Beware of so-called “Reforms”
In December last year, National announced plans to “overhaul its educational support for children with special needs“. Radio NZ reported;
From the middle of next year it said the system would be significantly redesigned to be simpler and provide more support for teachers and parents.
Today it published the results of 150 public meetings held this year to identify ways of improving education for children with special education needs, such as a physical or mental disability.
As a result of those meetings it is planning changes that would include giving families, teachers and specialists a single point of contact for arranging support for children.
Before that happened, the Education Ministry would begin 22 projects aimed at improving special education in groups of schools and early childhood centres around the country.
As with all reforms from National, there would be ‘fish hooks’. Promises to “provide more support for teachers and parents” would prove to be a sugar-coated pill at best – or most likely illusory in actuality.
Rumblings in the Education Sector
On 15 April this year, Radio NZ reported further criticisms of under-funding for children with special needs;
Special education desperately needs more funding, which should be included in the government’s overhaul of the sector, parents and educators say.
The Ministry of Education says it is simplifying the $590 million system for helping children with disabilities, but there won’t be any more money to accompany the changes which will be introduced in 2017.
Critics say that is not good enough, because too many children are not getting the help they need.
The Early Childhood sector criticised National for under-funding special needs children;
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said more support was also desperately needed in the early childhood sector.
“The model isn’t working that’s there at the moment. It needs to be changed and it’s got to be done quickly.
“It’s okay to take your time over doing a review or whatever you want to call it, but at the end of the day we’ve got people falling through the gaps right now, and they shouldn’t have to.”
But Education Minister Hekia Parata said she was confident there would be tangible benefits from the special education changes, without more money.
“We want to get this right. We have a vision for a system that is inclusive, we’re recognised internationally as being so and we just want to continuously improve.”
Note the caveat from Parata; “without more money“.
Where would increased funding for under-fives with special needs come from if it was achieved “without more money“?
Answer: National resorted to one of it’s old tricks.
The answer came as a bombshell on 22 August.
Education Minister, Hekia Parata, revealed that primary and secondary schools’ funding for special needs students would be slashed, and the money re-directed to under-fives. As Radio NZ explained;
The [Cabinet] documents also indicated the government would reduce the amount of special education funding spent in the school sector, and dramatically increase the amount spent on those under the age of five.
“Analysis of the spend by the age range of the recipient indicates that a disproportionate amount of the funds are for school-age children. This is despite clear evidence in some areas that early support can have greater benefits in terms of educational outcomes.”
As implications of Parata’s scheme began to percolate through the education sector, reaction was scathing. A day later, the Secondary Principals’ Association responded;
A proposed cut to special education spending in schools would be a disaster, the head of the Secondary Principals’ Association says.
Documents show the government wants to greatly increase its spending on under-5s with special needs, at the expense of spending on school-aged children.
One of the areas it has singled out for urgent review is the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme for children with the most significant special needs, and in particular, the those aged 18 to 21 who use it.
Secondary Principals’ Association president Sandy Pasley said secondary schools would not cope well with a cut.
“We haven’t got enough as it is and to lose some funding from secondary sector would be quite dramatic for schools.
“We understand that it’s good to put it into the early years but not at the expense of students in secondary schools because often the special education needs don’t go away and sometimes they’re exacerbated by adolescence.”
Ms Pasley said the association would try and persuade the government not to go ahead with the proposal, which she said would be a disaster.
Kim Hall from Autism Action told Nine to Noon children under 5-years-old with autism needed more support – but funding for that should not be taken from school-aged children.
Hall made this critical point;
“Some children aren’t diagnosed until they start school or even later, so that means those children already miss out on that vital funding at the start.”
More on that issue in a moment.
Shamefully, the Early Childhood Council seemed willing to be an accomplice to National’s shuffling of scarce funding for vulnerable children. Early Childhood Council CEO, Peter Reynolds, did not hide his enthusiasm;
“On paper it looks good. It’s a shame we’ve got to wait another few months before we start seeing this thing roll out, but we’ll be wanting to work very closely with the ministry to ensure kids who are struggling right now get some sort of relief in the future and their parents get that relief as well.”
