22 Dec 2020

Waiting time for disabled pre-schooler help cut, but 'immediate access needed'

11:40 am on 22 December 2020

After years of criticism the Education Ministry has finally reined in delays for specialist help for disabled pre-schoolers that critics said were appalling and outrageous.

education, elementary school, learning and people concept - group of school kids sitting and listening to teacher in classroom from back

Advocates say the Education Ministry needs to reduce the wait for specialist help further. Photo: 123RF

It has cut the average waiting time for its early intervention service from 104 days earlier this year to 78 days in the five months to the end of November.

The Early Childhood Council and IHC said it was a start, but they didn't believe children with disabilities should have to wait any time at all for support.

Delays for the service blew out three years ago, rising from 72 days in 2016-17 to 105 days by 2018-19, and 104 days in 2019-20.

The service has long had the worst average waiting times of any of the ministry's special education services.

Its 2020 annual report said the average wait for help from the ministry's communication service was 72 days, and the average wait for help from the behaviour service was 53 days.

The report says the average wait for help from the ongoing resourcing scheme, which was for children with the most severe disabilities, was 16 days, below the target of 22 days.

It says 42,695 children received specialist support in the 2019-2020 year, nearly 1000 more than the previous year.

The ministry said the reduction in the average wait for early intervention was a significant achievement.

It said it had made the improvement thanks to extra funding government funding and by targeting children who had been waiting the longest.

The director of advocacy at IHC, Trish Grant, said the improvement was positive, but that it was still not great.

"It's good to see that the number has been reduced, but that is still a long period for a child, a very young child, with disabilities to wait to get the support that they need to learn and to be in an early childhood setting," she said.

Grant said the ministry needed to reduce the wait even further.

"A child with a disability who has been assessed as needing that kind of help needs almost immediate access to that help," she said.

"There's a danger that if they don't receive it at the time they need it, then the problems will compound so I would say they need immediate access to that specialist help."

The chief executive of the Early Childhood Council, Peter Reynolds, said the delay was still too long.

"The ministry are to be applauded if they've got the average wait time down to 78 days, but it's still over two months, between two-and-three months, so it would be good to see that reduced even further," he said.

"No child should have to wait that length of time to find out what sort of learning support they can access in order to get the best out of their early learning experience or school experience."

Reynolds said the delays were frustrating for families who wanted their children to participate in early education.

Early childhood centre owner Maria Johnson said her teachers often had to wait months to get support for children.

"We're waiting an awfully long time and unfortunately it's the child that suffers," she said.

Johnson said teachers had to cope with "incredibly difficult" situations when they were working with children who did not have the support they needed.

"You wait quite a long time for the assessment to happen and then you've got to wait ages to find someone who's going to come in and release staff or work alongside the child," she said.

Johnson said staff could spend a lot of time chasing up the ministry about children's applications for support.

She said the ministry needed to employ more people who could help under-fives before they reached school because even an average wait of two months was too long.

"All the research shows that the biggest brain development in any person's life is between 0-3 and 3-6 so I just become very baffled as to why children are having to wait so long to get this intervention and support," she said.

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