School principals say they are heartened by what appears to be an increasing focus on special education among political parties.
In New Plymouth today, National Party leader John Key and education spokesperson Hekia Parata announced a policy they say will help 4000 children with special education needs including dyslexia and Asperger's syndrome.
If it leads the next government after the 20 September election, National says it will spend $18 million a year providing 800,000 teacher aide hours for children whose disability is not severe enough to attract dedicated support under the present system.
National says the policy will cover conditions including Asperger's and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Schools will identify which children qualify for the help and decide themselves how much support each child should get.
The policy follows National's announcement last week that it will spend $11 million over four years on Sign Language for deaf children, and Labour's commitment to spending $7 million a year on 100 more special education teachers.
New Zealand First wants to increase the number of children who qualify for the highest level of support (the Ongoing Reviewable Resourcing Scheme, currently rationed to about one percent of the school population), while the Green Party says it will be announcing a significant special education policy next week.
About time, says federation
The president of the Principals' Federation, Philip Harding, said today it is about time politicians gave special needs more attention.
"They need to. It's certainly been a festering sore for a very long time. The disability groups are very clear about their expectations and principals are very clear about the limitations that make inclusion a real challenge."
Mr Harding said National's policy of teacher aide hours will be welcomed by principals as a start - but the need is very great.
Mark Potter, the principal of Berhampore School and a strong advocate of more funding for special needs education, says the policy is nice, but the extra resource will not go far.
"If you take 4000 children across two-and-a-half-thousand schools in the country, some have more needs than others - we'd be hoping, but not sure if we'd receive any of that," he said.
"The other issue is five hours a week, we're already getting that sort of thing in dribs and drabs... and it's just not enough [for] the kind of children they say they're targeting."
Most funding new - Parata
National's education spokesperson Hekia Parata said today that most of the funding for the policy will be new, but some money will be reprioritised from other areas of education to pay for it.
Ms Parata said the money was enough to provide about 4000 children a year with five hours of teacher support a week. However, she said it would be up to schools to identify which children would get the help, and how many hours of support they would receive.
Ms Parata and National leader John Key said $18 million a year is a small amount compared with the $530 million spent each year on special education - but it will be welcomed.