23 Sep 2016

Calls for overhaul of special education system

1:43 pm on 23 September 2016

Disability and education groups have banded together to call for improvements to special education.

The rally at Parliament on Thursday.

The rally at Parliament on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / John Gerristen

They say the government is not meeting its human rights obligations to disabled people, and they don't believe the current review of special education will fix things.

The 'Education for All' network, which includes groups such as the Disabled Person's Assembly, IHC and teacher union the Educational Institute (NZEI), launched the campaign with a rally at Parliament on Thursday.

They delivered an open letter for Education Minister Hekia Parata, which was backed up by a petition.

The documents asked the government to provide every disabled person with an inclusive education; stop making children and schools compete for funding; remove disincentives that discourage schools, early childhood services and tertiary institutions from enrolling disabled students; ensure all aspects of education are universally accessible; and work with disability groups to implement a system that works.

One of the organisers, Rachel Noble, said the alliance of disability and education organisations was hugely significant and their message was simple.

"Get on with it. We have been waiting too long. We've been pushed off and fobbed and so on. We're 25 percent of the population.

"We can add value to the country if we are allowed to add value to the country. But we are systemically pushed aside and let down and that thinking needs to change."

Inclusive Education Action Group spokesperson Bernadette Macartney said the campaign was prompted by the government's review of special education.

"Parents are frightened that their children's funding is going to be cut and there's already a lot of young people and children that aren't having their needs met, because of restrictions to funding and not enough support from the government for teachers and teacher education."

Other people at the rally said they did not believe the review, known as the special education update, would help.

A view from behind of teacher aide and two little girls while rest of class taught  further into classroom.

A teacher aide works with special needs students at Newmarket School in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Berhampore School principal Mark Potter said there needed to be more funding.

"I don't think we're going to get much change out of the special education update, and the reason for that is there's no new resources, so all they can do is change things around," he said.

"What we're actually hearing everywhere is there's just not enough. So until we can get some commitment to increasing what's available, we're actually going to help nobody in the long run."

Muritai School principal Andrew Bird told the rally that little had changed in special education in his time as a teacher and principal, and there was ongoing frustration.

He told RNZ he did not expect the special education update would improve the situation.

"The community is crying out for more resources for children with special needs and yet the government, their default statement is 'there are no more resources'."

Wellington parent Giovanni Tiso said schools were incentivised to avoid enrolling children with disabilities, and the entire system needed to be redesigned to ensure all education was universally accessible by all children.

"More money is something that is needed but it actually comes ... second to a proper rethink of what we want out of the education system, how we measure outcomes, what we think inclusion means and include disabled students and their families into the conversation, into the decisions rather than getting them into a room and telling them what's happening."

Acting Education Minister Anne Tolley said the government agreed that the special education system needed to improve.

"We know from extensive engagement that the current system of learning support is too complicated so we want to make it easier for families and teachers to access support when they need it," she said.

"We also want to make sure that the $590 million investment is being spent in the most effective and impactful way possible so that kids get the best chance to achieve educational success. These are why we are in a process of updating and improving the system."

Ms Tolley said the special education update was at a very early stage and any changes would be managed carefully to ensure ongoing support.

She said the government had increased spending on special education by 29 percent since 2009 and more than two-thirds of the annual spend of $590m went directly to schools.

An Education Ministry survey found 78 percent of parents and 63 percent of teachers were satisfied with special education last year.

More than 80 percent said they were treated fairly and special education staff were competent.

But only 63 percent of parents and 54 percent of educators were happy with the time it took to get help for children.