17 Aug 2018

Education Ministry special needs staff to strike

2:06 pm on 17 August 2018

The education sector is facing another strike, this time by specialists who work with special needs children.

Ministry of Education psychologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists have voted to strike on Tuesday.

Michael Fox, Ministry of Education psychologist in Tauranga. 574 speech  therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other support staff have voted to strike on Tuesday.

Psychologist Michael Fox said he had more than 40 children on his caseload, which was too many. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The 574 staff are among about 1000 specialists employed by the Ministry of Education to undertake field work, which involves visiting primary, secondary and pre-school children, assessing them and developing a learning plan.

It follows the strike by primary and intermediate school teachers on Wednesday over their pay talks.

The Ministry of Education specialists have turned down a pay offer of a two percent rise this year and a further two percent in March next year.

NZEI union lead negotiator Byron Sanders said the union members were angry at the offer.

"Quite frankly we don't see that as good enough. We don't see that two percent will go anywhere near far enough to ensuring we can recruit staff."

The union is asking the ministry to organise an independent audit, to assess how much workers were worth and where the pressure points were in the system.

Mr Sanders said until this was done the scope of the problem was unknown, but it was obvious one existed.

"It's not good enough that in the Wellington region we've had principals wait over six months for a psychologist for a child that's been violent.

"That child is not only having their learning impacted negatively but all the children around them are being impacted negatively as well."

NZEI national executive member Byron Sanders.

NZEI negotiator Byron Sanders Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Psychologist Michael Fox said he had more than 40 children on his caseload, which was too many.

"Fifteen would be ideal, but no more than 30 so you can actually service the kids you need to see."

"Schools call and they need you there but you're feeling stretched because you just don't have the time and sometimes if it's urgent you have to rearrange your whole day because it's a high priority case."

He said the pressure had made him consider resigning.

"You do get that because you get overloaded but then the type of people that go into this field, we do it for the kids and we know that the caseload is just going to go on to someone else."

Wainuiomata Primary School deputy principal Tute Porter-Samuels said specialists were critical for the children at her school.

"Wainuiomata is a school of 300 and a good 15 percent have high complex learning needs, so these specialists are really important to us."

"Their parents are in my office asking why isn't my child getting the support. I would love to get them that support, but we just can't."

Ministry committed to settling dispute

Ministry of Education spokesperson Zoe Griffiths said it remained committed to gaining an agreement with NZEI.

"We value the work that field staff do and know some field staff have high workloads at the moment and we are actively working to fill vacancies in areas where there is high demand.

"We received additional funding for and are recruiting 52 extra specialists for expansion of the severe behaviour service, 28 extra specialists to help reduce waiting lists for early intervention services, plus fifteen extra specialists for ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme), and six specialists for the Intensive Wraparound Service."

She said a plan was in place for Tuesday.

"We will have arrangements in place to manage urgent appointments as well as supporting schools if there are any traumatic incidents during the strike action.

"Our staff are committed to supporting children and young people they work with so will either rearrange any appointments or if it's an urgent case, our other staff will ensure the needs are met."

Speech language therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other specialists who work with special need children have voted to strike on Tuesday.

The specialist staff voted to strike on Tuesday Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

On Wednesday, about 29,000 primary and intermediate teachers went on strike for the first time in 24 years, closing hundreds of schools and affected 400,000 pupils.

They had rejected the government's offer of a 14 percent pay increase over three years for new teachers and a six percent rise for experienced teachers.

They have indicated backing for further action, cheering loudly at a Wellington rally over the possibility of a two-day strike if there is no improved offer from the Ministry of Education.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the teachers' demand for a 16 percent pay rise over two years outstripped what others in the workforce were receiving.

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