The word ‘crisis’ has been getting a flogging in education circles of late – at least, by those outside the Beehive. Chronic teacher shortages, abysmal retention rates, nosediving trainee numbers, deadlocked industrial disputes and by no means least the seemingly immovable achievement gap are the more well-known aspects of the current state of education in New Zealand.

One more escalating situation would be acute additional needs in ECE. The time between teachers identifying a student with serious behavioural or learning needs and the Ministry assessing those needs has been trending upward for some time – now, according to the National Party, the average wait time as of September 30 is 98 days. In May it was 78 (again, this is according to figures released by the National Party, which the Government don’t seem to be disputing). Right now, in Wellington, centres can wait up 160 days, just to get the early intervention ball rolling. To be clear, we’re only talking here about the initial scoping appointment – it’s unclear how long on average it then takes for resources to be assigned.

Maria Johnson is owner and licensee of Little School, encompassing three ECE centres in Wellington and Auckland. She has 30 years’ experience in the primary and early learning sectors. Maria says that she has seen a big increase in the number of children who need help, but she’s not sure whether that’s a result of higher uptake of ECE services generally, increased ability to identify children with additional needs, or an increase in the percentage of children who need help that centres can’t give. What is clear is that the time it takes to get these children the help they need is skyrocketing.

“If we can pick up on these children [with additional needs] and get them into the system as soon as possible, they’ve got a far greater chance of achieving through the rest of their involvement with the schooling system.

“It used to be that [additional services] were there pretty quickly. Now, there are waiting lists, and the teachers who do these assessments are under huge pressure.”

Peter Reynolds, CEO of the Early Childhood Council, says the impact of increased service waiting times can see centres facing decisions where no choice seems like a good outcome: on the one hand, battling on and potentially compromising the safety of everyone involved, not to mention the quality of service they’re providing, or on the other, having to take the sad option of denying service to parents and children.

“The biggest problem for the childcare centre is where they have to keep not only the affected child safe, but other children and adults safe as well. For example if you’re dealing with a child with behavioural issues, let’s says the child strikes out or that sort of thing. We then have a situation where the centre has to say to parents, ‘look, until we get the service lined up and commenced, we can’t afford to have your child come into our centre, because it’s just too hard. We can’t take our staff away from the group to focus on the needs of one child.’

“The net effect [of service wait-times] is two-fold. These temporary suspensions, if you want to call it that, don’t happen that often. To be honest, most centres will try to struggle on, to continue to offer a service to the affected child, knowing that it’s not a perfect solution – the child may be at risk, other kids may be at risk. What’s not uncommon is teachers getting physically assaulted and injured.

“I had a teacher ring me the other day who was whacked over the back of the head with a bit of wood. That’s not the sort of thing that a teacher thinks they’re going to be dealing with when they get up in the morning and go to a childcare centre.

“Then there’s the situation where a child actually does go through the assessment process, and the Ministry says, ‘actually, we can’t allocate anything to help.’ Or what they do allocate is just totally insufficient to meet the needs of the child.

“So you’ve got economic pressure on parents who need to work, and need to find care for their child while they work; and you’ve got centres that don’t want to be in a position where they’re having to deny access to children, they want to be able to do what they can.”

Maria talks about the very real pressure that is placed on centres when they can’t access the services they need.

“We had a situation where we had a child who was at the severe end of the autism spectrum. We were allocated two hours per day of support for that child. So this child was with us for seven hours a day, and two of those were supported. And we had to fight to get that: this child was with us for more than 18 months before we got any support.

“What that meant is all the other kids miss out, and the child themselves misses out. It placed such huge pressure on the teaching team, it’s just not even funny. As a teacher, you want to feel like you’re doing the best for all your children, so it’s really hard when you know that you’re not.

“We had another child that was a constant biter. Now biting can be very normal behaviour for a two or three year old. But when you’ve got a four-year-old who is biting teachers and children all the time and is drawing blood, something has to be done. You’ve got parents who are complaining, it’s just such a tough situation. You’re trying to have conversations with the affected family, asking them to work with you to manage the situation, and you’re being told by the family they’re going to take you to court. We were almost at the point of expulsion, and we found that there was very little support out there.”

Peter Reynolds says that he sympathises with a Government that must juggle limited funds. But he says also that perhaps the way we approach our most vulnerable youngest learners needs to be examined root and branch.

“I understand that there are issues for the Government. They’ve only got so many dollars that they can spend in this area. But clearly, the fact that waiting times have actually increased tells me that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system.”

The Government’s recently announced strategic plan for early childhood education, He taonga te tamaiti, has been welcomed by the sector. The move towards a 100 per cent qualified teacher workforce and improved adult:child ratios is a big step in the right direction. Consultation on the plan is bound to unleash calls for the Government to be more responsive when it comes to helping centres provide quality and timely support for children with acute additional needs.

The Ministry of Education’s Katrina Casey, Deputy Secretary Sector Enablement and Support, says that they’re responding to the issues around acute additional needs, but that the effects will take time to kick in.

“Budget 18 provided $21.5 million over four years to help meet demand pressures and halve the current waiting list. Additional Ministry front-line early intervention staff are being actively recruited, but it will take time for the effects of this to have an impact on reducing the wait for families.

“In response to feedback from parents, whānau and the education sector, we are developing a Disability and Learning Support Action Plan to drive progress towards an inclusive education system where children and young people with additional learning needs, including disabilities, are welcome and where their achievement, progress, wellbeing and participation is valued and supported. A key priority area of the draft Action Plan is ‘ensuring that learning support is resourced for increased support and service delivery’. Consultation on the draft Action Plan closed on 31 October 2018. The final Action Plan will be considered by Cabinet and implemented over the next few years.”

Maria Johnson’s final word brings us back to the fact that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“What frustrates me more than anything is that the largest period of development that happens in the human brain is between the ages of zero to three. If we can’t get support for these children when we see them falling through the gaps with developmental or language delays, then I’m concerned that when they move onto school, there are so many other kids that they’re just going to get lost in this big bubble, and the waiting list increases significantly again. I think we’re failing our children, it’s just that simple.”

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