League tables unfair for special needs kids

Primary Matters

BY ANDREA O'NEIL
Last updated 10:09 13/11/2012
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NEEDING SUPPORT: Special needs students demand special attention and resources, but the children and their schools are being let down by the National Standards regime.

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The publishing of National Standards league tables in late September has opened schools up to comparison by current and prospective parents, pitting one school against its neighbours.

But the data is skewed with children set up to fail by the system, says Bryce Coleman, Paremata School principal and head of the Porirua Principals' Association northern cluster.

Emma* is a bubbly, energetic 11-year-old pupil at Paremata School.

She has a wide range of disabilities including severe processing problems, and is years behind her peers in school work.

Her goals for this term include being able to take a message to the school office without the help of a teacher aide or a buddy. But Emma's teachers are legally required to assess her against the National Standard for her age, which in reading includes being able to describe complicated literary plot structures.

Kids like Emma are unlikely ever to achieve National Standards, says Trish Tennant, the school's full-time special education needs co-ordinator.

"We could honestly write them for the next five years for some of our kids, and say they're not going to reach them," she says.

Of a roll of 390, Paremata School has nine children with special needs recognised by the Ministry of Education, who fund part- time teacher aides for them. Three have brain trauma and another 20 have high needs but are undiagnosed, or have conditions like dyslexia and Asperger's which do not receive funding.

Paremata is a magnet school for special needs pupils in the area, Mrs Tennant says. The school pours funds into its special needs programme, buying iPads, smartboards and touch-screen computers, creating visual resources and topping up teacher aide hours to full-time for the highest-needs pupils.

"They don't stop being special when the teacher aide goes home," Mrs Tennant says. "Our children are very important and we'll bend over backwards to help them."

The school has a dedicated "learning centre" where some special needs children work one-on- one with teacher aides for much of the day.

When Kapi-Mana News visited, 12-year-old Daniel* was preparing for a hospital appointment later this month. His teacher aide had brought in a stethoscope and a tube of gel and the pair practiced rubbing it on Daniel's chest, as would happen before an ultrasound.

This lesson will help ensure Daniel, who has classic autism, is calm for his appointment, Mrs Tennant says.

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"It saves the hospital and his family a lot of grief."

Learning to brush their own teeth or go to the toilet alone is more valuable for some than creative writing or maths, Mrs Tennant says.

That's not to say special needs children have an easy ride at school.

"They still work as hard as any children in their adapted reading, writing and maths programmes."

By law teachers have to measure all children by National Standards, but the result can be a lot of grief for high needs students, parents and teachers alike, as the child's results may only hover between "well below" and "below" the National Standard, Mrs Tennant says.

"It's the labelling that really concerns us."

If the school could bring special pupils up to National Standards it would, she says.

"We aim for redundancy for our teacher aides but that doesn't happen."

Principal Bryce Coleman says special needs children are being "set up to fail" by a system that doesn't cater for them.

"Those are the children that we're told to measure against standards that they will never attain. That's ridiculous, really."

Parents comparing schools in league tables will be unaware the majority of children underachieving will be either special needs or have English as a second language, Mr Coleman says.

Teachers were not consulted on the inclusion of special needs pupils in National Standards, he says.

"I think little thought was given to these children."

Almost every school will have at least one child with special needs, and Mr Coleman is suspicious about how some achieve their stellar league table standings.

"A lot of schools are leaving children out of data," he says.

The Ministry of Education could help children achieve more by funding more teacher aide hours and helping moderate needs students get diagnosed, he says.

"If you're going to bring National Standards in, resource the schools properly to do the job."

Mr Coleman would like special needs children excluded from National Standards or the standards adapted to suit high needs pupils.

* Children's names have been changed

- Kapi-Mana News

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