Private schools snare special needs cash

The country's private schools are raking in a big share of taxpayer funding designed to help special needs students sit exams.

The school that received the most taxpayer support for its students was King's College in Auckland - 24.4 per cent of its 180 students sitting NCEA exams got funding for special help.

The funding allows students to sit assessments under special conditions. That could include a room to themselves to avoid distraction, being assisted by a reader-writer, use of braille, rest breaks, or computers.

The next biggest share was the state-integrated Rudolf Steiner School in Christchurch, where 24 per cent of its 50 students sitting NCEA got special funding.

Christchurch's Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti is the highest ranked state school, with 19.5 per cent of it students receiving special funding, followed by another private school, St Andrew's College, also in Christchurch, where 16 per cent of its pupils got funding, then private schools Diocesan School for Girls and Kristin School, both in Auckland.

On Friday, the Ministry of Education began investigating the system used to determine which pupils with learning difficulties are eligible for special help in sitting exams.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) last year spent $433,000 on special assessment conditions (SAC) - a jump from the $159,000 spent in 2011.

Because of the sudden hike in funding requests, not all students could receive help and some missed out.

The Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand says the system benefits wealthy parents at private schools who have greater access compared to poor parents whose children miss out.

Applications for funding require parents to pay for a report from an educational psychologist to prove their children have special needs - which critics say benefits those who can afford it.

The funding covers pupils with a condition that impairs their learning - including dyslexia, apraxia, ADHD and autism.

The foundation analysed funding data from the NZQA released under the Official Information Act. It showed decile-10 private schools were getting as much as five times more funding than lower-decile schools as applications for help skyrocketed last year.

In 2012, a total of 3418 of the 143,000 pupils who sat NCEA-level exams got special assistance. Private Auckland school King's College, which regularly tops national academic tables, had 180 pupils sitting NCEA exams last year. Of those 44 qualified for special exam conditions.

By comparison, neighbouring school Otahuhu College, which is decile 1 and had four times as many NCEA candidates in 2012, had no SAC applications.

The foundation said that contrast "epitomises the current inequality of access to SAC between the haves and have-nots".

Nationwide, about 60 per cent of decile 1 to 3 schools made no requests for assistance for their pupils - which the foundation said told a statistical story of inequality.

"What we're really happy about is that the [ministry] looks like they are addressing this equity issue and I would hope that they will make the process more accessible for all," foundation trustee chair Guy Pope-Mayell said.

The ministry review will end in August.

Sunday Star Times