13 Jun 2019

Principals' anxious wait for more details on new learning support coordinators

10:37 am on 13 June 2019

Principals are anxious to hear how the government will allocate 600 new learning support coordinators, who will organise help for children with special needs from next year.

Teacher working with a teenage girl with learning difficulties.

Last year, the Labour Party pledged 600 new positions specifically to help children with special learning needs. Photo: 123RF

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told the Education and Workforce Select Committee the jobs announced last year and included in this year's government Budget would be full-time special education roles rather than tacked on to some other job, such as being a deputy principal.

However, he said the details of the role were still being worked out and it had not been decided how many schools the coordinators would work in or how they would be allocated.

"It may be that we don't use deciles as a way of allocating. It may be we use geography, for example, or other information that we have available to us about where the greatest need might be," he said.

Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick said every principal wanted a learning support coordinator, but there were only 600 to go around and most would probably miss out.

"There is a little bit of anxiety because obviously people see this as a a really important area and it is, because of the increasing number of challenging behaviours and other learning needs that are presenting at school so every principal will want access to one of these positions next year. The reality is, we won't all get those."

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Principals' Federation president Whetu Cormick. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Principals expected low decile schools and those with a high number of children with special needs would be most likely to be allocated a learning support coordinator, Mr Cormick said.

He said the initiative would create 600 new jobs in schools and that could be a problem given there was a teacher shortage.

"We have the supply issues at the moment. There's going to be a bit of a concern about backfilling of positions. So if we're taking an experienced classroom teacher out of their classroom responsibility, who's going to be doing their job," he said.

Auckland Special School Principals Association president James Le Marquand said the coordinators should help bring specialist support closer to the classroom, which was where it was needed.

The coordinators should have specific qualifications and be backed up by a better system for providing help, Mr Le Marquand said.

"The thing that really worries me is that we are not going to be setting up the necessary infrastructure that needs to be around them to support them to do this work, because essentially we are starting at ground zero. We don't have that level of expertise across the system and these people need to be trained at a masters' level really."

The director of advocacy at IHC, Trish Grant, said the coordinators were a good move, but they would not solve the overall lack of funding for special education.

"There's some assumptions there that there are enough resources to coordinate," she said.

"It's hard to see how these new roles will automatically resolve the quite deep-seated issues around waiting lists and capacity."

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan said 600 learning support coodinators was not enough, but the government had acknowledged that and more of the positions were likely to be created in future.

Mr Dougan said he expected the coordinators would provide help and support for teachers, but also train teachers so they could meet the needs of children with special needs such as autism.

He said ideally the coordinators would have specialist training.

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