Monday, 22 August 2016

Special Education - Let's Change the Name and Solve Everything!!

Somewhere, in the dark depths of the Beehive:

"If we change the name of the outfit, Minister, it will look like we've fixed everything thing!" grovelled an MOE official.

"Hmmmmm...." mused the Minister. "I've heard of this strategy before... but where...?"

"Well, Minister, it's a strategy Mrs Tolley is using with her portfolio."
On Friday the Special Education Update (aka Review) was released... with a new fangled name, Learning Support Update.  You can view the report here and also the Cabinet Paper here.
By releasing it on a Friday, the Ministry of Education was trying to sneak it in under the radar.  But as many people have been awaiting it and also contributed through submissions and speaking at Select Committee meeting, with widespread consensus that many children are missing out and the funding is inadequate, this was never going to slip into obscurity.  Over the weekend, people have become more aware of this report, especially in light of the debate over another large pot of money, covering the Operations Grants of schools, with the looming threat of a form of Bulk Funding called Global Funding.

While Hekia Parata talks up the Update, Chris Hipkins from Labour and Catherine Delahunty from the Greens raised concerns they saw in the final report about the lack of financial resourcing and shifting money from other students with needs.  (See 'Special needs'' term singles out students and will be scrapped, NZ Herald, 22/8/16).
Essentially, this is what the Learning Support Update boils down to:
  • there is no more money.
  • there are more kids who need assistance.
  • a younger age band of children will be targeted to tackle issues earlier.
  • the money to do this will come from the older age band of children.
Can you see any educator or parent of a child who needs extra support satisfied with this?
While I agree that it is sensible and vital to target children as early as possible, it should not be to the detriment of the older children who are struggling to learn and achieve.  To do so it to fail these children yet again.  They already missed out due to a lack of an appropriate professional resources in their early years, such as a speech language therapist or a consultation at the Child Development Centre, and now they are being punished for being too old to fix by this change! 
We should be adequately resourcing all children to access appropriate support rather than rationing it and playing God over who should receive the help they need!!
Within the Cabinet Paper, the Minister discusses:
  • how there has been an increase in the school age population,
  • an increase in students requiring learning support,
  • approximately 10% of the school population requires learning support,  
  • that 95% of those receiving learning support are in mainstream schools,
  • and that there will be no extra funding until she has determined if the current funding is adequate or not and it is being used efficiently.
She also discusses redesigning how learning support is delivered and accessed.  Below is a Service Delivery Model for an Individual from page 13 of the Cabinet Paper:
And this is the Service Delivery Model through using Communities of Learning, also from page 13 of the Cabinet Paper:
Now the fact that there is a Service Delivery Model through the Communities of Learning (CoLs) concerns me.  Is the Minister considering pooling money for learning support with CoLs with a contestable pool for each school to compete for access to from their CoL?  Will individual schools, principals and teachers be over ruled or dictated to as to how to support the learners in their school?

While the above models talks about it as having a role of analysing and reviewing learning support provision and providing professional learning for classroom teachers, I am wary of putting learning support under the CoLs umbrella.
This phrase also concerns me:  "Improving investment decisions using social investment analysis".  It concerns me because it is taking indicators like the mother's lack of education, a parent being in prison, or being a long term beneficiary and labelling a child as at risk without actually looking at the child themselves.  The Minister often chastises teachers as having deficit thinking towards certain students - well Minister, this is the pot calling the kettle black, because using these indicators is deficit thinking too.

Another aspect that concerns me about this phrase the way it looks at children as their learning potential as an investment, that it all boils down to money, almost like widgets off the production line.  I baulk at this view.  While I agree we need to be prudent with money and we need to ensure it is used efficiently because there is not an unlimited budget, as a teacher it is off putting to think of children as an investment, that their achievement outcomes are all that matters.  We are not just there to ensure they can read, write and do maths.  We are there to ensure these children become effective communicators, are co-operative, can think critically and problem solve, and are kind people who can contribute and function in our society.

I am also concerned about where the support for students who do slip through the earlier interventions will come from.  Some children do not show their learning needs until after their first year at school.  By the time it is realised there is a deficit in their learning they may have moved out of the age band targeted for early intervention and therefore miss out.

I have grave concerns that money will be taken from the current Special Education Budget for use by the Ministry of Social Development to be used for vulnerable children.  With another Ministry using MOE money that reduces the slice of the pie for schools and MOE specialists.

As Chris Hipkins said about the money in the Operations Grant pool on Q&A on TV1 on Sunday, when more people are eating the pie there is less for all of them and more of them will go away hungry.

While I can see that the Minister has the intention of trying to improve how learning support is delivered to children, I can see many fish hooks and concerns.  Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an answer.  Not adequately resourcing it so all students can be effectively helped to achieve is a concern.  The role of CoLs and MSD having access to MOE funds is a concern.  Changing the name from Special Education to Learning Support is a minor consideration and just creates confusion.
Quite frankly, I do not think the Minister has met the standard with this Learning Support Update.

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