Principals say yesterday’s strike is not just about an increase to pay. It’s about working conditions and having “time to teach” students with increasingly complex needs.

Teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa said its request to fund a special education needs coordinator (SENCO) in every primary school was ignored by the Ministry of Education. NZEI has estimated the cost to fund the position would be $108 million.

The coordinator position would ease teachers’ workloads by dealing with the administrative time needed to help students with additional learning needs.

A February survey completed by NZEI Te Rui Roa reported more than 20,000 students are on special needs registers in 471 schools which responded to the survey question. That’s an average of 43 students per school.

“We are identifying an increasing number of children with severe learning and behavioural needs and not being able to help them in the way we should,” said NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart when the survey results were released.

The majority of respondents felt their school did not have the resources to ensure every child could participate fully in education.

“We never saw the level of foetal alcohol syndrome we have now, we didn’t see P babies like we do now.”

Schools which do have somebody in a coordinator role are often funding the position through operational budgets, or asking a staff member to take on an additional role. Thirty percent do not receive financial compensation for taking on the coordinator duties.

The Ministry for Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said the Ministry is not ignoring the learning needs of children.

“That’s why Budget 2018 provided $283.8 million over four years to fund a range of supports and services for students with additional learning needs. This includes an extra $133.5 million for the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), which provides vital support for school students with the highest and most complex learning needs.”

Casey said a ‘Learning Support Delivery Approach’ is also being implemented which among other measures includes better facilitation support between services and schools. A Disability and Learning Support Action Plan is also being developed to help identify learning needs earlier.

“We know that demand is increasing for learning support due to a number of reasons including population growth, earlier identification of needs through early intervention services and increased participation in early childhood education. There are also more children and young people with complex, and in some cases enduring, needs,” said Casey.

Missing from the list of work being done to help address the needs of children and schools requiring extra help is funding for a special education needs coordinator.

Berhampore School principal Mark Potter said a growing number of children require support with a range of needs including disabilities, emotional behaviour disorders, and children from dysfunctional homes.

“We never saw the level of foetal alcohol syndrome we have now, we didn’t see P babies like we do now.”

He worried the amount of help wasn’t keeping up with growing needs. 

“There isn’t a corresponding adjustment to teachers to meet that demand. What’s happening is classroom teachers and even management teachers are being asked to do more to meet those needs, but there is not more of them.”

“There is a child with autism, another child with global delay, a gifted child, two kids with behavioural disorders and seven children who don’t speak English as a first language.”

Potter’s school funds its own full-time coordinator out of its operational funding.

“What it means is you end up not spending all your money where the ministry would like you to.”

Meeting those needs has meant property maintenance and development at the school has suffered.

Funding for children with special needs is available through sources such as ACC, a Special Education Grant and the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS).

Potter said while ORS funding helps pay for teacher aides and some teacher time, it doesn’t cover all costs.

“The Ministry of Education acknowledges it’s only a contribution. It doesn’t meet all the resourcing cost of that child. The more children you get in a school who are ORS category, the more contributions the school has to make.”

The coordinator at Potter’s school takes on the role of organising meetings, ensuring education plans are followed through, liaising with various government agencies involved and training teacher aides.

“It makes an enormous difference. Teachers are able to come to meetings that are already prepared and are able to participate as a teaching professional and discuss the educational needs of the child, and they are able to return back to their class that needs them.”

Potter described a classroom in Berhampore School: “There is a child with autism, another child with global delay, a gifted child, two kids with behavioural disorders and seven children who don’t speak English as a first language.

“By having the SENCO, they can take the pressure off the teacher by a lot of organising meetings that the teacher needs to have for those children and to help train the teacher aides.”

Potter acknowledges his school has become a “lighthouse” school which has drawn a high number of students with complex needs because of its reputation for understanding and working with students’ requirements.

However, he thinks there are likely to be schools dealing with similar student needs as his in any New Zealand city and coordinator help is needed now, not in three to five years.

“We can’t sit back. We are right on the edge of a crisis here. In fact, we are below the edge, it’s here.”

“That’s why you see so many of our teachers leaving after five or six years because of the circumstances in the classrooms.”

Karori West Middle School’s Janice Jones has two jobs. She’s the deputy principal and the special education needs coordinator. She’s been splitting her time between the two roles for 10 years.

As well as the normal workload of a deputy principal of a school of 550 students she describes herself as “the front door for learning support we have at our school”.

She said it is “absolutely not” ideal to be split across two roles.

She said the role had grown in the last 10 years as the school has grown larger along with the number of agencies involved with children.

When a teacher or parent approaches her with concerns around a child who may need extra support, she will swing into gear organising referrals for support for funding, or specialists. She holds relationships with multiple agencies who are involved with children.

“I make things happen. My job is to support the teacher in the classroom. Having those multiple relationships, it’s so much easier if you have someone like me who is arranging the meetings, the professionals, or talking with parents.”

The school’s principal Janice Shranka said schools need more than just a funded position of a special education needs coordinator to give teachers time to teach.

“It’s the whole gambit. Position, money, support personnel.

“There just isn’t the support out there, the educational psychologist, the speech language therapist, the occupational therapist, the physiotherapist. You either have to wait an extremely long time in order to get those people to come into your school, or you try and be imaginative and do other things.”

She said the school scratches around to fund what they think is necessary for their children and feels lucky it is a big enough school to be able to have a deputy principal who doesn’t teach and can be available to help out with the coordinator role.

“That’s why you see so many of our teachers leaving after five or six years because of the circumstances in the classrooms, the diverse nature of our wonderful students we have mean you can’t just have one class and one teacher. You need to have a support network all the way around them.”

Leave a comment