5 Nov 2018

'What we need is people that are very highly specialised'

6:07 pm on 5 November 2018

The government's plan to bring in 600 new support staff for special education is much needed for a sector "in real strife", an educator says.

A teacher's aide works with special needs children

A teacher's aide works with special needs children Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Yesterday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged $17 million new staff to work with children with special learning needs from 2020.

For some it's a small step to taking the pressure off over-burdened staff, but others fear the plans are murky and risk becoming a one size fits all approach.

Mark Potter, the principal of Berhampore school in Wellington, is experienced in teaching children with diverse needs.

The school attracts differently abled children from across the city. Now 15 percent of its students need specialised education.

But with more children needing targeted care across the country and fewer teachers to do it, the pressure was building.

For Mr Potter, extra staff would be a huge help.

It was going to create more inclusive practices possible in schools, he said.

"There will be better support for schools, for teachers, for relationships between parents and staff working with the children."

The government plans to add more support co-ordinators into schools - they are responsible for getting children the right assistance and resources.

Often a teacher will take on this co-ordination role on top of their job.

Mr Potter said adding full time specialist co-ordinators would free up teachers to teach.

But the new staff would need to be paid properly, he said.

"You can't pay peanuts and expect to get anything other than performing monkeys.

"What we need is people that are very highly specialised and skilled."

Mr Potter said there was a challenge ahead as there was no specific training programme for a co-ordinator.

Shelley Peters - a special needs co-ordinator at James Hargest College in Invercargill - said it was almost pointless paying for new co-ordinators when there was not the staff to co-ordinate.

"You're looking at a sector that's already in real strife. It's not growing, young people aren't coming in, the workload issue is becoming more of a crisis."

Other than more teachers, Ms Peters would like to see the health and education sectors working together so children don't end up in a bureaucratic merry go round.

Autism NZ advocates for better education for those with autism. Chief executive Dane Dougan agreed there needed to be a "boots on the ground" approach.

"It is really important that the focus isn't on admin, that it is actually on teaching and actually helping teachers do their job."

It was important that children got individualised care and that it was not a one-size fits all approach, he said.

"The government has certainly listened to the community about the need in this area."

There was a lot of work to do in the area, but it was a "good first step", he said.

Mr Dougan said the sector could benefit from double the figures announced.

There are 2500 state or integrated primary and secondary schools so there will not be a coordinator in every school.

Their placement was likely to be decided on a ratio of number of students, and the level of need.

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