All kids to be screened for dyslexia, giftedness

Education Minister Tracey Martin. Photo: Getty Images
Education Minister Tracey Martin. Photo: Getty Images
All children will be screened for dyslexia, giftedness and other special learning needs and recorded in a national database, under a new Government plan.

The draft Disability and Learning Support Action Plan, released by Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin, proposes "a central data collection process" for all children with learning needs - about one in five, or 160,000, schoolchildren.

It proposes a new "learning support co-ordinator" in each school with a more "flexible package of support" to meet every student's needs.

The plan, which is open for consultation until October 31, implements some of the recommendations agreed by what are now the three governing parties Labour, NZ First and the Greens in a joint minority report on a select committee inquiry into dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism in 2016.

At the time the Ministry of Education opposed creating a central register of students with learning differences, saying it would be costly and "could encourage reliance on diagnosis or categorisation of learning difference, which is inconsistent with the way learning support is provided based on need rather than diagnosis".

International studies suggest that dyslexia affects between 5 and 11 per cent of children and dyspraxia affects between 1.7 and 6 per cent.

Altogether, one in five of New Zealand's 800,000 schoolchildren access the Education Ministry's learning support services including special schools, the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), behaviour services, speech language therapy and English as a second language.

Schools have been asking for a centralised database on children's learning needs 'for some time', according to Tracey Martin. Photo: ODT files
Martin said schools had been asking for a central database on these children.

"What we want is a national data system so when a child shows up at a school, the school can go into the system and click the name of the child and see all that was going on at the last school, and a tag for an Oranga Tamariki child," she said.

"The tag might just say, 'This is an Oranga Tamariki child, this is the contact for more information.' But the schools have been asking for that for some time."
The draft plan proposes systematic checks for "multiple learning differences" at four ages:

• Age 3: Universal health check (Ministry of Health).

• Age 5: Consistent school entry measurement tool (schools).

• Age 6-8: Screening for dyslexia (reading problems), dyspraxia (clumsy movement) and giftedness (schools).

• Age 13: Health and wellbeing check at entry to high school (Ministry of Health).

The neediest students, currently 1.2 per cent, will continue to get ORS funding.

For all other students, the plan says the ministry and the sector would "co-design a flexible package of support for neurodiverse and other children and young people who are not eligible for ORS, including tools for neurodiverse learners" - likely to include laptops, headphones and other technology for students struggling with reading and handwriting.

The plan includes a "learning support co-ordinator" in each school. More than 80 per cent of schools already fund such roles, usually called special needs co-ordinators or "Sencos", but there is currently no central funding for them.

Martin said the new roles would be full time in large schools and would be funded on a ratio related to either total rolls or the numbers of students needing extra support.

However the plan does not include any costings and says the learning support coordinator role "will require a funding decision before it can be confirmed".

Martin said the ministry would appoint a "learning support facilitator" to work with each cluster of schools and preschools to arrange the support that each child needed.

"Once we have some screening, actually provide what the child needs to be the best learner they can be," she said.

"What we are trying to do is to get away from pots of money that you have to justify how bad you are to get them."

She said schools would not have to join a formal community of learning (Kāhui Ako) to access services.

"I actually don't care if it's a Kāhui Ako, or a cluster of schools, or a group of schools," she said.

The Labour/NZ First/Greens minority on the 2016 select committee also recommended national funding of teacher aides and learning support training, expanding ORS to cover the neediest 3 per cent of students and removing the funding cap on an Intensive Wraparound Service (IWS) which is now limited to 365 students.

The draft plan does not include any of these changes, but promises broadly to "respond to pressures across specific supports such as residential special schools, Early Intervention, Te Kahu Tōi/IWS, NZ Sign Language and Deaf education".

There is also no mention of the minority report's recommendations that speech language therapy should be available beyond the current maximum age of 8, or that the law should provide "an enforceable right to meaningful education".

Martin said those issues were beyond the scope of the draft plan.

"That's another piece of work," she said. "I was just trying to get this piece of work on the ground."

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