NZ’s broken special educational needs support systems


I’ve been thinking a lot this week about teachers and nurses. This is what got me thinking…

In schools, teachers deal with everyone – those that are straightforward to teach and those that are not – much like nurses.  If someone was admitted to hospital with, say, a broken hip, and was found to have cardiac problems or cancer or ebola, the nurses would not be expected to deal with that on the same ward with the same staff and nothing more.  A specialist would be called in.

sick schools bedNow, if you get a student in class who turns out to have dyslexia or dyscalculia or emotional problems or behavioural problems or autism or any one of myriad other things, you’d best keep your finger crossed. And if you are that child’s parents, prepare yourself for an all out battle.

Because the number of specialists in our education system is getting lower by the year.

The things that were previously in place have been cut, Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) are run off their feet, schools have limited funds for staff training, getting a Teacher Aide requires an incredibly high level of need, and you’re bang out of luck if you need a child psychologist unless you can cough up your own $120+ per hour.

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The Ministry of Education says: “Students with learning and behaviour needs may receive support from physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists from the Ministry of Education, Special Education (SE), or school specialist service providers (SSPs).” I love the cunning use of the word “may”. It’s a bit like those adverts that declare you can get “up to 60% off”.  Yeah, that clever phrase “up to” that means you may get nothing at all.  That’s what “may receive” specialist help from the Ministry means.  In truth it is hard to access such help.

I know parents at the end of their tether fighting what seems to be a very unhelpful system. They want the best for their children but hit wall after wall.  They are often very sympathetic of classroom teachers who are also wanting help but not being heard.  Imagine having a child that has no arms but may or may not get a teacher aide or any other specialist help. Imagine being told to brace yourself as you apply for funding to support your brain damaged child when he starts school.  Imagine a two-year fight to convince the powers that be that your child is severely autistic, only to get the highest level of funding after that fight.  Two years later than the child needed.  Two years of stress for the parents.

How could nurses do their job if there were no specialists available?  What if they had to try to treat everything from broken legs to brain tumours with no specialist training, equipment or staff?

Better still, what if any specialist equipment needed, had to be bought by either the parents or the teacher or it just doesn’t happen.  Imagine the uproar. So why is this happening to our children?

To best educate all of our students, we have to have full and proper support in place for those in need of specialist help.


  1. My secondary teacher training was about 10 years ago now. I recall zero training on identifying learning difficulties, and zero training on how to teach children with learning difficulties.

    When I taught I remember some kids had identified learning difficulties, they would be absent from my classes sometimes (I had no idea when this would happen) to go to learning support. When I asked learning support if I could know what their learning difficulties were I was told, no, I could not. It was a matter of privacy.

    I was their teacher. Yet I was not allowed to know what identified learning difficulties they faced, and I was given no training on how to help them.

    I was prepared to learn myself how to help them, but this would be on my own time, alone.

    Yet every week I had “professional development” of which I had no choice over and which I found completely fucking useless.

    So glad I’m not teaching anymore.

  2. Very true Dianne.

    Have knowledge of many families who are unable to access support for their children, and when they eventually do, this support is not sustained.

    Also, a bit concerned to hear that the MoE is going to bring the target for high-needs kids achieving NCEA Level 2, up to the same – as yet unachieved standard of 85%.

    Education priorities set by arbitrary figures… continual disaster for our learning providers and students.

  3. My son has ADD and dyslexia. He is also in the top 1% in problem solving and general knowledge – that is, he is one of the brightest kids in his school.

    We had to fight tooth and nail to get him help in primary school – it took years to even get him assessed. And then they missed his dyslexia because he wasn’t assessed properly.

    It was only when I went privately in Year 9 and paid over $400 to get him assessed that the (rather elderly) psychologist was able to diagnose him properly. Even then I had to wait 4 months for him to be seen.

    He got the bare minimum of help despite the school doing its best to get him help. And now he is Year 11 and starting NCEA so all the help he got before now ends. When he is starting NCEA. WTF?

    We had years of “he’s not trying hard enough” etc. etc. when it was the system that is failing him. He is incredibly intelligent – as the ed psych said – but he is going to probably fail many of his classes because the system cannot cope with a child that learns differently from the mainstream.

    It is incredibly frustrating – he feels like a failure often but it isn’t him that is the failure – it is a system that doesn’t cope or care for special needs kids.

    And that is my mild story – others will have terrible stories to tell. I am highly educated and stubborn and demanded and investigated and complained. Other parents won’t have the ability, capacity, knowledge or energy to do so. They shouldn’t. The kids should be assessed quickly and comprehensively and then given what they need.

  4. I am expecting a torrent of abuse from the political right for this but I have to say it: A large part of the reason for the dysfunctional state education system is due to politics. The political right have been working for over 100 years to get control of teachers and education in general and still haven’t succeeded. (Charter schools is their big hope right now). Therefore National is never going to do anymore for state education than it absolutely has to. They can run it into the ground and all the time blame those lefty liberal teachers for the mess.

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