Children with special needs deserve better policies

There is a long standing tradition of government agencies announcing unpopular policies or releasing controversial reports in the lead up to Christmas.   The idea is to minimise public scrutiny during the festive season.

Late last year two reports from the Education Review Office concerning special education were dumped into the Christmas rush and sank without trace in the mainstream media – not even a ripple.   The reports are dated June 2005 –  the government held them back 6 months to get the right time to release them.  

The reports focus on how schools are using their special education resources – in particular their ORRS (On going and Reviewable Resourcing Scheme) funding – for children with high and very high needs and their SEG (Special Education Grant) funding – for children with moderate to high needs.

ERO found that while many schools are using their special education resources well 27% of schools had significant weaknesses in managing their ORRS funds while for SEG there was variable performance and a wide range of problems identified.  

The reports point to serious problems with special education across a wide range of schools and it’s easy and apparently logical for education officials to blame schools and teachers for these problems as ERO does.

However in these reports there is no evaluation of the funding levels or funding mechanisms for special education and it is these which have been at the heart of parent and teacher concerns over the past 8 years.  

When big changes were announced for special education in the late 1990’s it was intended that 2% of school age children would receive ORRS funding but this was dropped to 1% while the remaining children were to receive help through SEG funding.   However SEG – all $39 million of it – is bulk funded to schools based on school roll and decile so that a school with 20 children with moderate to high special needs gets the same allocation as a school with just 2 children with the same needs.

Consequently schools which discourage special needs enrolments still receive SEG funding while other schools – “magnet schools” – which are more welcoming of children with special needs have to spread this funding more thinly over a larger number of students.   More often than not they simply don’t have the resources for these children to become effective learners in a mainstream classroom.  

Too often these students are simply “maindumped” – put in a mainstream class without proper support which is not fair on the child, the teacher and sometimes the other children in the classroom.   

ERO then criticises the schools by saying that “…of particular concern to ERO was that many schools fitted students, irrespective of their needs, into predetermined programmes that were funded by their SEG instead of designing programmes to fit individual student needs”.

In many ways this comment goes to the heart of the problem but it is not a problem of the schools’ making.    “Designing programmes to fit individual student needs” is fine if you only have one or 2 such students and a large SEG grant but particularly for schools in middle to low income communities where there is likely to be many more children with special needs the task is impossible.   The government’s own figures show children with moderate to high needs are seven times more prevalent in schools in low income communities compared to those in high income communities.   Instead of a 7:1 funding ratio between these schools however, the ratio is 2:1  

The irony is that schools which are most welcoming and supportive of children with special needs are being set up to fail while other schools have plenty of plenty of special education funding through discouraging such enrolments because they don’t fit the “image” the school wants to project in the community.   Cambridge High School is the most celebrated example.

The full extent of funding problems was gauged in a survey conducted by QPEC (Quality Public Education Coalition) last year which among other things found that serious under-funding across special education was resulting in overworked, sometimes struggling, professional staff and lack of quality options for parents and teachers.   

97% of schools said the Special Education Grant was inadequate to meet the needs of their children with most saying it needed to be at least doubled.    Most thought the ORRS threshold was too high and 80% said the funding for ORRS students was inadequate.

Two changes in government policy would make a big difference for children with special education needs.   Extending ORRS funding to 2% of the school age population as originally proposed and allocating SEG to schools based on the actual number of children with special needs enrolled.   Schools are already required under education regulations to identify their children with special education needs so the allocation could be made simply and relatively painlessly.

Special needs children have the same right to high quality education as all children.   It’s time government policies adapted to their needs.