Special needs children suffer as Government boosts surplus

Six-year-old Renee will not be going to school today when children return to the classroom after their two-week holiday, writes JOHN MINTO.

Despite the best efforts of her mother and despite her right to enrol in a state school under Section 8 of the 1989 Education Act, her mother has withdrawn her from her local primary school because Renee’s chance of success at school has been stymied by Government policy.

Renee has Down Syndrome and the resources are just not there for her to become a successful learner in a mainstream school classroom.

She is in the 1 per cent of children funded through ORRS (Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Scheme). This means she is able to access the highest level of funding for children with special education needs, through the Ministry of Education.

The funding has enabled a teacher aide to be employed to help her in her mainstream classroom for part of each day and generally this has been successful.

Her school reports she gets on well in the class and is making progress in developing friendships. However, without the close support of her teacher aide her interactions with other children can be, in the polite language of teachers, “inappropriate”. In other words she can be a pain in the bum for a teacher with 30-odd other children in the classroom.

The teacher, school, Renee and her mum all feel stressed, not to mention the other kids in the class.

Renee’s mother was called to a meeting at the school last term to discuss how Renee could be better supported in the classroom. Mum felt this might be a turning point but the meeting turned to custard.

The school felt it was unable to divert extra funds from its operations grant for Renee and neither could the Ministry provide extra funding. And so three suggestions were made. Firstly, could mum top up Renee’s funding herself each week to increase the teacher aide hours? Secondly, could she come into the school herself and sit with her daughter in the classroom when the teacher aide wasn’t there? Thirdly, could she take Renee home sometimes and do work with her by correspondence?

Is it any wonder that under pressures like this the relationship between family and school began to break down? Renee’s mother is not in a position to take on any of the three options but why should she in any case? Is this what our education system has come to?

Yes, is the simple answer. It is now common for schools to ask parents of children with special needs to top up teacher aide funding and many now pay $100-$200 a week or more to do so. Other parents are asked to take their special needs children home at lunchtimes because the school can’t fund the support the child needs.

Despite all this the Sunday Star Times newspaper obtained papers earlier in the year showing government officials hope to save more than $23 million in special needs funding between 2006 and 2010.

The papers indicated the money would be saved by “underspending” on children with ORRS funding. Children like Renee.

The National Party quite rightly described it as “picking on the most vulnerable children in society to slash funding”.

The trend began years ago. Figures revealed in November 2006 showed Government funding for special education services decreased by 3.49% from 2001 to 2006.

The simple truth is the Government would rather sneakily increase its budget surplus than provide the money for all children to become effective learners.

The Government will say that cases like Renee are rare, that for most kids the system works well and the Government is putting a pile of money into the sector in any case. But this is just political spin.

There are thousands of similar stories around the country but because parents of children with special needs are in a minority in every school their struggles are often overlooked.

Meanwhile, the Government blunders on with funding that is not only inadequate but also misdirected. For example, a good portion of the money for special needs goes to schools without any such children. These are the schools, for example, that discourage enrolment of kids with special needs because they don’t fit the “market image” the school wants to project to parents. But these schools will still get the same Special Education Grant funding as the school down the road that welcomes these kids but has to stretch a small amount of funding over a large number of students.

Meanwhile, Renee’s mum is looking for another school and has already been warned off one or two by the ministry because they don’t welcome kids with special needs.

The struggle will continue so long as ministers of Education feel they can evade the issue. Perhaps if Renee spent a day in the minister’s office under his supervision he might be more responsive.