Rich kids more special

Inquiry launched into exam help funding

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 09:00 22/06/2013
Flynn Beagley
DAVID UNWIN
CREATIVE LITERACY: Flynn Beagley, 10, who struggles with dyslexia, shows off his spelling skills after mastering the word ''newspaper''.

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Secondary-school pupils with learning difficulties who missed out on special help during last year's exams are just the tip of the iceberg, according to a damning report that shows private-school pupils got the lion's share of government funding.

The Ministry of Education has launched an investigation into inequities in a system used to determine which pupils with learning difficulties are eligible for special help sitting exams, in a move welcomed by the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand.

Schools nationwide were yesterday notified of the inquiry by the Ministry of Education, following questions over the process. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) has been approached for a list of schools to be subject to an in-depth inquiry, according to a second Ministry of Education email circulated among interest groups and teacher unions this week.

A report from the NZQA released under the Official Information Act showed a spike in the number of applications for Special Assessment Conditions (SAC) funding for NCEA students last year.

The NZQA spent $433,000 on SAC resources in 2012 - an increase of about $159,000 from 2011 - in an unexpected anomaly that meant many students missed out.

A Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand report analysing the data shows decile-10 private schools were getting as much as five times more funding than their lower-decile counterparts, as applications for help skyrocketed last year.

The criteria for SAC approval - which requires parents to pay for a special report from an educational psychologist to prove their special needs - seems to benefit those who can afford it.

In 2012, a total of 3418 of the 143,000 pupils who sat NCEA-level exams got special assistance during exams. This means pupils with a condition that impairs their learning - including dyslexia, apraxia, ADHD and autism - can apply 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.

Decile 10 private schools had the highest percentage of candidates approved for SAC - about five times the rate of decile 1 to 3 candidates. Auckland private school King's College, which regularly tops national academic tables for its boys' results, received funding for special assistance for almost a quarter of its NCEA candidates in 2012. Of its 180 pupils who sat NCEA exams last year, 44 qualified for special exam conditions. By comparison, neighbouring school Otahuhu College, which is decile one and had four times as many NCEA candidates in 2012, had no SAC applications.

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

"The trouble is having a requirement for a full educational psychologist's report, because most frequently it's the parents who end up having to pay for it," foundation trustee chair Guy Pope-Mayell said.

The lift in demand for the SAC funding was encouraging, because it showed a "heightened awareness" of learning difficulties among schools and parents, Mr Pope-Mayell said. But not everyone could afford the process to get help, which could explain why pupils at lower decile schools' application numbers lagged, he said.

"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."

The Ministry of Education's review began this month and is set to conclude in August. It will look at issues such as access to special assessment conditions, quality of the support, how schools are managing, and what impact technology has for pupils.

HARD WORDS TAKE SHAPE

A Woodville family has spent thousands of dollars trying to find a learning style that suits their dyslexic son, and eventually moulded one method to fit his needs.

Flynn Beagley, 10, models clay into words and pictures to help him decode literacy concepts that to him seem jumbled on paper.

He recites the alphabet backwards and closes his eyes to recall the letters mentally. He then moulds each figure with clay and assembles them in the correct order.

Flynn's dyslexia affects his reading and writing comprehension, mum Andrea Beagley said. When he got behind at school, his problems with literacy were originally misinterpreted as poor ability and he was placed in a reading recovery programme. But a diagnosis of dyslexia two years ago opened up a world of learning to her son, she said.

The family paid for an educational psychologist's assessments to meet NZQA criteria, ensuring they wouldn't have to wait in line for a reader-writer once Flynn reaches secondary school age and has to sit NCEA exams.

Some other families did not have that choice, Ms Beagley said. "If you don't have the money you can't do anything - there's just no help, no funding. Luckily we are in a position where we could [afford] that."

The Manawatu Standard found there was a huge discrepancy between high and low decile schools in relation to the proportion of students receiving taxpayer-funded support to sit NCEA.

Flynn's gift for visual learning was picked up after $4000 of educational psychology reports and education courses paid for by his family. Things were different for Flynn's uncle, who was also diagnosed with dyslexia in childhood. Back then, the family had to travel from Woodville to Hawke's Bay for remedial learning for Ms Beagley's brother.

It was many decades before dyslexia was recognised as a learning difficulty worthy of government support, Ms Beagley said.

Now, it was more easily recognised but helping sufferers was still too expensive.

- Manawatu Standard

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