If you feel as though your school is not well equipped to support your child’s special educational needs (SEN), you’re probably right. According to international research, disadvantaged students fare considerably worse in the New Zealand education system than those lucky enough to be born in many other countries.

Countless numbers of parents can testify to this. Online support groups are swamped with messages from parents at their wits’ end as they wrestle with a school system that is not designed or funded for children who learn differently.

“Our nine-year-old has very complex needs and was treated very poorly at school,” says Lisa, a mother of five in Wellington. “He was stood down six times in one term and we were left feeling they had given up on him. On one occasion, the principal lost his cool and tipped a cup of water over [our son’s] head.

Lisa’s son is intellectually disabled, has autism and two genetic disorders, but was turned down for comprehensive funding known as ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) because he was judged to be ‘too advanced’. At nine, he was working at the level expected of a five-year-old, a year better than required to qualify.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous, and it’s incredibly frustrating that we’re having to battle so hard for this child who really needs help. I think it should be a lot easier for parents to access help for their children,” says Lisa.

Kāpiti parent Shelley Harris shares Lisa’s frustration. “We have struggles with my daughter [14] who has conductive hearing loss and auditory processing disorder (APD). Because she has APD, she is always excluded from any help. Like most deaf students in New Zealand, she cannot access sign language, despite the fact it is an official language of our country. This is sheer discrimination and a breach of their human rights.

“As it is, you have to put your child into a school environment with teachers who are not necessarily skilled to work with special needs students and you have to hope that they are invested in your child.

“Her school is very good, probably because I made a lot of noise about her. If I was a mum who left it to the school, I think her outcomes might be very different.

“It’s not an equal or fair chance in education for children like her. All the systems involved in their lives are broken.”

These stories are echoed throughout the communities of Aotearoa. There is a profound sense of exclusion and injustice experienced by many families whose children do not fit into mainstream education.

Stellar schools doing great work

But there are flecks of light beaming through the darkness. Some schools, such as Greerton Village School in Tauranga, are doing magnificent work with children who have special educational needs.

Greerton is a mainstream primary with a roll of 415 students. Of those, 25 students – or six per cent – are ORS-funded, compared with one per cent nationally. A further 15 students are funded for additional support, making Greerton something of an anomaly.

Erika Harvey drives her daughter, Piper, across town to Greerton because of its stellar reputation.

“Greerton is absolutely amazing. The special needs children are included in everything mainstream and the staff are absolutely committed to helping them progress. The teacher aides are like nurses: they even change feeding pegs and teach toileting.”

Piper is seven and has been diagnosed with non-verbal autism. Before starting at Greerton, she did not speak and could only express her unhappiness by screaming and through violence. At times she would smash her head against concrete and attack those around her.

But in the space of two years, Piper’s progress has been such that she is learning to speak and even performed a karakia in front of a crowd at a recent public event.

“I can’t speak highly enough about our experience with my daughter’s school,” says Erika. “Support has been outstanding. She feels liked and included, and she thinks everyone is her friend. She has made drastic improvements from being fully supported in an inclusive education system, and as much as she learns at school and from other students, they also learn from her and understand that we are all different, but all special in our own ways.”

Power in Numbers support group

Buoyed by the support provided at Greerton, Erika has set up ‘Power in Numbers’, a group of parent advocates striving for equity in education and a funding model that supports it.

“I never realised how hard it was for kids with SEN or behavioural problems; it’s really heartbreaking. Parents need to arm themselves with knowledge and processes they need to follow for success in equity and inclusion at their local school.”

First of all, says Erika, parents should educate themselves about their rights within the New Zealand education system. Then they will know what they can and cannot rightfully expect.

Parents who feel that their child is being excluded or treated unfairly at school are advised to nominate a support person to attend school meetings with them, as this relieves a lot of the stress and anxiety. Erika says the ideal support person is a parent who has been down the SEN route before.

If this approach is unsuccessful, Erika advises parents firstly to request, in writing, a copy of the school’s complaints policy. Secondly, ensure that all communication is received in writing and follows the procedure outlined by the school. After following this procedure, if parents feel things have not been addressed appropriately, they should connect with Power in Numbers on Facebook or make contact with Youth Law for free legal advice.

Erika points to Section 8 of the Education Act which guarantees rights to special education,
and Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities as evidence that the state is obligated to assist with applications for funding assistance, ORS, and must take reasonable steps to accommodate the education needs of disabled people.

In simple terms, this means that the school and Ministry should be creating solutions so that children who need additional support in school are able to access education. Failure to do so amounts to discrimination and violates a child’s rights to a quality and inclusive education; this is a legal violation even if funding doesn’t allow it to happen.

Back in Wellington, Lisa has removed her son from the school where the principal tipped water over his head and he is now happy at a different school where his teacher is kind and understanding.

“His new school is incredibly welcoming and his teacher is very patient,” she says. “They take time to understand how he ticks, and don’t expect him to work in the same way as other kids.

“The difference in him is monumental. He’s made a friend and even had a sleepover. At his last school, he didn’t have any friends and other families talked very negatively about us as a family. But now he’s happy to go to school, he feels liked and everyone says hello and hugs him.”

Apply early for funding

Lisa has learnt another big lesson – to apply for ORS funding early. Her younger son has similarly complex needs and, at four, has been approved for ORS. This means that funding is guaranteed for his entire time at school, and that he will follow a curriculum individually tailored to his needs.

Why the difference in funding for the brothers? Says Lisa, “It’s all about timing. If you apply for funding before they start school, you have a much better chance of success.”

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