About 80,000 school-aged children are believed to have dyslexia, but the Government can’t be sure because there is no centralised data on those with greater learning needs. Laura Walters reports.

For some children, improving their access to education could be as simple as putting text on a blue page, with a black border, Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin says.

Martin is currently working on the Government’s Draft Disabilities and Learning Support Action Plan.

This plan is a rethink of how the education system recognises and supports students with disabilities and those who have become known as neurodiverse learners – people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and those on the autism spectrum.

The plan comes amid damning reports on our unequal education system.

It’s also just one part of the Government’s widespread education reforms, which include a review of Tomorrow’s Schools, NCEA, a redesign of alternative education, free tertiary education, and the abolition of charter schools and national standards.

The problem is that without understanding the scale of learning difficulties, those in charge don’t know the tools and resources needed – or how much it’s going to cost.

“We know nothing, absolutely nothing,” Martin said.

Dyslexia has been officially recognised in New Zealand since 2007, but there is no centralised data collection, no standardised assessment or screening, a lack of professional development and training, and private diagnosis can cost about $2000.

A Parliamentary inquiry, which reported back in 2016 and received about 400 submissions, found as many as one in seven people have dyslexia. That’s as many as 80,000 school-aged children.

By the time they are eight, many students with dyslexia decided they were stupid, Martin said.

If they had proactive parents, who were financially able, they would get assessed and get a diagnosis. If not, they would often disengage with the education system by 14 or 15.

This often led to mental health issues, and poorer outcomes in life. Girls on the autism spectrum were also more likely to self-harm, Martin said.

Experts are united that better education, and more equal access to education, leads to better life outcomes, but those who slipped through the cracks suffered unfair consequences in life, she said. Inequity in education perpetuated the cycle of poverty.

Meanwhile, Corrections figures showed 71 percent of prisoners were functionally illiterate, and international data, paired with data from the Parliamentary inquiry, indicated about 60 percent of prisoners were dyslexic.

Martin said something needed to be done to address the needs of these Kiwis.

“If this doesn’t happen, then I think we’re going to see people who just don’t reach their full potential because they haven’t been given the tools to get there.”

The plan is to put in place standardised screening across the country, to pick up on learning difficulties when kids started school. By the time they are six or seven, they would be able to be screened for dyslexia by teachers.

Standardised screening would allow the Government to collect data and identify where further tools and resources were needed, Martin said.

Once a child was identified as being somewhere on the scale, a teacher could go to a learning support professional with specific expertise, who could identify the appropriate learning tools for the teacher to use.

Martin said there was a bit of a fear from a ministry perspective that once they knew the extent of the problem, the next question would be how would the Government provide.

“This is not a silver bullet, this is the start of a plan… but right now we don’t know the need.”

Gathering data and putting human resources in place – including a ‘learning support coordinator’ in schools, was the first step, she said.

Potential harms of labelling

Massey University’s Equity Through Education Centre agrees with the overall aim and priorities, but the centre’s education experts have reservations about the minister’s screening proposal.

Associate professor Alison Kearney said assessment was critically important but screening had a number of fishhooks.

Screening would lead to children being labelled, which wasn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but research showed detrimental things could happen when a child was labelled, she said.

Children with learning needs could be stereotyped, and human nature meant people tended to focus on deficits associated with labels. There was also the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies associated with low expectations.

The funding side of the issue was also important.

While the area had been underfunded for a long time, screening could be used as a tool for funding allocation. This could bring about mass labelling, and the potential for the issues associated with putting a student in a box.

The potential negative long-term effects for children was far-reaching, so it was important the strategy ensured the impacts were at least mitigated, Kearney said.

So the centre’s feedback for the minister’s plan was “yes, but…’.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin says right now lots of kids are slipping through the cracks, she hopes this plan will be the first step to changing that. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Nothing exists in a vacuum

Kearney’s colleague associate professor Mandia Mentis said the issues around disabilities and learning support tied in with wider workforce and resourcing issues.

Teachers were currently in collective negotiations with the Government, calling for better pay, more non-contact time, smaller class sizes and more human resources for students with learning support needs.

“You can’t divorce this area from what’s happening currently. We need smaller class sizes, we need more teachers, we need more speech therapists, so we need to increase the capability and the capacity of people to have a first-class, inclusive education system, which is what the ministry aims to do,” she said.

The ministry’s priorities were correct, but the strategy was not.

“They’re trying to do more with less rather than give more.”

In the meantime, a lot of kids were falling through the cracks, so more needed to be done to increase the human resources and expertise.

Proud of their differences

A group of Kāpiti College students have owned their label, and requested to be put in a class exclusively for neurodiverse learners.

Sarah Sharpe is a former Kāpiti College teacher, who specialises in learning difficulties, and is now a neurodiversity education specialist who works as a consultant and trains other teachers in catering to all learning needs.

The 150 neurodiverse learners at Kāpiti College became empowered once they understood their differences, and how they learnt, Sharpe said, adding that the label and understanding more about their own learning was empowering.

The college had spent 10 years developing strategies and making sure educators had a range of tools, including speech recognition software, better building design and teacher aides.

These changes cost about $40 per student, or $460 per neurodiverse student. The argument that schools and the ministry wasn’t doing more in this space because it was too expensive fell flat, Sharpe said.

“We get very frustrated because it’s not rocket science.”

“Upskilling” teachers to adopt a universal approach to learning, which meant teaching for everyone – not just the middle – was something all schools should and could do, she said.

But awareness in schools, and the general population, need to improve, and learning needs needed to be normalized in order to make a real difference.

Sharpe said she was heartened the Government was recognising the issues Kāpiti College had been advocating for over the past 10 years.

Her only concern was the size of the plan, which she called “the beast”. She didn’t want bureaucracy to slow down the process.

“We’ve already waited 10 years, and we’re talking about children’s lives,” she said.

Hope on the horizon

The Education Through Equity Centre’s Dr Wendy Holley-Boen said this was a valuable opportunity to get things right.

“It’s amazing to see the difference a small group of committed people can make and there’s so many layers of the system working so hard to get it right; it’s really hopeful to be part of the New Zealand education system at the end of the day,” she said.

Consultation on the Draft Disabilities and Learning Support Action Plan closed on Wednesday.

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