Parata justified the money-shuffle, with the usual spin;
“Evidence shows that providing learning support early in a child’s life will have much greater impact. We’re at a proposal stage of the process. Any changes wouldn’t come into effect until March 2017 at the earliest and will be managed incrementally and carefully to ensure ongoing support. What we are looking at, based on a year’s worth of consultation with the sector is, how do we redsign the service going forward, without compromising the service for those currently in it. So there will be a long transition.”
However, it is simply not correct that early detection and support for children – who will only gradually exhibit complex behavioural, intellectual, and other disabilities over time – is possible.
For children on the Autism Spectrum, recognising that a child is presenting may take up to five years, according to the on-line Ministry of Health document, “Does this person have ASD? New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline“;
There are three more common times when individuals are likely to present:
1. between the ages of 1 and 3 years, lack of development in the areas affected by ASD, such as language and play, becomes more obvious
2. between the ages of 5 and 8 years, when increased social and educational demands highlight difficulties
3. in adolescence or adulthood, when social isolation or relationship difficulties result in depression and other comorbid conditions.
The US group, Autism Speaks, points out;
In the United States, the average age of diagnosis with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is around 4 years of age.
All of which is confirmed by the very personal story of “Sally” and her son, “Zack”.
“Zack” – A Personal Story
From a blogpost published on 6 March 2012 (see: Once upon a time there was a solo-mum), on the problem of Minister Paula Bennett cutting the Training Incentive Allowance;
Sally* is 37 and a solo-mother with an 18 year-old (Wayne*) and 11 year (Zack*) old sons.
Sally had Wayne to her first partner, but the relationship did not last because of drug-taking and violent abuse on his part. (Some months after they separated, he committed suicide.) Sally went on to the DPB, raising her newborn son by herself.
Seven years later, Sally met someone else and formed a relationship with him. The relationship went well and she became pregnant (a son, Zack) to her new partner.
As her pregnancy progressed, Sally’s partner seemed to go off the rails, and he increasingly took up drink and drugs with his boozy mates. As Sally said, he “was more into his mates than his family” and she finally threw him out.
Sally was adamant she did not want someone like him as a role-model for her sons. She went back on the DPB and began to examine her options in life.
Eventually, Sally applied for a course at Victoria University for a bachelors degree in early childhood education. She applied for, and got, the Training Incentive Allowance (TIA).
Zack’s father saw his young son a couple of times during his first year as a newborn and infant, but thereafter showed little interest in maintaining contact. He eventually disappeared from Sally and her children’s life. She was on her own to raise her sons – a role she took seriously, and sought no new relationships with men.
Instead, she applied herself to her university course.
Sally says that the TIA helped her immensely, paying her transport, study-costs, fees, and childcare for her sons. She says,
“You could only get the TIA on the DPB, not on the dole, which I thought was unfair.”
After her graduation, Sally followed up with a Masters degree, which took another four years in part-time study. During the final two years of her uni studies, she took up a part-time job. This decreased the amount she received on the DPB, and her part-time job was taxed at the Secondary Tax Rate (her benefit was considered as a “primary job” by the IRD).
Sally took out a student loan for her M.Ed, as WINZ would not pay the Training Incentive Allowance for higher university education.
One could view the “claw back” of her DPB and higher tax-rate on her part-time job as a dis-incentive which penalised Sally, and others in her position, but she persevered. With end-of-year tax refunds, she says it “all squared out” – but she could have done with the extra money through the year.
Sally graduated and got her Masters degree in early childhood education. By this time, Wayne was 14 and Zack, 6. One month later, she found a full time job and replaced the DPB with a good salary. She says that the MA gives her an extra $11,000 per annum.
During her studies and part time job, Sally raised her two sons – one of whom was increasingly “challenging” with Aspergers and ADHD.
(This blogger can confirm that young Zack – whilst a bright, personable child – can also be “a handful”, and was effectively thrown out of his previous school for “disruptive behaviour”.)
