Support for special needs students stretched

JO MOIR
Last updated 05:00 16/07/2014
Faolan Harkness
ROSS GIBLIN/ Fairfax NZ

PLEA FOR HELP: Faolan Harkness, 7, is dyslexic and his teacher does everything to help him learn, his mum Steph Morris says. But she believes only so much can be done without schools having more funding made available.

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Students with special learning needs are still missing out on help with their NCEA exams, despite the scrapping of an expensive assessment fee, say parents, schools and the Dyslexia Foundation.

In March, a review of the special assessment conditions (SAC) required for students to qualify for help found lower-decile schools were less likely to apply because of the $400 to $700 cost of an independent expert assessment. The Ministry of Education scrapped the fee and said an alternative free assessment based on a teacher's observation would be used.

Foundation chairman of trustees Guy Pope-Mayell said the number of students using help was expected to double, if not triple - and now the problem was that schools did not have enough teachers, volunteers or time to invest in the extra numbers.

Support for students with learning difficulties includes reader-writer aides, more time, a separate space in which to sit exams, and help with technology.

Secondary Principals' Association president Tom Parsons said the lack of teaching staff and funding meant the ministry needed to draw a line on who could apply.

The cost of reader-writer aides could be considerable, and many schools did not have the space for students to sit assessments in separate rooms.

"Principals and schools are managing like they always do, by solving problems themselves, but it's going to be interesting to see how this pans out over time."

Katrina Casey, the ministry's head of sector enablement and support, said schools were responding to the increased number of students applying for help by implementing their own reader-writer practices.

"We will continue to monitor the situation to better understand the impact on schools and to inform our next steps . . ."

The ministry did not respond to questions from The Dominion Post about whether additional funding was needed.

Pope-Mayell said SAC assistance made a big difference to dyslexic students' achievement.

"What is absolutely clear is that, when dyslexic students get access to special assessment conditions, it can, in a single move, make the difference.

"A ‘not achieved' grade becomes an ‘achieved', or equally a shift from ‘achieved' to an ‘excellence' grade . . ."

Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the current system was simply a "Band-Aid solution". Students needed to be funded based on their individual needs, rather than the responsibility falling on schools to sort it out.

HINDERED BY LACK OF FUNDS 

Seven-year-old Faolan Harkness, like his mum, is dyslexic, and as a result he struggles at school.

The Fernlea School pupil from Wainuiomata hasn't been assessed professionally because mum Steph Morris said it was too expensive on a community services card.

Since the scrapping of the assessment fee, she was still reluctant about Faolan "getting the label" of dyslexia because his school did not have the money to provide any more assistance than it already was.

"He's lucky that he has a great teacher who tries lots of different things with him, but there's only so much time she can give him without ending up disadvantaging the rest of the class."

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Morris said the education system was archaic and needed a complete overhaul.

"This is the first year he scored a below average in a subject and, without more help, that will just become normal for him."

She said schools needed entire classrooms to work with students who had learning difficulties.

"Dyslexia isn't a disorder; they just need a different way of teaching . . . and I don't see why that can't be addressed at schools."

- The Dominion Post

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