Parents frustrated at lack of support for higher needs kids

Children with learning difficulties are missing out as underfunding forces the special education system to focus on behavioural issues, parents and principals say.

''If a kid is destroying classrooms and teachers, you take those before a kid who has difficulty with spelling,'' said Wairarapa and Upper Hutt resource teacher learning and behaviour (RTLB) cluster manager Sue Walters.

Walters, who is also Masterton Primary School principal, said that if a child's educational needs exceeded the RTLB service's scope, the Ministry of Education's Group Special Education (GSE) could refer them to specialists such as clinical psychologists and speech therapists. But there was often a long wait, while a lack of government funding meant priority was generally given to children with behavioural, rather than learning, problems.

Another avenue was the Wairarapa DHB's Child Adolescent Mental Health Services, but Walters said it would only take children in a ''stable home environment'' - which could exclude those most in need.
The mother of a six-year-old diagnosed with a developmental delay shared the frustrations.

''The school has been a really good advocate for [extra support] but all the way they get roadblocked, they get told no room, not enough funding, not enough people,'' said Michelle Barre , whose son Brody goes to Mauriceville Primary School north of Masterton.

The school's principal Rebecca Stevens said Wairarapa's RTLB staff were excellent, but over-stretched, and this was even truer for the higher-needs service. ''You need to be very, very high needs to get a look-in.''

Battling to help another pupil with a three-year developmental delay, Stevens has used a literacy resource teacher, a RTLB, a reading recovery teacher, a teacher's aid and even a volunteer helper from the local community. Despite this, he was falling further behind - but GSE was stretched too thin to help.

''Because it's learning, not behaviour, GSE won't pick him up... We've done everything we can for him as a school and where do you go from here? Give up on him? No.''

Stevens said the problem was worse for smaller, rural schools such as Mauriceville which increasingly deal with the same poverty and other social problems seen in town schools, which feed learning and behavioural difficulties - but with a smaller budget than their urban counterparts.

Brigie Sims has a son at Mauriceville and said the school fought hard, capitalising on small class sizes and providing a parenting programme. But it needed help. ''If these kids aren't getting the support they need it puts more pressure on the teacher and they can't spend the time with other kids.''

Walters said the problem was funding. ''[The government] can find $359 million for super-principals - there's your funding... Let's just  get more speech therapists out there, [and other] people who can actually help kids.''

Ministry of Education spokeswoman Katrina Casey said funding for special education had risen 26 per cent over five years, to $530m, and rural areas actually got more RTLBs teachers per head than others. ''How services are allocated at any one time depends on which children have the greatest needs.''

She said the ministry's higher needs programme, the ongoing resource scheme (ORS), was for a small group with ''extensive disabilities'' and was expanded in 2010.

The Ministry would like to talk to the principals to see what it could do to help, she said.

The Dominion Post