I am a high school teacher. The kids I teach are between 12 and 18 and the school I teach at often attracts students with extra learning needs like dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autism, anxiety and depression.
We are seen as a school that does this sort of thing well, and not for no reason. We have a robust and well thought out pastoral care system that means very few students are forgotten or slip through the cracks when it comes to identifying extra need.
But there is a big difference between being able to identify extra need and being able to adequately resource that need. We do a great job when it comes to mental health issues. We have great counsellors and a teaching staff that are good at recognising when a student needs help. But when it comes to learning needs, thanks to funding, we, like so many NZ schools, are not able to meet all the needs we are seeing.
I sat in a meeting just today where a group of teachers talked about how many students in our junior classes needed extra help from a teacher aid and we all shook our head knowing there was no funding for that.
Hekia Parata has recently announced new education policies which would see funding for special needs education focused on children in the under seven category, at the expense of those over seven. It makes sense to channel money into early education. Of course it does. If you catch children with minor learning difficulties early, there’s a good chance you can help them to build a toolkit of methods and systems that can help them and stop them from falling behind their peers.
This makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the idea that investing in early education and intervention should come at the expense of children over seven.
While a child with dyslexia may need less support later on because of early intervention, there is plenty of evidence that other children with higher needs will need ongoing support at the same level if not higher as they grow up.
A child like Eva was likely to need ongoing intensive support her whole life. She wasn’t going to become independent and a mainstreamed learner at the magic age of seven, just because that’s when her funding ran out. In fact as she got bigger, it’s likely her size would mean more behavioural issues and if she wasn’t mobile, she would need extra attention and care in all aspects of her day.
We are already working in a system with too little funding for students with extra needs, but if Parata has her way, this year, 2016, a time when only a select few students can utilise teacher aids, will be remembered as a golden era of support. We will look back on this time and wonder how we took such levels of support for granted. If she has her way, my school might have all the best intentions of supporting students with extra needs but no money to fulfil those intentions.
Parata’s inability to recognise these blinding flaws in her new plan would be laughable if it wasn’t so frightening.
And she frames all this under the title of “inclusion” but it couldn’t be further from the truth. If students lose their funding, and are forced to meet National Standards to prove the funding is working (another epic cock up of an idea considering students who quality for this funding have to tick a large number of boxes saying they are struggling with standard learning), schools will not be able to accept them onto their rolls. Schools will be unable to accomodate their needs because there just won’t be any money or resources for it. Students will be turned away because to accept a student with extra needs would require a massive effort and the school being willing to pay out of its own threadbare pockets.
When you add bulk funding into this already putrid scheme, it starts to get dangerous. Class sizes will grow, teacher aids will be non-existent, and a child like Eva would sink to the bottom in an already overcrowded and underfunded system.
I wrote to Parata before these new policies were announced complaining about our already bare bones special needs education. I complained that she was hiding behind the rhetoric of inclusion in order to cut funding to an area that so desperately needed it. She replied saying that, “inclusive education is a hallmark of the New Zealand education system”. In her latest policy announcements she said she no longer wanted to call it special needs education as that felt divisive, and instead wants it to be known as inclusive education.
If I believed she understood the true meaning of inclusive education I would cheer, but it’s not the case. Parata is performing a great, although unsuccessful act of smoke and mirrors. If she calls it inclusion, and claims that special needs education sounds too divisive she can appear to be paying attention and fighting the good fight. While in actual fact she has taken away a label from a group in order to pretend they don’t exist. If we don’t have students with special needs, there is no need to meet those needs. If we call it inclusion we can cut the special schools and the budgets that went with them. If we pretend we are on board with the inclusive movement, we can put the responsibility back on the schools to include these students without giving them any of the resources needed to make that safe and comfortable for both the students and the teachers. Students are “included” in as far as they don’t have their own special class, but they have no means of interacting with their class. They are not learning or growing or developing, but being babysat by teachers and teacher aids (if they are lucky) who are not trained or resourced to do anything more.
Inclusion is the ideal for many. But not this inclusion. Not Parata’s inclusion. Parata’s inclusion smiles at you like a welcoming open door, but when you step through you discover the door wasn’t attached to a house at all and instead you’ve walked out onto a road-runner-and-coyote-style cliff. You can claim the door is there and invite people through it, you can tell them they’re welcome and there’s nothing stopping them, but when they join you there’s nothing to hold them up on the other side. And they fall.
I work as a teacher where I see students every day struggling with learning needs that are not being addressed as they should. I see teachers struggling to meet those needs in classes of 30 students. I see teacher aids being stretched thin and many classes and students never having teacher aids at all.
I see families having to raise funds themselves to fund teacher aids and support so their child can go to school.
This is now, before Parata’s funding policies have even begun. She’s right. We do need more money to be dedicated to early intervention. We need to be picking up these learning needs and addressing them as early as we can. But she’s wrong to assume that funding isn’t needed in those over seven, or that it diminishes so considerably that you can afford to “rob Peter to pay Paul”.
The state of New Zealand’s special education system already had me writing letter to the Minister to complain. It already sees parents pulling their hair out trying to get the support for their child that they need. If these changes take place, Parata will have a lot to answer for. Let’s make sure she does.