is where we alter the physical environment. It’s an intense piece of work but deeply rewarding when you see a student able to access a part of the school where they used to require assistance, or when a family and school are reassured that the student is in a safe environment.

Could you describe the work of your MoE Special Ed Field Staff colleagues?

That would take an entire magazine! We have occupational therapists, physiotherapists, special education advisors, psychologists, speech and language therapists, Kaitakawaenga and a disability facilitator. Our core work is supporting school and early childhood staff working with students with special education needs to enhance their participation in learning. We also staff a number of initiatives such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L), Intensive Wraparound Service (IWS), IY and transition advisor.

How do you find working with support staff in schools?

Our work wouldn’t be possible without support staff in schools and ECE they deliver the adaptations we make, under the direction of the teacher, and often have insight into the student that I, as a visitor, don’t have.
Consistency is the key whether it’s the use of visuals or the routine or just the patience they display when interacting with our students.

Generally speaking, how well as a country do we do special education in New Zealand?

I think we do well given our resourcing constraints. Special education falls under the state sector cap as we are not seen as frontline. This creates huge issues when staff leave or are seconded, as often we are not able to replace them. For instance, if two staff of the same discipline are on parental leave and wish to job share one position when they return, they are counted as two employees under the headcount instead of one Full-time Equivalent (FTE) with the remaining FTE able to be advertised.

How has your work been affected by the earthquakes?

It has affected our families (who may be living in motels or the third house in a year), our school and centre staff (who may be in similar situations), and environment (portions or all of some schools and centres are unusable). People are tired, they are stressed. In some cases there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to issues with insurance companies, including EQC (don’t even ask about my house!). People are sick of change and uncertainty and they are sick of being told they are resilient. As a result, fuses are shorter and we see this in both children and adults.

Getting to places is much more difficult. When I told my other half that I was being interviewed for a magazine his reply was, “Which one? Horse and Cart?”

Earlier this week I went to a facility and by the time I came out less than an hour later the road I had used was blocked off. One day a trip may take an hour and the next week the time’s doubled. However, after a recent trip to work in an orphanage in India our roads appear to have improved!

In paid union meetings late last year and early this year field staff voted overwhelmingly to reject a 0.8% pay offer and committed to working to rule, unless a reasonable offer was made. Why were members so committed to taking action?

Recruitment and retention of staff is a key factor in providing services to our schools and centres and we currently have huge issues with attracting Occupational Therapists (OTs) to MoE positions in Canterbury. We’re down to 2.2 FTE for the entire Canterbury district, from Hanmer Springs to Timaru. Accepting an offer would not have increased our attractiveness to potential applicants and we would have lost ground compared to special school staff and health providers. One of the key issues that members had was around workload. Workload issues have become untenable and so it was essential to have these issues and concerns addressed.

Were field staff well supported in their struggle?

The support I received when I raised our issues at the Christchurch Branch Committee and the Waitaha Canterbury Area Council was stunning. It really makes you feel like we are truly one union.

It was heartening for field staff to know that our fellow union members in schools and centres know our issues and support us in our action even though it might have been inconvenient for them in the short term.