17 Nov 2022

Overhaul of the $1.2 billion special education system announced

2:31 pm on 17 November 2022
Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti among a group of school children.

Associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti made the announcement at Berhampore School. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The government is promising to extend learning support to thousands more disabled children through a substantial overhaul of the $1.2 billion special education system.

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the plan was the result of a government review of support for children with high needs that began in April last year.

It would shift from the current system where schools and families applied for rationed resources, instead giving families more control over the support their child received and making teachers take more responsibility for disabled learners in their classrooms.

However, details were yet to be decided and the Ministry of Education had been charged with developing a business case by June next year, Tinetti said.

"We're not talking about tinkering around the edges here, we're talking about a whole new way of doing things.

"We know that this one of the most broken areas in education and it is something that not only the sector have been crying out for change but also the families of young people who have been under-served."

The changes would increase the number of children receiving help for disabilities, Tinetti said.

Jan Tinetti

Jan Tinetti Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We know from the social welfare agency that for every seven children who are getting support and getting learning supports that there are three that probably aren't. It's not good enough. We need for all young people who have learning support needs to get the right support when they need it."

The changes were bold and significant, she said.

A Cabinet paper published today said the changes would require significant ongoing new investment.

It said the Ministry of Education would remain the budget holder for special education funding but would allocate resources in ways that best meet needs of teachers and learning support staff.

A child's family, teachers and ministry staff would decide what support each child needed, rather than leaving that decision to a panel that did not know the child.

The paper said the new approach would increase demand because it would identify currently unmet needs.

Teachers would receive more training in working with disabled children and the Cabinet paper indicated the government would try to tackle some schools' and teachers' resistance to having disabled children in their classrooms, Tinetti said.

"This partnership works best when educators accept full responsibility for all learners in their care. This requires a shift in long held attitudes and behaviours about learning support needs across all levels of the education system, including school leadership, so that all students are welcomed and valued as part of their early learning or school community," the paper said.

"Students with the highest needs are still experiencing persistent barriers to being able to participate, progress and achieve in their education journey. Early learning centres and schools are still not receiving adequate support to feel confident and capable to support students with the highest need."

The Ministry of Education would make some changes now, such as simplifying the system for applying for learning support, Tinetti said.

The Cabinet paper redacted the immediate changes that could be made but said they would not create extensive change to the current system.

It said analysis by social welfare "indicated that approximately five percent of students are likely to have a high unmet need at some point in their education journey. This means that in any one year approximately 25,000 students could be missing out on receiving the support they need to effectively engage in and participate in early learning or school".

The paper indicated changes to the way specialist schools worked.

"The integrated schooling network aims to remove the parallel system of support that segregates disabled students and ensure that these specialist settings are more integrated with local schools. This would allow students to move between settings according to their need at the time."

Changes welcomed

The plan was announced at Berhampore School in Wellington where principal and president-elect of the Educational Institute Mark Potter said the government's plan included things schools had been asking for for a long time.

"You can't underestimate how important it is that we've finally got funding itself on the table. That's been excluded from so many reviews for decades so that's going to a fundamental change for us," he said.

The proposed changes would take time to develop in detail, Potter said.

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Mark Potter Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Post Primary Teachers Association president Melanie Webber said the union was looking for proof of real change in the business case next year.

"It's an absolutely urgent need for this change. It's been heart-breaking for teachers seeing the lack of supports," she said.

Christchurch principal John Bangma was at the launch representing the Principals Federation and was on a working group that advised the government on the review.

He was encouraged that the government had made a commitment to making substantial changes and was taking time to develop the details, he said.

"This is a huge shift that may happen and we need to make sure that the ability to plan for it and make it happen," he said.

"I'm very hopeful."

The government's estimate that 30 percent more children needed help was an understatement of the scale of unmet need, Bangma said.

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