Wellington principal Mark Potter is mildly optimistic about the Update, in part because his school is already on the path that the latest revamp of the Ministry of Education’s Special Education Services appears to be taking.

“We’ve joined up with four other schools to become an inclusive community of schools,” he says. His Berhampore School, with an empowered Learning Support Teacher (he doesn’t like the term SENCO – Special education needs coordinator or “special needs” for that matter), acts as a centre for collaboration and the sharing of resources and knowledge in the group.

His passion for inclusive education began about 12 years ago when a refugee child with autism enrolled at the school. “We really wanted to keep him at the school.” The school’s expertise with special education grew but initially Potter was reluctant to talk about it. Inclusive education usually costs schools more than any extra funding they might receive and he feared Berhampore would not be able meet the costs if too many students with disabilities enrolled.

But the programme has been so rewarding the school has decided to go for it. It’s applied for funding from the Teacher-led Innovation Fund, and Potter is hopeful that the Joint Initiative will lead to extra funding that will allow schools to do better for all students, particularly those with extra needs (see story p20).

The Berhampore collaboration has enabled some innovation such as sharing resources, including teachers, to meet children’s needs. Learning Support Teacher Justine Henderson is employed by Berhampore School but currently also works with a student with Down Syndrome at nearby Owhiro Bay School.

In another case the school was able to step in when the parents of a student with autism realised he would lose his ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) funding if he stayed at his early childhood setting, where he was very settled, until he was six. Berhampore agreed to enrol him, so he could keep the funding, but release his teacher aide to work with him elsewhere before he attended school. “We want to get better connected to kindergartens so that a parent might say: ‘I think there’s something different about my child’ – and the kindergarten can say: ‘We’re part of a learning community, we’re here to help’.”

The school has also been well supported by its board. Chair Giovanni Tiso, who has a daughter with autism, says “The school is one of the best in the country for special education – and it reflects the values of the community, but not all schools are like this.”

An author and blogger, Tiso has become an outspoken critic of special education. While the New Zealand Curriculum is good in that it allows for different learning styles, he says the idea of competition – which drives the Tomorrow’s Schools model – is a disaster. He says schools aren’t accountable enough for special education funding, an element of which they receive whether or not they have special needs students enrolled. He cites the Christchurch school that used its special education grant to build netball courts. Such financial signals may discourage some schools from enrolling special education students.

National Standards

And don’t get him started on National Standards. Berhampore is required to assess and report data on its special needs students, which is then used by the ministry in its league tables of schools: “We have to include children who have no business being tested. Parents look at the ministry data and it looks worse than it should be – there’s no mention of the special needs students.”

He describes the system as “crazy”. “The government spends a lot of money keeping the lid on funding, which is expensive, and there is discrimination (against special needs students) across the country. If the cap was removed, you might find money being spent on responding to need – in a positive process – and you might not actually end up spending more money.”

More resourcing for special needs has topped educators’ wish lists in recent years – in particular, they need more ORS funding for high-needs students. Currently around 1 percent of students receive this funding (for teacher aide hours and other specialist support) but another 2 percent of students have slightly less high needs and also need a lot of support – another 20,000 children. Another 6-7% of children are recognised as having moderate special needs.

In high-performing systems such as Finland, the total of number of students who receive special education assistance is as high as one-third of all students.

An international inclusive education movement reports that all students benefit from an approach where teachers cater to all learning needs within a class, including those of gifted-and-talented students. The benefits are reported to include “increased self-concept, tolerance, self-worth and a better understanding of other people”.

In New Zealand, teachers say they also need better access to specialist services at the Ministry of Education, such as speech language therapists, Occupational Therapists (OTs) and psychologists. Currently, teachers face waiting lists that can stretch out for six months or more.

“We don’t even put students with moderate special needs on the waiting list anymore,” says one specialist from a ministry office in provincial New Zealand. “Teachers can be overwhelmed with students with special needs. But we have had this cap on our numbers which means it has been hard to replace staff. Our workloads are very difficult to manage and there are many children missing out on services they need. In urban areas, parents might have other services to call on such as trusts, private services and CCS (CCS Disability Action) or Idea Services (IHC) but here there are no other services.”

And teachers are crying out for more professional learning on special education, particularly for whole-of-school professional development – yet the resourcing isn’t there. One principal applied for ORS funding for a child “who simply could not be in the classroom without a one-to-one teacher aide – he hits and spits – yet he was turned down. So we spent our SE grant on teacher aide hours for him – the money’s all gone.”

[g1_quote author_name=”Giovanni Tiso” author_description_format=”%link%” align=”right” size=”m” style=”solid” template=”01″]

The government spends a lot of money keeping the lid on funding, which is expensive, and there is discrimination (against special needs students) across the country. If the cap was removed, you might find money being spent on responding to need – in a positive process – and you might not actually end up spending more money.

[/g1_quote]

New broom

So will the latest Update fix the problems? David Wales, the Ministry of Education’s new National Director for special education, has been attending some of the 110 “forums” being held around the country to discuss what he describes as a “tweaking” of the system.

Ideas being talked about at the forums include “clearer pathways for children and families”, and “decision-making closer to the child” and “improved integration” and “using data more constructively” and “best practice”.

At a presentation to NZEI members, including principals, SENCOs, ministry specialists and kohanga kaiako, Wales was at pains to say the Update wasn’t a “review” and it was simply about “recalibrating” the system. A former clinical psychologist, he has something of a Nigel Latta air, although his experience has been mainly in Corrections, with a recent stint at Treasury.

