Education

Govt to boost learning support for children

Hundreds of new teaching staff will be placed into schools in 2020 to provide better support to children with learning difficulties, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

Ardern unveiled the new “learning support coordinator” roles at the Labour Party’s conference in Dunedin.

Six hundred coordinators would be employed “as early as the beginning of 2020”, she said, at a cost of $271 million over four years (preallocated from next year's Budget) for what would be the first tranche of the roles.

Speaking to the crowd, she shared a letter she had received from the aunt of a boy with special needs.

“We as a whānau have tried with dead ends wherever we turn, so I then turn to you Prime Minister and plead for your help, he is missing out on so much and it just isn't fair. Please help us find a solution for this young boy who deserves the best chance living with autism.”

“One in five New Zealand children has a disability or other learning and behavioural needs and it’s been too hard, for too long, for them to get support at the right time.”

While the Government had already boosted funding for specialist support, with $273 million in this year's Budget, it had been clear there was more to do, the Prime Minister said: "If a child needs support and is not getting it, that's not fair, and I'm not prepared to tolerate it."

Ardern said the staff would support children with high and moderate needs, provide a specialised point of contact for parents, and reduce teachers’ workloads so they could focus on educating their students.

“These coordinators will not only help unlock the potential of thousands of children with learning needs, they’ll free up teachers so all children get more quality classroom time to learn.”

Learning support had been neglected for more than a decade, she said.

“One in five New Zealand children has a disability or other learning and behavioural needs and it’s been too hard, for too long, for them to get support at the right time.”

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the Government was taking a "two-phased approach" to rolling out the coordinator roles. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the announcement would provide parents, teachers and schools with “absolute certainty” of the Government’s commitment as it worked towards rolling out a new model for providing learning support by the end of 2019.

Martin said the Government was “deliberately taking a two-phased approach” to account for the existing teacher shortage.

“Implementation of the new role in full from the beginning of 2020 would place huge pressure on the education workforce supply.”

Planning for the second phase would begin once the first group of coordinators was in place and there was a clearer picture of “medium and long-term workforce needs”, she said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said it was likely at least twice as many would be needed in total, but that would be subject to future budget rounds.

Hipkins said the job description was largely finalised, but the Government still needed to determine the student ratio for coordinators at both urban and rural schools

The roles will be filled by qualified and registered teachers, and are similar to the special education needs coordinators who already work in some schools.

However, Ardern said those jobs were currently filled by existing teaching staff, acting as "a drain on their time" and taking them away from the classroom, whereas the learning coordinators would be dedicated and fully-funded positions.

Martin said the new coordinators would provide wider support for children, going beyond those with high needs to those with moderate issues.

Longstanding lack of support

There have been longstanding concerns about the support provided to New Zealand children with learning needs.

Under the last government, Parliament’s education and science committee carried out a year-long inquiry into the identification of and support for students with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders.

The committee made 46 recommendations, but Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First produced a minority report saying more change was needed to address calls for “systemic changes to a broken and inequitable system that fails to “provide authentic inclusion.

As reported by Newsroom this week, there is no centralised data or standardised assessments for children with dyslexia, making it difficult to assess what resources are needed or how much they will cost.

“We know nothing, absolutely nothing,” Martin told Newsroom.

"We know that the big bulge in secondary teaching demand doesn't really kick in for another couple of years so we've got a bit of a window there, but there's no question we've got to recruit more teachers across the board over the next three or four years."

The new roles may go some way towards addressing teachers’ calls for higher levels of support in the classroom to reduce their workloads.

However, questions may be raised about how the coordinators will be recruited, with some in the sector already sceptical about the Government’s decision to increase its overseas recruitment target from 400 to 900.

Hipkins was optimistic recruitment would not be an issue given the staggered rollout, saying the demand for primary teachers would start to "level off" after next year.

"We know that the big bulge in secondary teaching demand doesn't really kick in for another couple of years so we've got a bit of a window there, but there's no question we've got to recruit more teachers across the board over the next three or four years to meet what will be the future demand for the teaching workforce."

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