At a time when we’re hearing so much about teachers’ huge workloads, the announcement that $217 million is to be invested in special needs education has been hailed as a “win-win” for teachers and children. The provision of learning support coordinators to address the needs of children with learning and behavioural difficulties is designed to improve teaching and learning for all school users.

But what will this mean in practice? How far will 600 LSCs go towards relieving the pressure on 2,500 schools to meet the needs of the country’s 800,000 or so students? Where will these LSCs come from, what qualifications will they have, and how will they fit in with schools’ current frameworks?

Details remain scant but what we know so far is that funding is new and separate to existing school budgets. And unlike SENCOs, who currently perform the work on top of considerable teaching duties, LSCs will be focused solely on supporting students with diverse learning needs.

Prime Minister Arden says the first cohort of coordinators will be in work from 2020 and if the budget allows, the number of LSCs will be doubled.

“These coordinators will not only help unlock the potential of thousands of children with learning needs, they’ll also free up teachers so all children get more quality classroom time,” says Ardern.

Could the implementation of LSCs be the bridge to higher educational achievement for all our tamariki?

Education professor Garry Hornby says appropriate SEN provision not only benefits all learners, it is at the heart of an effective education system.

“Rather than being viewed as incompatible or polar opposites, special education and inclusive education can be seen as equally important components of effective education systems that produce optimal outcomes for all learners.

“The same can be said for equity and excellence, as it is considered important that a focus on equity be combined with measures to promote excellence for all learners in order to optimise overall outcomes.

Maggie Morgan is a SENCO in the UK where provision for and inclusion of SEN learners has been mandated since 2014. In her experience, inclusive teaching practice in the classroom works for all learners.

“Some of the strategies and ‘reasonable adjustments’ which I advocate, such as mind-maps, subtitles on clips, visuals to support text or sand-timers with mini-targets, are popular and motivating for all learners, whether or not they have additional needs. In addition, neurotypical students gain valuable life skills and emotional intelligence by acting as buddies or members of ‘circle of friends’ programmes to support a classmate with SEN.

My own son, a young adult now, always tells me that being the ‘learning buddy’ of an autistic classmate was a deeper learning experience than the actual content of some of the lessons! It’s certainly true that most young adults who I meet these days have an impressive awareness of diversity and of special needs, including using non-oppressive language and showing sensitivity to potential barriers, which they must have gained through mixing with peers with complex needs throughout their school years.”

That’s not to suggest that our highest needs children spend all their school time in the same space as their peers. Hornby says it is becoming realised that effectively including all children with SEN in mainstream schools is an unrealistic goal. “Countries and states that have the most effective overall education systems, such as Finland and the Australian state of Victoria, have adopted a more measured approach which I have called Inclusive Special Education.

“New Zealand has been found to have one of the biggest gaps of all the countries surveyed between the highest achieving and lowest achieving students. This highlights the dangers of focusing primarily on inclusive education, with insufficient consideration of special education strategies.

 “The one to two per cent of children with higher levels of SEN will continue to need to be educated in special schools and classes attached to mainstream schools.”

Hornby, author of Special Education Today in New Zealand, 2014, is quite clear on the changes required to achieve excellence in New Zealand schools. The introduction of specialist staff, i.e. learning coordinators – “SENCO by another name” – is one of them. Others include legislation to protect the rights of children with SEN and their parents, and the responsibilities of the education system to provide for them; mandatory SEN training for mainstream teachers; a tiered approach to intervention to identify children struggling in their first year and target them for additional teaching; and an advocacy service for parents of children with SEN.

“This would bring about substantial improvements to the achievement levels of the lowest 20 per cent of school achievers thereby raising overall achievement levels for New Zealand children. It would also help to achieve the espoused Ministry of Education goal of bringing about a ‘world class inclusive education system’.”

Andreas Schleicher is probably the most senior education advisor in the world. He is director for education and skills, and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Schleicher says that world-class school systems deliver high-quality education across the entire school system, so that every student benefits from excellent learning policies and practices effectively across all aspects of the system.

“They make them coherent over sustained periods of time. And they see that everything is consistently implemented. You can see that nowhere better than in Singapore.”

Schleicher has observed that New Zealand’s education system is weakened by its inability to break the downward spiral between disadvantage, lower performance and poor student engagement.

“While New Zealand’s dream of social mobility is becoming a distant memory for the next generation, it is emerging as a new reality in some east-Asian nations. Most east Asian school systems excel because they’re capable of leveraging the academic potential of disadvantaged students.”

Professor Hornby’s recommendations draw widely on the UK model, the SEND Code of Practice 2014, which puts statutory obligations onto head teachers and school governors.

According to Morgan, it’s a model that works because it is scaffolded by legislation. “It cannot be optional. In England, the reason why schools make every effort to be inclusive is because they are required to by law and because the Ofsted (the UK equivalent of ERO) framework puts SEN provision at the heart of its judgements of schools. Head teachers only started to take SEN seriously when the threat of failing an Ofsted inspection due to poor SEN provision suddenly hit them.”

The LSC should be the “champion” for pupils with additional needs, she says. “They should lead on implementation and quality control of inclusive teaching and learning strategies for classroom teachers, providing training, coaching and advice, and acting as a point of contact for outside expertise, disseminating advice to colleagues. Ideally, they should be a qualified specialist teacher in dyslexia, autism, and speech and language.”

Back in Aotearoa however, SENCOs are not persuaded that the appointment of learning coordinators is even achievable.

At Tawa School, a mid-size primary in Wellington with a disproportionately high number of children with diverse learning needs, SENCO Olwyn Johnston asks “where the hell they’re going to get these people from”.

“There are not enough people with qualifications in special education, and if we use teachers already in the system we’re going to end up with more of the same – at least 20 per cent of children who are struggling or failing.”

Johnston says current teacher training is woefully inadequate and many teachers receive no instruction on special education needs.

“A lot of our training is very constructivist and it doesn’t work for all children. It’s not based on scientific evidence. We need both practitioners and academics to look at the evidence and bring it together to a workable solution.”

SENCO Shelley Peters says anything that helps the kids at 1,800-student James Hargest College in Invercargill is good, but “throwing money at something isn’t going to fix it”.

“It might support schools that don’t have SENCOs but the specialists I need are not going to be improved by funding me. It won’t reduce waiting times for specialist services. I can’t get a kid into the mental health service in less than six weeks.”

During her many years working in teaching, Peters has observed a big increase in the number of students with moderate and complex needs.

“We are seeing an increasing number of students with mental health problems in addition to those with SEN diagnoses.

“I’d want an LSC to be able to support any student who cannot access the curriculum, whatever the barrier. Everyone has the right to be educated.

“If you ask me what the 2018 school needs, I’d say, ‘Give us a social worker and an ed psych, and we’d be absolutely sweet’.”

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