Opinion: special education funding critical for ECE sector

2016

 

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Early Childhood Council chief executive PETER REYNOLDS responds to Education Review's recent article 'Special Education Funding: Why we shouldn't rob the secondary sector' by Dr Judith Selvaraj, arguing that special education funding is desperately needed in the early childhood education sector. 

In this article Dr Judith Selvaraj argues that the Government should not transfer some special education funding from schools to ECE because ‘to take funding away from the compulsory sector to another that is bulk funded will inevitably place thousands of students at risk and is a move to privatise special education’.

In Dr Selvaraj’s moral universe, it seems, private provision is an evil, ipso facto, and the many thousands of children with special learning needs under the age of five should, therefore, be left to rot. We do not agree.

We undertook, in September last year, a survey of 153 early childhood education centres throughout New Zealand, and asked them questions in relation to the needs of children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders.

This is some of the resulting data.

  • Fifty-nine per cent of surveyed centres were waiting, on average, more than three months for Ministry of Education-provided assistance with assessment and diagnosis. And almost a quarter were waiting more than six months.
  • Regarding Education Support Workers, to work one-on-one with children with special learning needs: more than 40% of centres either waited more than six months, or were told that no such service would be allocated.
  • Ninety per cent of centres said they did not receive Education Support Workers for the amount of time they were needed.
  • Fifty-seven per cent of centres rated the quality of Ministry of Education assessment services as either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. Fifty-one per cent rated the quality of Education Support Workers as either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.
  • Ninety per cent of our survey respondents said that newly-trained teachers did not arrive with sufficient skills to address the needs of children. And more than 80% said there were not sufficient professional development resources available for teachers to up-skill themselves.

You cannot have systemic failure on this scale without consequences for flesh and blood: for those running centres; for the children in their care; and for families.

Our research found the following.

  • Many teachers and parents had no timely access to assessment services, no idea what was wrong with a child, and no idea therefore what to do about it.
  • Parents of children with special learning needs suffered when other parents objected to special needs children disrupting centres.
  • Ninety-six per cent of centres identified ‘stress for teachers’ as a consequence of being allocated Education Support Worker help for violent children with complex problems for just a fraction of the time they were in care, and with this help withdrawn completely in school holidays.
  • There were problems with teacher ratios. A small (two-teacher) centre, for example, was forced to put one teacher on one child full time, leaving an effective teacher-child ratio of one to 19 for everyone else, a ratio that would be illegal in normal circumstances, and should be in any.
  • Centres faced financial hardship when parents withdrew children in the (sometimes correct) belief they were being neglected because of the extra attention being paid to children with special learning needs.

Most distressingly, more than 80% of centres said children with special learning needs were suffering developmental delay as a consequence of delayed assessment services, as a consequence of delayed provision of Education Support Workers, and as a consequence of having Education Support Workers for less that the amount of time required. Our survey didn’t speak directly to the numbers of children whose development was delayed in this manner, but when this impact is indicated by more than 80% of centres asked, it suggests the possibility there were (and are) thousands.

Dr Selvaraj might like to know also that our survey revealed no difference between the experience of privately-owned and community-owned ECE centres in relation to the care of children with special learning needs. And she might like, in this regard, to consider the comments of an individual private centre owner, who expressed, something Dr Selvaraj does not address: the human impact of special education underfunding in ECE services.

A year and a half ago we enrolled a 3-year old boy into our centre… It… took over 6 months for someone (from the Ministry of Education) to see us. We finally got someone out who told us they didn't see any problems. The child in question didn't talk, got angry in any break in routine, and would push, hit and kick and head-butt. The child didn't engage in activities, look anyone in the eye or engage with other children in a way which wasn't aggressive. During the time he'd been with us we had two teachers admitted to A+E through injuries he’d caused… We refused to accept this decision (by the Ministry of Education) and pushed for them to send someone else… We finally got a referral and the diagnosis of autism. During this time I asked about an educational support worker. This child takes one-on-one attention and there is only one staff member he has built a strong bond with - myself. On bad days I have to spend all day on the floor with him and him alone. On days I'm sick or on leave, everyone suffers… To date we haven’t had so much as a minute of education support worker time… I’ve fielded complaints because he pushes and hits… I went home the other night in tears… From a business perspective… his enrolment has resulted in a financial loss to the centre through the withdrawal of others. We are now a term away from school… although I’m keeping a space open for him, so a slower transition can be offered if needed... Some days I count the bruises and when I hit double figures I know we’ve had a bad week... We need… better help than what we are being given. Quicker response times, continuity of care, and most of all, the one-on-one support workers.

I do not know how Dr Selvaraj would respond to this centre owner. Would she, perhaps, remind her that ‘to take funding away from the compulsory sector to another that is bulk funded… is a move to privatise special education’, and cannot therefore be right?

The current system is a disaster for our ECE children. It allocates five per cent only of special education spending to preschoolers. It leaves thousands undiagnosed, untreated or inadequately treated. And it is this that creates unnecessary and sometimes unresolvable problems for primary and secondary schools.

That is why we agree with Minister of Education Hekia Parata that learning support early in a child's life has greater impact than support later in life, and that special education money should be spent where it does the most good. Yes, we would prefer new money for ECE came from new spending. But given the choice, we think existing money should go to the location at which it does the most good for children.

Dr Selvaraj is concerned about ‘inclusion’ in schools. Why is she not concerned about inclusion in ECE? Why is she not concerned about inclusion for our youngest and most developmentally vulnerable children?

 


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