Zack’s story was continued in another blogpost on 8 June 2013 (see: When the State fails our children), on the issue of Special Needs Education. I provided more detail on Zack’s circumstances;
Zack is an intelligent, charming, highly curious, young man (12) who requires one-on-one support during his entire school day. Not having that one-on-one support is untenable for both Zack or the school, as he can “flip out” at provocations which other children might not notice.
Zack was expelled from two previous schools for lack of one-on-one support from a teacher-aid.
He was enrolled at his current school with the specific agreement that Zack would be provided full-time, one-on-one support from a dedicated teacher-aid.
It soon become apparent that the Ministery had assigned this teacher-aid (who was doing the best she could under the circumstances) to two children; Zack, and another child at another school.
Not being able to violate given laws of physics by being in two places simultaneously, the school took action to cut down Zack’s hours in class. He was permitted to attend class only when the teacher aid was present (approx 4 hours per day). When she left to attend her second client, Zack’s grandmother collected him. (Zack’s mother, Sally, is a solo-mum who works at an early childhood facility.)
Implementation of promises of full support – the current fashionable term is “intensive wraparound support” – by the Ministry of Education have been erratic and never fully implemented. (At the beginning the Ministry was reluctant to offer any support for Zack. They relented only when schools refused to accept him unless there was funding for a teacher-aid.)
Zack’s teacher-aid was funded through the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS). According to the Education Ministry website, ORS is described as;
“Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding is used to provide specialist services and support for students with the very highest needs for special education.
ORS helps students join in and learn alongside other students at school. Any student who meets the ORS criteria is included in the scheme.”
For Zack, ORS provided;
“teacher aides to support teachers to include students in class programmes and activities”
Without a teacher’s aide present, Zack was easily distracted or could become stressed and angry at the usual background classroom noise, chatter, and other stimuli which other children mostly never notice. The consequence almost always resulted in an outburst from Zack and disruption of the class.
Without support from a teacher aide, funded by ORS, Zack’s education would have been limited and no school would have enrolled him. He would have had to be home-schooled by his mother who would have had to quit her job and return to the Domestic Purposes Benefit. Even that form of home-schooling would have had limited success, as Sally found it increasingly difficult to manage her son.
With minimal education and an Aspergers-personality, Zack’s future prospects would have been grim.
Zack’s fascination with fire resulted in coming to the attention of Police (though this aspect of his behaviour has improved considerably in the last few years). The local community police constable played an outstanding and sympathetic role in helping Zack move past this dangerous obsession.
Zack’s Aspergers condition was not identified until later in his childhood, as this interview with Sally revealed;
Frank: “Kia ora Sally.
You’ve heard of government proposals to shift funding for Special Needs programmes from schools to pre-schools. As someone who works in Early Childhood Education, and with a teenage son with Aspergers, you have a foot in both camps. What are your views on this?”
Sally: “Rather than a ‘shift’ I think there needs to be an increase across the board. There are big gaps in funding meaning many children miss out on funding and thus the extra help that could benefit their education greatly.”
Frank: “At what age was Zack diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum?”
Sally: “He was 4 when we first wondered. By 5 or 6 he was considered to have aspects. I think he was about 8 or 9 when he was officially classified as having Asperger Syndrome.”
Frank: “So funding for pre-school Special Needs children would not have met Zack’s needs?”
Sally: “It wouldn’t have been available because [his] ‘needs’ at that age wouldn’t have met the requirements for funding.”
Frank: “So in effect, that would have left him ‘stranded’, without any government-funded support?”
Frank: “Without funding for Zack’s teacher aide, would Zack have been able to cope at school? He was asked to leave one school at least, wasn’t he?”
Sally: “He didn’t and doesn’t cope without extra teacher aide support. The funding for anyone not considered ‘high needs’ is non-existant. He only ever received funding when, because he wasn’t coping, his behaviour was out of control. Then when the extra support helped and his behaviour went down, funding and thus support was taken away and then his behaviour became an issue. ‘Asked to leave’. That’s a nice way to put it. Yes he left two schools because without funding and support they couldn’t deal with him. Although in all fairness I need to point out that the first of those schools didn’t try to work with him in appropriate ways and didn’t have a positive attitude towards children with special needs.”
Frank: “So if Zack was unable to cope at schools, without funding for support through a teacher’s aide, what would have happened to his education opportunities?”
