Learning support concerns

File photo
File photo
It is not hard to find controversies about the level of extra learning support for children with learning difficulties in our schools.

The most recent one concerned a woman paying more than $10,000 a year for her 8-year-old son’s teacher aide because his autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was not considered severe enough to qualify for one-to-one support.

However, when challenging the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins’ assertion there were available supports for all learners in existing state schools, she alerted him to her situation and discovered the practice was illegal.

She was told by the school that it could no longer accept contributions from parents to help fund teacher aides because it is unlawful for state schools to charge for a child’s education.

Presumably though, there are instances where parents pay large "donations" to schools to be used for one reason or another (promoting certain sports, for instance) even though the intention might not be spelled out.

Regardless of how it might happen, it is not a desirable practice. Poor parents of children needing extra support could not contribute in such a way, and it could also mean support might not necessarily go to where the need was greatest.

It is not clear how widespread such payments might be, although a 2018 survey by the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Rui Roa showed out of 541 respondent schools, 22% had pupils where some funding was coming from parents.

There are a variety of sources of funding for teacher aides through the Ministry of Education (and some outside it, such as ACC). Pupils considered to have the highest needs receive funding through the ministry’s Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), but some schools complain too many applications are declined. There are also concerns that not enough hours are allocated to some pupils which is one of the situations where parents have stepped in to pay for extra hours.

All schools receive the Special Education Grant meant for support for students with moderate special education needs. Schools use this in a variety of ways and may also choose to top up their special needs funding from elsewhere in their budgets.

Since the ground-breaking teacher aide pay settlement which filtered into wage packets last year, there has also been controversy over the ministry capping the hourly rate for teacher aide support under the ORS, meaning some schools had to top up pay for experienced aides from their own funds. Another controversy yet to be resolved is the IHC statement of claim lodged with the Human Rights Review Tribunal alleging the Government has discriminated against disabled children and breached their human rights by failing to provide them with the same state education as other children.

The claim does not seek more funding necessarily, but for resources to be redistributed fairly. The Government says since 2018 it has put in an extra $1.1 billion into learning support. While some argue this is still not enough funding to cater for the increasing demands, the issue of whether money is being distributed as efficiently as it could be does not appear to have had much public scrutiny. The idea of centralised funding for support staff is raised from time to time, but whether this would be responsive enough to local needs is questionable.

Is there opportunity for more pooling of funding and resources and greater collaboration between schools in regions? Struggling schools could benefit from the guidance and support of those more experienced and successful at catering for those with particular learning needs. Such co-operation, however, would likely have more chance of success if it were generated and organised locally rather than mandated from Wellington. Whatever happens with funding, there is still some way to go before truly inclusive education is available to every child, and the frustration of parents who feel their children are missing out is understandable.

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