Support for high-needs learning: Department for Education review ‘could benefit 50-80,000 children’

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti says the government is committed to ensuring barrier-free access to education for all. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Update: The Ministry of Education has posted information about the exam on its website. An option to make digital submissions will be posted on the site in the coming weeks.

A new review of how our education system deals with students with the highest learning needs could help between 50,000 and 80,000 children, the government says.

The Ministry of Education review will look at how all students with high learning support needs can get the education they deserve.

This will include whether current supports like the Ongoing Resourcing Program are working – but it will also look at the needs of children who are not currently receiving support or who are struggling to access it.

But IHC – which advocates for people with developmental disabilities – fears the review will not go far enough to give all children with learning needs the support they need to thrive.

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Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the aim of the review was to ensure that the children who needed help the most could get what they needed, at the right time, for as long that they needed it.

Tinetti – who was headmistress of Merivale School before becoming an MP – said she had seen firsthand the importance of supporting children with high needs.

The government is committed to ensuring barrier-free access to education for all students, she said.

“I look forward to seeing a range of enhancement options to support our tamariki next year.”

The terms of reference for the review say it will take a “whole child approach” that “does not define children and young people by a specific diagnosis, disability, disorder or learning difference, but instead focuses on the support children and young people need and how they can access assistance.”

This will include reviewing the current “rigid, deficit-focused criteria and application process” that parents and schools must follow when seeking support for their children.

It will also look at how many children actually need help, compared to the amount of funding and resources available.

It will cover their entire education, from ECE to the end of secondary school.

The exam stems from the learning support action plan that extends to 2025.

Universal Design for Learning in Schools, Teacher Assistant Funding and Career Pathways, Special Education Grant Funding and Truancy will be considered, but are not formally affected as they are already discussed elsewhere.

The review’s recommendations could have “significant policy implications for the government”, the terms of reference state.

Comments and submissions will be collected until December, and solutions will be developed from January to September 2022. The review will then present its recommendations to Cabinet, which will decide whether to implement them.

Current services and supports will remain in place until then.

IHC’s advocacy director, Trish Grant, said many in the sector had warned the ministry that they weren’t interested in just tinkering with the current funding system – they wanted it transformed.

IHC Advocacy Director Trish Grant says the terms of reference suggest focusing on the learners most in need, rather than all the children who need help.  Photo/NZME
IHC Advocacy Director Trish Grant says the terms of reference suggest focusing on the learners most in need, rather than all the children who need help. Photo/NZME

She said there were some very positive aspects to the mandate, including a focus on human rights, plans for revising ORS, and looking at current challenges in accessing supports.

But the focus on students with the “highest” needs meant that the promise of transformation had not been delivered. There appears to be a continuation of the “hierarchy of needs” approach that has been in place since 1998.

“Children, families and schools with disabilities have made it clear that an individualized approach is needed to meet the learning and support needs of all children, not just a few.

“Equitable access to education depends on providing students and schools with what they need to access education. In human rights terms, this is called reasonable accommodation.”

The IHC has a case before the Human Rights Tribunal arguing that the government discriminates against children with disabilities by violating their human rights.

This case was about reasonable accommodation, justice and fairness, Grant said.

“If the education system fails to fund the supports every child needs to succeed in school, that is discrimination.”

Frian Wadia, administrator of the “VIPS – Equity in Education” Facebook group, said her biggest disappointment was that the review seemed to focus on individual children rather than taking a school-wide approach that could improve the inclusion of every child.

“This is what continues to separate our children with disabilities into multiple factions of haves and have-nots.”

There were positives, including a commitment to the principles of Enabling Good Lives, plans to work with government agencies rather than in silos, and looking at “the child as a whole” instead of defining children by their disabilities or learning differences.

She was also delighted that there was a “long overdue” review of the application process parents must go through to try and get support for their children. This process was costly for the Ministry of Education and emotionally harmful for whānau, Wadia said.

But there was no attempt to change school-wide cultures to end the discrimination, punishment and exclusion that many children with disabilities suffered from.

Without such a change, school inclusion would still be a lottery for children with disabilities, she said.