What sort of learning support can you expect for your child with special needs? Is it determined by the Ministry of Education, the school – or your budget?

When Kathryn’s* son was diagnosed with Asperger’s, she felt immense relief. At last she could make sense of her son’s behaviour, learn some coping strategies and get his school onboard with supporting him. Twelve-year-old Matthew*, an academically able student, was at risk of disengaging from school because his additional needs were not being met. Like many students with high-functioning autism, he is quickly overwhelmed in social and unstructured situations such as break times and on the school bus, and his sensory issues mean he finds certain sounds and smells deeply distressing, thereby affecting his ability to cope in class. Kathryn hoped that with Matthew’s difficulties explained by professionals, his school would step up.

More than a year later, however, Kathryn is still waiting.

“His teachers and the dean say he’s doing well, that there’s no problem, but his grades have plummeted since he moved from primary school. He was happy at primary school, he couldn’t wait for school to re-open after each holiday period. Every day he’d say, “What am I going to learn today?” Now he’s very unhappy but the school isn’t interested because on paper he’s making the grade. They don’t listen.”

Anxious for help, Kathryn consulted a friend, a senior teacher, who advised she take her son to an educational psychologist (EP) for something called a WISC test. (The WISC, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, is an IQ test designed to determine a student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.) The test results could be shared with the school to help them understand her son’s learning needs, but at $495, the cost was prohibitive to Kathryn, a beneficiary.

“On a budget of $700 a week, $495 is a huge amount for me to find and I don’t think I should have to, I get frustrated. Why can’t the cost of Matthew’s education be met by the school or the Ministry of Education?”

Indeed, the expectation that Kathryn fund an EP’s report is at odds with the ministry’s position that students do not need a formal assessment to access learning support.

“The responsibility for identifying students with additional learning needs falls to schools and kura, as does the role of developing teaching and learning strategies to meet those needs, says Katrina Casey, deputy secretary sector enablement and support. “Where more intensive specialist support is needed, schools can request additional support through the RTLB service or from an MOE learning support specialist. Parents can also contact their local MOE office for support.”

Moreover, a WISC test “would never be a starting point for a discussion about a child’s learning needs and supports”, says Ms Casey.

“It is a cognitive test that would be considered in the context of a needs assessment, not in isolation. We would encourage the parent in this situation to get in touch with their local MOE office to discuss the supports available to her son and his teachers.”

Kathryn’s situation is far from unusual. An estimated one in five students has additional learning needs which translates to many thousands of parents trying to navigate the fragmented services of learning support. All of them have asked the question, “How do I get help for my SEN child?” Whether the student’s disability is physical, cognitive or developmental, their parents tell depressing and similar stories: they either shop around for a disability-friendly school, stump up for private help or face the fact that their child will be excluded from everyday opportunities at school.

Mateo’s* parents have all but given up on state education. They’ve always been open about his diagnosis of high-functioning autism, but none of the schools that the 14-year-old has attended has ever offered learning support. “He’s a bright boy but he’s overwhelmed by the constant noise in his classes so he disengages,” says mum Carla*.

“I have talked to his teachers, I have been to the principal, but nothing has changed. There are two or three students who create chaos, they probably have unmet needs too, but the school seems powerless to act. It’s been very disappointing.”

Mateo’s parents count themselves as fortunate in being able to pay for private tutoring to keep up his education.

In theory, New Zealand schools are inclusive. According to the Ministry of Education, schools are obliged to include and provide quality education for all learners. The Education Act 1989 states that people who have special education needs (whether because of disability of otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education at state schools as people who do not”.

In practice, however, it is a rather different story with parents such as Kathryn and Carla booking expensive consultations with educational psychologists, private tutors and occupational therapists. Other parents tell of being asked to pay the salary of their child’s teacher aide, or to limit their child’s school attendance to half days.

Ms Casey concedes that the state education system needs improving. “More work needs to be done to build teachers’ capabilities to meet diverse learning needs and identify children and young people’s learning support needs earlier.” She points to last week’s announcement, The Learning Support Action Plan 2019-2025, as evidence that state education is being transformed to accommodate SEN learners in state schools. New priorities include:

  • introduction of learning support coordinators (LSCs) in schools and kura, full-time specialist teachers focused solely on supporting students with diverse learning needs
  • development of screening tools for early identification of learners with additional needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and giftedness
  • design and implementation of a flexible set of services and supports for neurodiverse students. This includes children and young people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, autism spectrum disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, trauma-related disorders, and auditory or visual processing disorders
  • better meeting the learning needs of gifted students
  • improving education for children and young people at risk of disengaging

It’s a big action plan, but it’s already being criticised by schools and parents who say it doesn’t go far enough. Teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa denounced the allocation of LSCs as being based on the needs of bureaucracy rather than children.

“There will be many disappointed parents and schools around the country today,” said president Lynda Stuart when the plan was revealed. “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.”

However, parent advocate Frian Wadia says she welcomes the action plan as a big step forward in shifting negative attitudes towards inclusiveness.

“It’s important to understand that we have two issues with inclusion; one around parents and schools wanting more funding for special needs students, and the other around negative attitudes towards inclusive education. It’s the latter that this action plan will address, attitudes in schools with excellent funding where SEN students are being excluded, and schools that are resistant to advice from private specialists, RTLBs and MOE staff. In some cases, the teachers feel the strategies advised are not doable, in other cases there is literally just negativity, an unwillingness to learn or change.”

Ms Wadia says there are many students with minor challenges who need only small accommodations at school in order to achieve – permission to use a laptop in place of a pen, access to a pencil grip or a low sensory space, for example – but that this is not widely understood.

“So many of these students are having such negative experiences at school and then turning up the social and justice systems. This action plan is a good step towards shifting that culture and getting minor challenges addressed in a timely manner so they don’t escalate to major behavioural problems. It’s there to address the issues around the negative attitudes, and make sure that schools start listening and taking things on board.

“It also means that schools will be working together which makes it more economical in terms of professional development. More resourcing is needed, it’s always going to be an issue, but the LSCs should have the expertise for that first level of support for the teacher and in a few years’ time we will see a more knowledgeable workforces that can handle the challenges.”

For Kathryn, the action plan throws up more questions than answers. Her son’s school has not been allocated an LSC meaning there is no indication that his teachers are going to upskill in SEN any time soon.

“If, as Katrina Casey says, the responsibility for identifying students with additional needs falls to schools and kura, why didn’t the school offer this? Where is this ‘range of assessments’ that the ministry offers? The whole system seems completely disjointed.”

Meanwhile, Mateo’s school has been named as one that’ll have an LSC attached from January 2020 but the more immediate news is that his two most disruptive classmates has been permanently excluded. While this will make life easier for Mateo and his teachers, it begs the question of what will become of the excluded students. “It’s sad, both these kids are in serious trouble and they’re only 14,” says Carla. “I don’t know all the ins and outs but it seems to me they have been badly let down by their adults – at home and at school.”


*Names have been changed as the subjects did not wish to be identified.


  1. Having had a similar experience at junior high school, it will take a lot for schools and ministry to work together to get this going. In one case, the ministry were all ready to provide support to the student but the school did not do the paperwork to get it and wanted to do something else, including putting restriction on attendance. So lost opportunity and student ended up leaving without getting help needed. Both need to have the will to work together and listen to parents who know their child best.


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