It’s time to give New Zealand’s most vulnerable children a fair go

Kids with special education needs are not getting a fair go.

This has been obvious to parents and schools for many years and is now openly acknowledged by Ministry of Education officials.

Last week, the IHC lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission alleging government policies and practices are preventing children with disabilities from fully participating in education at their local schools.

The complaint targets government actions which the IHC says place barriers in the way of young disabled learners. Meanwhile, the Ministry agrees there are serious problems for parents and students but puts the blame on schools.

So what are outside observers supposed to make of this hot potato exercise shortly to be played out before the Human Rights Commission?

It’s important to understand a bit of background.

In 1989, the Labour government introduced its Tomorrows Schools policy whereby schools were to become self-managing. They were to elect their own Boards of Trustees made up mainly of parent representatives and these boards would run their schools.

The committee which devised the new policy was chaired by businessman Brian Picot, who managed a chain of supermarkets. Not surprisingly, Picot suggested running schools like competing businesses. Suffice to say its been an unfortunate educational experiment.

Under this reorganisation, the government initially retained direct responsibility for funding children with special needs.

Later in the 1990s most special needs funding and resources were bulk funded to schools which were given the responsibility of allocating funds and meeting the learning needs of these students. But lack of adequate government funding and poorly targeted funding have bedevilled special education. Just as with the school operations grant, which is also bulk funded inadequately, special needs funding has not been adequate for special needs kids to become successful learners in mainstream classes. Poorly targeted funding has added to the problems. For example, the special education grant (more than $40 million) is bulk funded to all schools irrespective of how many children with special needs are enrolled. A school with two such children receives the same funding as a school with 20.

This means schools which actively discourage enrolment of children with special needs will still receive the same funding as schools which welcome such children and which have to spread their available funding much thinner over a larger number of students. It provides the perverse incentive for schools without special needs children to keep turning them away while making it harder for more welcoming schools to say yes to a greater number of special needs students.

Some of the unsavoury outcomes are parents being asked to take their children home when the money to pay a teacher aide runs out or parents being asked to contribute $100 or $200 each week to supplement inadequate government funding for their child. Schools have even asked parents to come in and stay with their child in the class because the school can’t afford teacher aide support.

With inadequate and poorly targeted funding 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.

These government policies which have led to such school/teacher/parent stresses have been roundly criticised for many years but they have been defended by any number of Education ministers on spurious grounds. The latest Minister, Chris Carter, is no exception.

The Government says its role is to provide the funding but schools have the responsibility to meet the learning needs of all children with the available funds and teaching resources.

This is a cop-out. Yes, there are odd schools which may spend some money poorly, but any number of reports over the years indicate big structural problems with the funding of special education.

A report conducted by the Quality Public Education Coalition two years back showed 97 per cent of schools said their Special Education Grant was inadequate, with most saying it needed to be at least doubled. Most schools thought the Government should double the number of students who receive targeted funding with 80% saying the targeted funding itself was inadequate.

Meanwhile, it was revealed last year the Government is quietly aiming to save $23 million from special needs funding allocations between 2006 and 2010. The trend began several years ago.

Figures revealed in November 2006 showed government funding for special education services decreased by 3.49% from 2001 to 2006.

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

We’ll all be keen to see if National’s special education policy matches its rhetoric.

The IHC is to be applauded for its direct challenge to government policy. It’s time to give our most vulnerable kids a fair go.