It is 6pm on a Tuesday night. The board of trustees is gathered for its monthly meeting. Joining tonight’s meeting is the school’s SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator) who will report to the board on the school’s special education programme.

The report includes an update on the school’s four ORS-funded students; all are doing well with the extra support. But the SENCO expresses her disappointment for a sizeable group of students operating just below the academic levels of the ORS students. These children are not able to access the curriculum without support, yet no funding has been approved for them. Just two students of nine applicants have been granted In-Class Support funding. With just 130 funded spots “up for grabs” in the area, she’s done well to secure two of these spots.

The board members look tense. It is painfully obvious that in the absence of sufficient funding they will need to budget for propping up the school’s learning support programme. But they have already committed to a number of other major costly projects, so it’s not going to be easy.

Learning Support Action Plan

Variations of the above scenario are likely to be playing out all over New Zealand. SENCOs everywhere are trying to stretch their limited resourcing across a large pool of children who need it. Boards are scratching their heads about how they can help.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin is very aware of the scale of the problem.

“One in five children, around 200,000, need some kind of extra support for their learning. This is part of the natural variability among children and young people in every learning environment,” she says.

“Feedback from across the education and disability sectors, as well as from parents and whānau and students themselves, has been very clear that we need to do a better job of helping these young people and meeting their diverse needs.”

The recently announced Learning Support Action Plan aims to do just that – a better job of supporting kids who need that support. Starting now and over the next five years, the plan will aim to develop new screening tools to help identify learning support needs early on and strengthen early intervention for pre-schoolers. The plan will also aim to better meet the needs of neurodiverse children, gifted children and those at risk of disengaging.  But the top priority for the plan is to introduce the first tranche of Learning Support Coordinators (previously referred to as SENCOs) in schools.

Allocation of Learning Support Coordinators

The sector was pleased at the prospect of injecting 600 Learning Support Coordinators (LSCs) into the system – if a little dubious about how it would be achieved at a time when there is a shortage of teachers. Everyone agrees the SENCO role, often assumed by an already over-burdened senior staff member and in some schools entirely absent, should no longer be just an add-on or a nice-to-have in schools.

And so it was with anticipation that schools opened their letters from the Ministry of Education, informing them if their cluster was successful in being allocated one of 623 Learning Support Coordinators to around 1000 schools.

Based on pure numbers alone, many schools should not have been surprised to hear they hadn’t been allocated a LSC – the initial tranche was never going to supply every school with an LSC. However, the apparent criteria for allocation has left many reeling.

The letter explained that it was important that the LSCs were allocated to schools where the Ministry’s Learning Support Delivery Model was already being implemented.

NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart says while any new resource for children with additional learning needs is welcome, the Ministry’s allocation failed the test of whether it would get to the children who needed it most first.

“The Ministry’s allocation decision is explicitly and primarily based on whether schools are ‘in the three most advanced stages’ of the Ministry’s Learning Support ‘delivery model’, not on how many students are on a school’s special needs register or how inclusive a school is.”

“Putting arbitrary system requirements ahead of what schools have said they want and need to meet the needs of children is disgraceful.  The Government needs to urgently guarantee the next tranche of these roles and to ensure they are based in school communities facing the biggest challenges and who desperately need the resource.”

The New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) also expressed its surprise and disappointment.

“We understood that this first tranche of positions would be allocated fairly and evenly across the board,” says Whetu Cormick, NZPF President. “What is surprising is that there is a bias towards allocating LSCs to established Kahui Ako, or Communities of Learning.”

“We had hoped to see LSCs allocated to schools with the greatest number of students with severe learning and behavioural challenges. I question the Ministry’s announcement that schools have been selected on their advanced use of the new Learning Support Model as we do not believe that this is the case.”

National’s Education spokesperson Nikki Kaye says the way the LSCs have been allocated is “deeply unfair”.

“It appears the Government was not looking at which schools have the most need but instead has only allocated to schools who are currently implementing the Government’s learning support delivery model.

“I have been contacted by upset and angry principals who have huge need and weren’t offered the opportunity to be part of this and didn’t know this would be the criteria.

“This means a school that may already have huge resource might get one or two people and schools with little or no resource with high needs miss out.”

Minister Martin explains

But Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin says no one is missing out.

“What I was trying to ensure was that all of New Zealand had coverage – and that has been achieved – and that this new role has the best chance of success. That is why LSCs will be allocated into schools and clusters that are the most advanced in implementing the Learning Support Delivery Model in the first instance,” she says.

Martin says there was an emphasis on variety in the initial allocation.

“To make sure there was a variety of types of schools and settings in this initial allocation, the allocation decisions also took into account some specific characteristics of clusters, such as: the proportion of rural schools and the distance between schools; the proportion of Māori and Pacific students; the number of Māori medium kura in a community; and the number of students in a cluster.

“The allocation of the first tranche has not been made on decile, as the decile rating of a school is not necessarily a predictor of learning support need. Children needing extra learning support are in schools across all deciles.”

Martin says it is important to note that nothing is being taken away from what schools already have.

“The LSC roles are additional to services or positions schools currently have and my objective is that there will be further tranches to progressively roll out LSC coverage to all schools, though of course that will be subject to normal Budget decision-making processes.”

The Minister points out the Government’s investment into learning support.

“We’ve put more than $600 million into Learning Support in the last two Budgets. All schools that have students who need extra help will benefit from this.”

No doubt schools currently grappling with how to spread their learning support resourcing across an ever-growing pool of learners with learning support needs will be watching the continued roll-out of the Action Plan with great interest.

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