Special education looks set to get a major boost in tomorrow’s budget with a “significant package” of funding initiatives, as well as a longer-term action plan. But while educators welcome the extra cash, they remain adamant it must be backed up with a better system for supporting all children with learning needs.

The Government’s first Budget will contain an extra $21.5 million for early intervention services over the next four years, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced at an education summit in Auckland on Monday.

The additional funds, around $5.4 million a year, will give extra support to nearly 8,000 more pre-schoolers needing help for problems ranging from speech delays to severe disabilities.

The boost would also halve the current waiting list for services, as well as help meet future demand, Ardern said.

Currently, the average wait for help from the early intervention service was around 74 days, she added.

“In the life of a little three- or four-year-old child who’s hungry to learn, that’s 74 days too long.”

Ardern also hinted that there are more systemic changes to special education in the pipeline.

The extra money for early intervention was just “one of the components of the package” of extra learning support initiatives set to be announced in Budget 2018, she told the 800-strong audience.

The Prime Minister described it as “a major funding boost for a significant package of learning support initiatives”.

Education had been underfunded in the past, she said, and that it was the children with the most to gain, “Māori and Pasifika, those with special needs”, who were often the first to miss out when money for education is tight.

“Investment is now needed in both capital and operational expenditure to deliver the education services New Zealanders deserve.”

In addition, Education Minister Chris Hipkins and Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin are set to take a longer-term “action plan” for learning support to the Cabinet in October.

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart praised the extra funding for inclusive education, describing it as “a step in the right direction that will be welcomed by educators, families and their children”.

But she cautioned against any assumption that the additional funding would help every child in need.

“Getting educational intervention and support for their children is a constant battle for many parents, and children have long been missing out on meeting their potential because of inadequate funding [and] there is a massive unmet need that can’t be fixed overnight.”
Further funding was needed to ensure that the same children could continue to receive the necessary support after they started school, she added.

National’s Education Spokesperson Nikki Kaye and Early Childhood Education Spokesperson Nicola Willis called the funding boost “a positive step for children and families who need additional learning support” but said there was a need to focus on reforming the system.
Mark Potter, principal of Berhampore School in Wellington, said the extra funding relieved problems in early childhood education, but did not solve the issues.

“They haven’t removed waiting lists, they’ve just shortened them, by a margin, which is a good thing… but I’m not going to say right, it’s sorted, well done.”

Educators remained in the position of having to make a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ [impossible decision] about which children to help, he told Education Central.

“The moment you stop, and say, that’s it, there’s someone else left on the wrong side of the line.”

Potter said his wish was that all schools would have a dedicated person – known as either a SENCO [Special Education Needs Co-ordinator] or a LSCO [Learning Support Co-Ordinator] – to work with children who needed learning support.

Schools who had invested in the role, or diverted resources to fund it, had got “far better results” for children with learning needs, he said.

“But if it’s just tagged on the back of other roles that you’re really busy doing anyway, then it becomes a poor cousin.”

“It’s got to be someone in the school, who knows the people, who knows the family, who knows the child quite well.”

Properly resourcing special education did not necessarily mean throwing more money at it, he added.

“We’re often told it will cost a lot more. We would contend that it possibly wouldn’t. There’s a lot of money in the system that could be used possibly to better effect. For instance if a school says, a child needs an iPad, the processes the Ministry will go to, to determine whether or not the child will get one or not, can actually cost more than just buying an iPad.”

Potter said that he was hopeful that the “system transformation” that was being talked about could happen, but that the Government needed to be “bold enough” to go all the way with its review.

“We’ve got a long history of just tinkering at different parts of the system, at different times, and that’s why it’s quite clunky and doesn’t work, it only works for some, and that’s only some of the time.

“So we need transformation: how we actually view education for everybody, for all, not just Sophie’s Choice, to choose one because we are only prepared to fund this much.

“That’s a terrible position to put professionals in, but that’s what we are being asked to do.”

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