Sally: “Not ‘would have’ but ‘has’. He is years behind academically and is struggling to gain credits for NCEA Level One. This is partly due to the several years at primary school where he didn’t learn a lot due to no funding or support and being in a highly emotional and behavioural state. It is also because of what workload he can cope with though. He will do Level One NCEA over three years so he can cope.”
Frank: “Would you have been able to carry on working in your own career if Zack had been forced through circumstances beyond his control, to stay home and be home-schooled?”
Sally: “No. I would have ended up back on the DPB. Luckily he ended up in a wonderful Intermediate for his last year there and then a great college that, even without extra funding, has an amazing learning support system. He doesn’t have teacher aides though because he gets no funding and that would help immensely, especially with English.”
Frank: “Without funding for a teacher’s aide, what do you believe would have been the outcome for his development?”
Sally: “The only teacher aide funding he ever got was in primary when his behaviour was out of control. If that had not been available he wouldn’t have been able to be supported to cope in class. The outcome of him not getting funding for a teacher aide in terms of his learning for all these years is he has learnt things a lot slower than he could of and he is still struggling to understand a lot of the curriculum.”
Frank: “Without funding for support for other children with Special needs at schools and secondary schools, what do you foresee as the outcome?”
Sally: “Schools being under even more pressure to help children without the funding or resources they need. The already limited resources being stretched to breaking point. An increasing number of children who leave school without the education they deserve or need to be active members of society. An increasing burden on the welfare system to support these adults that weren’t supported as children.
Plus an increased burden on the criminal system because without a good job people are more likely to steal to survive.”
Frank: “What do you say to Education Minister Hekia Parata’s proposals to cut Special Needs funding for schools and shifting the money to pre-schools?”
Sally: “Hekia, heck no! Funding needs to be increased across the board. While it is true that in ECE there needs to be increased funding for children with special needs and that the early years are the most important in terms of development, children still need support throughout their school lives.”
Frank: “Finally, how is Zack these days?”
Sally: “Struggling academically but he is at a very supportive school who are tailoring their approach to his learning to suit him. He no longer has extreme behaviour at school, partly because he is older but also because of the positive school environment he is in.”
Frank: “Thank you, Sally. All the best to you and your sons.”
Sally: “All good.”
National has come up with many “reforms”, proposals, policies, and ideas that eventually fail, or create unforeseen (or often foreseen; pre-warned; and ignored) problems.
On this occasion, the proposal to increase spending for under-fives children with special needs, at the expense of older children, is short-sighted madness that beggars belief.
There is simply no sensible rationale for this ill-considered, incoherent policy. If there is scientific backing, Parata is yet to release it to the media and public.
Parata is playing god with the lives of vulnerable children – children who are often unable to cope in a classroom-environment without constant “wraparound” support.
Taking money from children who can barely cope is simply beyond any measure of comprehension.
Is Parata so badly advised by her officials that she cannot understand the consequences of cutting support for children with special needs?
Is Parata’s Ministry so cash-strapped that she even considers taking funding from those who need it the most?
Children with special needs are highly vulnerable, facing considerable difficulties, with many lacking simple coping mechanisms. They live stressed, difficult lives that most New Zealanders are unaware of. They have started life several steps behind their peers. They are running, just to barely keep up.
If Parata is willing to undermine what little support these children receive, then she is a damaged person lacking in any measure of human empathy. I hold her in utter contempt.
Parata must resign.
* Sally and her son’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Radio NZ: Govt to phase out ‘special needs’
Autism Speaks: Hunting for Autism’s Earliest Clues
Ministry of Education: Overview of Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS)
Ministry of Health: Does this person have ASD? New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline
How Melulater Sees It: Special Education – Let’s Change the Name and Solve Everything!!
How Melulater Sees It: Where are those wrap around services, Hekia?
Public Address: Some aspects of New Zealand’s disability history – part one (Nov, 2014)
Public Address: Some aspects of New Zealand’s disability history – part two (Dec, 2014)
Public Address: Some aspects of New Zealand’s disability history ‒ part three (Feb, 2015)
Previous related blogposts
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