In other forums, members have asked, “exactly what is in scope?” and been told “the whole $500 million”. That is, all government spending on special education. Spending increased from $419m in 2009 to $533m in 2014, although in 2013 the budget was underspent by $18m and in 2014 by $14m. Hopefully, this was what Wales meant when he talked about “silos” and “rigidity in moving funding around”; perhaps there will be an increase in funding simply by the ministry being able to spend all its budget?

At the same time, the Productivity Commission has released a draft report recommending the increased use of vouchers or “client directed funding” (in effect, bulk funding to families – or possibly schools) and this has combined with pre-existing uncertainty to heighten fears among members that radical changes are in the pipeline.

When asked specifically about vouchers, Wales didn’t exactly reassure members when he said the current exercise was about “getting our house in order” and such initiatives (as vouchers) could be looked at later. He was definite though that there would be no new money in the short term.

That said, some extra money was announced in the Budget for ORS funding, although Fergusson Intermediate principal Paul Patterson described this to The Dominion Post newspaper as “a spit in the ocean”.

Fast-track Update

What is clear is that the current Update is on a fast-track. Recommendations will go to Cabinet in July, changes based on “the new direction” will be designed in the latter part of the year, and implemented in 2016. Many members believe the ministry already has an agenda for change and is simply softening up the sector in the “forums”. So much for sector consultation. So much for involving families. So much for cultural considerations.

Maori liaison workers say the current system is already failing Maori and Pasifika families, who are often not as confident and articulate in fighting their way through a system that appears to have an inbuilt bias toward the “chattering classes”.

In Gisborne, Awapuni School is another school with a stellar reputation for special education – despite, in its case, deep-seated challenges associated with poverty.

“Gisborne has 200% the national rate for domestic violence, 100% the rate for teen pregnancies, and 46% live in low socio-economic neighbourhoods,” says principal David Langford.

Yet the decile 3 school has avoided what other local schools haven’t – white flight. The school has a roll of 67 percent Maori students and 32 percent Pakeha – and achievement rates for both groups are the same.

Part of this success can be attributed to an extremely proactive approach to special education. “Five or six years ago, we were losing the battle – we were all wearing ourselves out, frazzled, and parents were confused.”

Burn out

Langford took the plunge and employed a qualified SENCO. Lesley Allen had a Masters’ degree with a Resource Teacher Learning and Behaviour (RTLB)-type focus, and she recently completed a postgraduate diploma in special education that focuses on autism spectrum disorders. With a school roll of around 350, her job is full time, with no classroom hours. Along with another teacher, she is empowered in her job description to “advocate for the child” in all situations, even if this is against the interests of the school or the family.

Her role goes well beyond administration and form-filling, which too often the SENCO role can degenerate into. But even with this capacity – which Langford notes is a strain on the Board of Trustees, who have to find ways to fund it – the school is under pressure.

Like, other schools spoken to, Awapuni is noticing an increase in the number of children arriving at school with limited social and language skills. “It’s not clear why,” says Allen.

“You have to look beyond school to society – there’s a whole raft of things going on: the deeper aspects of poverty, people’s struggles at parenting, family breakdown, the whole digital thing. How much are kids being talked to – early childhood education can’t replace the one adult talking to you. When it’s one adult to 10 children, a child isn’t getting the same level of adult talk.”

Langford also raises the issue of supervision, saying schools are increasingly being asked to deal with complex family problems. “It’s sneaked up on us – there’s incredible pressure on teachers. We’re involved in shocking family stories. Clinical psychologists all have supervision – but we don’t.

“You have to ask, how long can we keep going before everyone burns out. It’s very, very hard work for teachers.”

[g1_quote author_name=”Lesley Allen” author_description_format=”%link%” align=”center” size=”l” style=”solid” template=”02″]

You have to look beyond school to society – there’s a whole raft of things going on: the deeper aspects of poverty, people’s struggles at parenting, family breakdown, the whole digital thing. How much are kids being talked to – early childhood education can’t replace the one adult talking to you. When it’s one adult to 10 children, a child isn’t getting the same level of adult talk.

[/g1_quote]

Need help?

Where can teachers go for help for a child with special education needs? Auckland principal Lynda Stuart has been working with the Ministry of Education on inclusive education as an NZEI representative, and is a passionate advocate.

She says a teacher’s first port of call is the SENCO. But the role needs to be resourced so the SENCO can do more than just tell the teacher aide what room they’re working in and fill in referral forms. SENCOs also need time to liaise with specialists and teachers (both within the school and beyond), build strong connections with families, arrange classroom adaptations and equipment, and so on.

After the SENCO, it’s time to assess which services would best meet the needs of the child – the RTLB cluster or the Resource Teachers of Literacy, for example. Specialist services are available from the ministry, though many staff have an extreme workload. Some children who are ORS funded can use the services of the Special Schools Outreach service.

“The thing is to keep advocating for the child,” she says. “It’s all about networking. You may be able to find someone, for example, who has experience working with a Down Syndrome child or a child with foetal alcohol syndrome. Get those conversations and collaborations going!”

She is also hopeful that the Joint Initiative may allow release time for teachers to meet and share knowledge about special education – whether with specialists, or other teachers, or families.

And she recommends the ministry’s new inclusive education website – inclusive.tki.org.nz. There is useful information for teachers on particular syndromes, and more in-depth material that can be facilitated by a SENCO for the whole school.