'Systemic barriers' holding dyslexic kids back

"I don't like being told by any government department, or senior staff at my school, that someone can't have what they ...
Fairfax Australia

"I don't like being told by any government department, or senior staff at my school, that someone can't have what they deserve."

A parliamentary education inquiry has heard how "systemic barriers" hold back students with learning differences from receiving extra help.

Wellington College special education coordinator Ross Dunn told the Education and Science Select Committee that getting the government to recognise a student's disability can be a significant bureaucratic hurdle.

Other submitters struck out at a lack of funding, training, and a "bottom of the cliff" attitude to education for those with different learning needs.

Green Party list MP Catherine Delahunty is calling for a rethink of how schools deal with students who have learning ...
NICHOLAS MCBRIDE/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Green Party list MP Catherine Delahunty is calling for a rethink of how schools deal with students who have learning difficulties.

The inquiry into dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism education began Tuesday, but will run for several select committee sessions. 417 submissions were received, with 91 people and groups asked to speak directly to the inquiry.

Dunn told the story of a severely-dyslexic student who went undiagnosed until midway through high school. 

Dyslexia, a neurological difference that makes reading and writing incredibly difficult, is estimated to affect one in ten New Zealanders, or 70,000 students. It was officially recognised by the government in 2007.

"I was working closely with [the student] on an assessment, and he said to me that he sees the words floating," he said.

"I asked him if anyone had asked him about dyslexia."

After discussing the issue with his mother, Dunn had the student externally assessed and diagnosed with dyslexia - but was then told by NZQA that the diagnosis came too late in the year for the student to receive support. The cutoff date was in mid-February.

"I was told when I tried to apply that 'you should have known your student.' [...] I was told that there could be no application but that next year he could apply - this was in his crucial first year of NCEA." 

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After appealing to the Commissioner for Children, NZQA backed down and funded a reader/writer for the student's NCEA assessments. He is now on track to pass Level 1 before even going to exams, but Dunn says this one success story did not change things for the children who weren't as lucky.

"My submission is directly around these systemic barriers. It's nationwide," he said.

"I don't like being told by any government department, or senior staff at my school, that someone can't have what they deserve."

Two mothers of students with learning difficulties were close to tears as they began their submission.

One mother of dyspraxic child told the committee the official diagnosis could only be obtained by self-funded tests outside of the public education system.

Dyspraxia severely affects a person motor skills and often also impairs social skills.

"She can follow two instructions but if you add a third another will disappear," the mother said.

"She learns best by someone holding her limbs and putting her through the motion so that her muscles and neural pathways can learn the process. Requiring someone to toucher her can be very challenging to everyone involved, including [the child]."

"Every day kids like this make sense of what to them is chaos."

Her daughter was seen as "quirky" and "clumsy" while at kindergarten.

Several submitters echoed this issue around early screening.

Submitter James Barber, a teacher aide and reliever, told the inquiry the families of students with learning difficulties were often the least able to fund private tests.

Barber said his teaching training had contained a single one-hour lecture on special needs teaching. Further training had been inadequate.

"No matter how many YouTube videos you watch it doesn't really help you when you are suddenly confronted with a boy that is assaulting another," he said.

The inquiry was spurred by committee member and Green MP Catherine Delahunty. 

"Many MPs like myself receive visits and letters from families who are finding the education systems really doesn't meet the needs of what we call 'invisible learning differences,'" Delahunty said ahead of the meeting.

"Teachers are not given enough training, and there's capped government resources for teacher aides, who are also not trained."

"At the moment the system is random, piecemeal, and underfunded."

Learning difficulties are addressed by a variety of funding and educational initiatives, including Ongoing Resource Scheme (ORS) funding for severe cases, and the Resource Teacher: Learning Behaviour (RTLB) scheme for broader issues.

Delahunty says these schemes are insufficient and a more inclusive overall system is required.

"Kids are getting bullied at high school because their learning difference is not picked up at Primary."s

Labour Education Spokesman Chris Hipkins said he was supportive of the inquiry, but found it a bit narrow.

"There's a whole host of issues around schools' support for special needs kids that just aren't being addressed. This is a targeted inquiry but I think it will highlight some broader issues."

Delahunty agreed that the focus was more narrow than she would like, but said she had to be "politically realistic."

"Maybe this can kick open the door." 

Education Minister Hekia Parata did not wish to comment ahead of the inquiry.

 - Stuff

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