We don’t know how many children are affected by having learning support needs. I do know that far too many children are not getting the support they deserve for conditions like autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. When these conditions are not even diagnosed, much less supported, children can be left feeling like it is their fault that they can’t learn, that they are stupid. And we need to change that mindset. We need an education system that caters to all children, as is their human right.
After six years of listening to students, parents and teachers tell the stories of a broken system for children with higher learning needs, I decide it was time for change. I got the Education & Science Select Committee to start an inquiry to shine a light on the problem, as it is just too important to continue to ignore.
We put the call out for submissions, and were overwhelmed by the response. On the very first day of the hearings a submitter began to cry. The grief and anger of families was always with us as people told their stories of emotionally intense and costly fights for assistance. We gave standing ovations to students and hugged people who were brave and open enough to share extreme stories of being marginalised. The grief being felt was about the children’s potential being wasted, and the failure of our education system to take on that challenge. It was stirring to see the sacrifice of fierce parents determined that their child would do more than just survive at school but actually learn and be included. We heard from parents and teachers from around the country who told their stories.
After hearing from all the submitters, I felt we had a clear mandate for change. The last few months, I have been battling to try to get substantive change in learning support for the kids. There was a fantastic rally at Parliament. It has been clear to me that we cannot continue the current system. Our kids need better. The Select Committee has published their report, but I have been unable to stand behind it.
The Select Committee report (available here) is a start, but as we have made clear in the Labour, Greens and NZ First minority report; without increased funding and enshrining in law a child’s right to an inclusive education, our broken system cannot be fixed. When the funding for learning support is capped, and parents have to compete against each other to gain funding, no one gets the assistance they need. The rights of learners with disabilities to access an education need to be enshrined in the Education Act – we shouldn’t need to keep having this debate.
The biggest elephant in the room has been the fact that of the 445 submitters hardly any have been Māori or Pasifika families, students or teachers. This is not because they do not experience these learning differences, instead it is because they are falling through some massive cracks in the system and a Select Committee is often not an accessible environment where they can speak out. If middle class Pākehā parents struggle to fund assessments and support and figure out where you seek help, just imagine what it is like for Maori and Pasifika whānau.
The Ministry of Education’s hands-off approach to special education results in seclusion rooms being used by schools around the country. When schools simply aren’t equipped, trained, or resourced to ensure kids get the education they deserve, the kids do suffer. I continue to be outraged that schools have been essentially abusing children under their watch by locking them in small, dark rooms alone.
The report does not go nearly far enough to get the kind of help – more teacher aide hours, speech therapy, and access to specialists – that these kids need. There will be a community response to the select committee report held at the Parliament Theatrette on December 8, which everyone with an interest in learning support needs is welcome to attend. This event will focus on best practice for learning support on an issue that affects many New Zealand families.
Thank you to all the children, parents, families, teaching professionals, and carers who submitted to the inquiry; the struggle to get an inclusive education system goes on.