Concerned families leaving Southland Schools

NEIL RATLEY AND NICCI MCDOUGALL
Last updated 05:00 16/08/2014

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Parents of disabled and special- needs children are moving out of Southland amid fears the region's schools are failing their children.

Two mothers who believe their young children have been excluded from school because of their disabilities and special needs have shared their stories.

Neither wanted to be named for fear their children would be further ostracised.

One mother, whose 7-year-old son has neurological and learning disabilities, said she moved to Dunedin to find a school for her boy after he was excluded from his Invercargill school because of his disabilities and learning issues.

"We just want him to be able to have a childhood.

"We wanted our boy to be able to go the the school discos, be part of the end-of-year concerts, go to school camps.

"All those childhood experiences that other kids get to have."

She called on the Ministry of Education to better resource schools and provide more training to teachers to help them deal with disabled or special-needs children.

"As a parent of a disabled or special-needs child you rely on individuals within the system or schools who have the passion and empathy for your child," she said.

"If you can't find them you are on your own. It's awful."

She knew of other parents who had moved to Christchurch and even Auckland to find schools for their children.

CCS Disability Action chief executive David Matthews said the Ministry of Education had been working on several initiatives but

there was little sign of overall progress.

Schools needed to do more to ensure disabled children were included, he said.

The number of children learning by correspondence through the ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) was increasing, validating the concern the organisation and parents had, he said.

Disabled students often studied by correspondence because they felt unwelcome and excluded at schools, or schools claimed they could not meet their needs, he said.

CCS Disability Action Southern regional manager Joy Gunn said the situation varied among schools and often came down to the attitudes of principals and teachers.

Some schools had struggled to deal with the behavioural issues of some disabled children, she said.

CCS Disability Action advocated for children to remain in schools and for agencies to work together to ensure that could happen.

Southland Secondary Principals' Association chairman Gerry Ward said he believed southern schools were doing a good job for students with special needs.

At his school, Menzies College, ORS-funded students were mainstreamed as much as possible and also had teacher aides with them in the classroom.

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While he was unsure specifically what other schools did, he had not heard of any school turning disabled children away.

Ministry of Education sector enablement and support head Katrina Casey said every student, including those with special learning or behavioural needs, should be able to attend their local school without fear of being discriminated against and those who needed extra support should be able to access it.

About four in every 1000 children attended special schools.

Correspondence school was one option for parents but if they chose that, it could not be assumed it was because they were dissatisfied with their local school, Casey said.

The Government invested about $530m in special education every year and had increased spending by about $140m since 2009 in key special education initiatives, she said.

Each year 80,000 to 100,000 children receive direct services or support for special education needs in the schooling system, while there were about 900 staff in the Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) service providing specialist advice and support to schools having difficulties providing for the learning and behavioural needs of their students.

There are about 52 RTLB staff working among Otago and Southland schools.

The ministry also employed about 800 frontline specialists in regional and district offices, including psychologists, speech/language therapists, advisers of the deaf, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, special education advisers, and kaitakawaenga.

About 30,000 children and young people were provided this support each year, Casey said.

Boy spoke of wanting to kill himself

"It makes me feel like an empty street. I feel like a failure, like I'm nothing."

Sad words from an 8-year-old boy asked how he felt when he went past his old school.

The boy, who suffers from sensory processing disorder and possibly ADHD, has been removed from school by his parents because they say his learning needs were not being met.

His mother conceded he had behavioural issues as a result of his lack of social skills, but said the school had simply labelled her boy as naughty.

"Our son ended up in a psychological mess. He was a sad, sad and very angry boy.

"My son was suicidal. He was saying he wanted to kill himself every single day. It was absolutely frightening and we couldn't keep sending him off to school so we got him out."

She did not blame teachers but said initiatives and policies needed to be developed within schools to ensure needs were met.

"I think teachers have a really difficult job in trying to teach or cater to the needs of a wide range of children. ‘I think the pressures on them are huge and I have empathy for them.

"I think it takes an aware principal with great ideas who supports the staff to allow a school to meet the needs of these kids."

TAKING CARE

After a 2010 Review of special education, the Teachers' Council, which approves all initial teacher education programmes, was required to include a graduating standard focused on special education. There is also a range of specialist teacher study awards for teachers who wish to work as specialists.

The Ministry of Education has $3.012m for study awards for 2014-15. As of August 12, records show there were 369 people studying on the specialist teaching programme supported through special education study awards.

- The Southland Times

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