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(New Zealand) "Unmanageable special needs"; 'the perfect storm'

March 14, 2024, Newsroom: ‘Storm’ of unmanageable special needs in the classroom
Schools say they’re struggling to get support for an unprecedented sharp increase in numbers of children with high needs like autism and behavioural dysregulation. ‘What if it was your child?’ asks one despairing principal.
Schools are warning of a rapid and unprecedented increase in the numbers of children with special health, behavioural or emotional needs this year.

Newsroom has been provided with introductions to principals from all over the North Island, and especially Auckland, who are seeing the sharp rise.

It’s anecdotal at this stage. The Ministry of Education can provide figures only up to 2023. But even those show the start of a steady rise.

Sean Teddy, the ministry’s hautū responsible for operations and integration, has done a breakdown for Newsroom that shows a 54 percent increase in children accessing support for high health needs, up from 1802 in 2018/19 to 2768 in 2022/23.

There’s been a 12 percent rise in kids needing the most intensive cradle-to-graduation support, from the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme. The ORS provides learning support for a very small proportion of students whose level of need is ongoing at a severe or very severe level; these students are expected to remain at this level for the duration of their schooling. . . .

He says figures from the past financial year, however, illustrate an increase nationally and within Auckland in the numbers of requests for support and decisions made when compared with the 18/19 financial year.

Those with children in our school system will know those challenges. They will know of parents who have waited up to a year to even have their child’s condition diagnosed and acknowledged by the Ministry of Education – and that’s just the start of trying to get them the support they need. What Newsroom is hearing from principals is that, concerned as they are about the need to improve children’s literacy and maths skills, or problems like a freeze on school building projects, this increase in special needs has suddenly become the most pressing of all..

Intermediate, says he called a meeting this week to talk about the capital infrastructure projects – but all anyone could discuss was the high needs among their pupils. “It’s a perfect storm,” he says.

“It’s the largest increase I have ever seen in my time in education,” says Lou Reddy from Wesley Primary School. “We have over 30 students with a variety of high needs, diabetes, violent behaviours, autism, ADHD, not toilet-trained, non-verbal, prone to running away, and from a range of ethnic backgrounds with language barriers too.

“In my school we spend more on counsellors for our students than we do on reading and writing combined… And there are still those that simply miss out because schools are not provided the necessary resources to support them.”

Martyn Weatherill, Laingholm School

“One example is of a student who we have helped engage back into education after 1.5 years of chronic non attendance. He has high needs, not toilet trained, has some type of undiagnosed neurodiverse learning disorder (awaiting assessment now that he is back in school) and we currently get zero funding for him.”

Out west at Laingholm School, principal Martyn Weatherill says the ministry has historically funded between 1 and 3 percent of students who meet pre-determined criteria that are designed to exclude many more children.

Now, he says, his school has 10 percent of its students on the special needs register. Many with an ASD or ADHD diagnosis can’t get support unless they’re violent. “

Special needs support accessed

“In my school we spend more on counsellors for our students than we do on reading and writing combined,” he says. “And there are still those that simply miss out because schools are not provided the necessary resources to support them.”

Among principals with whom Newsroom has spoken, views are mixed about the causes of the surge in difficulties suffered by our kids.

Some, like Point Chevalier principal Stephen Lethbridge, point to that uptick in high health needs, and an upturn in immigration delivering children for whom English is a second language, and say this problem may have been unavoidable.

Others like May Road School principal Lynda Stuart, in Mt Roskill, say demographic changes such as Kāinga Ora redevelopments in her community have forced families out of their homes and increased transience.

“Increasingly, school staff are feeling like social workers, trying to support families with their social needs,” says her neighbouring principal Sheree Campbell, at Hay Park School. “We are the fourth school for one Year 2 child. We have other children who have had years of high absences, and we are trying to provide additional learning support for them.” . . .

Autism is a good example, says Brewerton. “If we don’t intervene, then that just exacerbates and compounds over time. And by the time they hit primary school and intermediate age, and then on to high school, those needs are well entrenched. It’s a long road back.”

The principals may not agree on the causes, but they do agree that it’s difficult to access a solution. There simply isn’t enough ministry budget available, and they’re being forced to dip into their schools’ operational grants. . . .

What would Brewerton say to those parents whose children are doing okay, and who feel this problem doesn’t affect them so much as, say, cellphones in school? “The impact that these young people, sadly, are having in our classrooms and on our teachers is dramatic,” Brewerton says.

“It’s drawing time and attention away from your children. If a young person becomes dysregulated and starts throwing things around the classroom, then the class has to leave. It’s not just one kid who’s traumatised. It’s all 27 or 28 of them who are traumatised.”. . .


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