By: Simon Collins
When Massōne Tutauha felt a meltdown coming on at Pembroke School in Taranaki, he could retreat into a tent.
“They have this little sensory tent in the classroom, filled with cushions. They put it in specially for him,” said his mum, Bex Tutauha, soon after he started there.
“The school has gone through autism training with someone who came in from Pukekohe. I think three teachers, the principal and I think even the office lady all did it. They have gone above and beyond.”
Pembroke School, “a tiny little school out under the mountain” with just 84 students, seemed to be a model of how schools could do better for students with autism, like Massōne, or with dyslexia, ADHD and other things that mean their brains are wired differently from most children.
Principal Junior Etuale Togia said the school tried to “embrace the individual”, using different ways of teaching for different students rather than adopting a blanket approach.
“For our dyslexic learners as well, they struggle with the reading/writing side but place a lot of emphasis on the visual when it comes to learning,” he said. “When we are giving oral instruction, we back it up with visual instruction.”
Massōne (“Mase”), aged 9, had already been withdrawn by his parents from one school and expelled from another.
At the first school, Bex Tutauha recalls,”We’d get calls: ‘Mase is hiding under the bush,’ ‘Mase has thrown this,’ ‘Mase has done that.'”
At his second school, “his teacher just wanted him out as quick as look at him”.
Massōne’s older brother, now 18, went to about seven schools and ended up in a youth residence. He ran away from the residence and his parents found him sleeping rough, aged 15, near the Sky Tower in Auckland.
Togia said Pembroke School understood that Massōne’s meltdowns were triggered by things like sounds, smells, too much language on the whiteboard or just not knowing what’s happening next.
“To me, the things that he was doing were a cry for help,” Togia said.
“We are the learners here as well as Massōne. We are looking at working alongside him. This is your perfect example of a partnership.”
Unfortunately, even this “perfect example” did not last. At the end of last term, six months after it seemed to be going so well, Pembroke School expelled Massōne.
Another boy threw away Massōne’s chewing gum and called him names, triggering “a bad meltdown”.
“What is supposed to happen is that the classroom is supposed to get evacuated. The teacher was doing that,” Bex Tutauha says.
Tutauha says Massōne was locked outside the classroom while a staff member tried to talk to him. He hit the staff member and was suspended and later expelled, she says.
Bex and her husband Elton Tutauha have decided to keep Massōne at home on correspondence for a while because school has been so traumatic for him.
“He is only just now sleeping,” she says. “They have had to double his anxiety medication.”
The parents will share Massōne’s education.
“My husband works days. I go to work at night times. We sort of have to chop and change,” Bex says.
“Why do we have to fight for our kids to get an education? It gets really exhausting.”
Although Pembroke School’s experience warns against any school claiming to be perfect, there’s no doubt that some are better than others at including kids who are “wired differently”. Some become “magnet schools”, attracting students who have not been so welcome elsewhere.
Autism NZ Whanganui outreach co-ordinator Ayesha Middleton has found another small rural school, like Pembroke, to nurture her autistic son Harry, 9, and daughter Sophie, 7.
Harry was non-verbal when he started at South Makirikiri School, which has 150 students.
“He is now quite verbal because of the work they have done with him,” Middleton says.
“They have never treated Harry as different. He has been in a mainstream classroom. They include him in every activity.”
But they have also adapted their teaching for him, using teacher aides funded by the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) to take him swimming and horse-riding.
“He said his first word on a horse,” his mum says.
One of his teacher aides, who is also the school caretaker, worked out that Harry loved movement, and created “learning stations” around the school’s fitness track “so he does a lot of his learning on the fitness track”.
Each learning station is “a block of wood with velcro”.
“They will put in different letters. When they get to that learning station, he has to look at the alphabet and see what letters are missing. It’s really cool.”
In Wellington, Berhampore School lists 22 teachers on its website, including specialist learning support teachers – and 20 “teaching assistant support staff”.
“We wanted to show how it could be done,” says Giovanni Tiso, a father of two autistic children who chairs the school board.
“It’s not true that there is little money for special education in the budget, it’s just that there isn’t enough for other things after we spend it on special education!
“We use property money – but it’s not to say our property is run-down; we’ll find someone to sponsor repainting, etc, because it’s much harder to fundraise for inclusion.
“Accountants have said to me, ‘Your first obligation is to your buildings, then the chattels, kids come third. I said that was wrong in law.”
But many magnet schools struggle. A third of the 410 students at Tauranga’s Greerton Village School need extra learning support, including 27 who are supported by teacher aides, but even ORS-funded teacher aides are funded at only $16.06 an hour after GST and other deductions, while their average pay is $19.45 an hour.
This year’s Budget provided phased funding increases – “from $16 to $18 in 2019-20, $19 in 2020-21 and $20 in 2021-22”.
But in the meantime, Greerton Village has started a Givealittle page to fund new reading books. So far it has raised less than $2000.
Tracey Martin’s plan
As well as paying more for each teacher aide, this year’s Budget funded more teacher aides by expanding the ORS scheme from just over 9000 students to just over 10,000, or from 1.13 per cent to 1.23 per cent of school rolls.
It lifted total spending on learning support this year by 5.8 per cent, slightly less than a 6.2 per cent increase in the last year of the previous National Government – a real increase of about 2.6 per cent per student after allowing for roll growth and inflation.
Last week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a more significant change, agreeing to fund 600 “learning support coordinators” from 2020, lifting the learning support spending by about $50 million a year or 7 per cent.
Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin, who has responsibility for learning support, had already published a draft plan to fund at least part-time learning support co-ordinators in all 2500 schools, although noting that this “will require a funding decision”.
Her plan also includes:
- Screening all children between ages 6 and 8 for dyslexia (reading problems), dyspraxia (clumsy movement) and giftedness.
- A “central data collection process” for children with special learning needs so that information goes with them when they change schools.
- “Flexible support packages” for students with learning differences who don’t qualify for ORS funding.
- Learning support facilitators in the Ministry of Education to arrange the support packages for students in clusters of schools and preschools.
Submissions on the draft plan closed in October and a final version is expected next year.
Former school principal Carla McNeil feels frustrated that all these initiatives are missing the main point. She believes the key change that we need is to help teachers to teach differently to suit the different ways children learn.
Her son, who is now 16, had speech difficulties in preschool and struggled to read at school.
“He brought a book home on his first day. You just expected that they will be taught to read, but for the first year he didn’t learn to read,” McNeil says.
Thinking there might be something medically wrong, the family went to the Child Development Centre at Waikato Hospital.
“They assessed him at seven and a half. They literally told me that he had no potential to learn,” she says.
“This is a boy who, at 4, drew a freehand plan of a playground design at kindy and how he wanted the kindy teachers to rearrange the playground so the kids would have more fun.”
Later he was diagnosed with dyslexia and McNeil gradually realised that he needed a much more structured approach to reading than he was getting at school. She quit her job and started a consultancy, Learning Matters, to help other families and to show teachers how to teach reading more effectively.
“We have this one-size-fits-all approach to how we generally teach language. We need to address that by actually directly teaching spelling, not just giving words to kids because that does not work for these children,” she says.
“I was a classroom teacher who didn’t know that. I think it’s time for us to wake up to adapting our practice to really help these children.”
Some children are ready to read from the day they start school. But others flounder, and may give up trying, because they lack the basic building blocks they need before they can start to read.