Editorial: Special needs kids deserve safety net

Yesterday my daughter had a spellathon which the school's parents had organised as a fundraiser. These clever parents must have trained the kids well in fundraising techniques as she filled in her own sponsor form marking me down for $10 for each correct word. Eek. Would I be a bad mother if I hoped she flunked?

In schools across the Bay, school parents work relentlessly at galas, cake stalls and even possum shoots to shore up extra money for their children's education.

The current financial climate means that school budgets are under pressure.

While money raised by PTAs is necessary, it should not replace essential funding from the Ministry of Education. It is concerning if schools are so underfunded that they cannot provide all students with the resources they need to learn.

Funding pressures are particularly highlighted for parents of special needs children. Social justice requires that all children should have the necessary resources to maximise their potential.

For children with special needs this often means extra money is necessary for special learning equipment and support staff.

The Ministry of Education is under pressure to make cuts.

Its attempt to do so by increasing class sizes was a spectacular failure given the backlash from all parents.

Now parents of children with special needs fear the implications of funding cuts which are targeting their children - as James Fuller reports today on page A14.

The government aims to achieve a fully inclusive education system by 2014.

Currently about 5 per cent of children with special needs attend residential centres or special schools-according to the Ministry of Education's group manager of Special Education, Brian Coffey.

As the government has closed half of its residential special needs schools, the Bay parents that James spoke to fear that special schools will be next.

Inclusive education - which embraces all learners whatever their ability - sounds desirable in theory, but for some children mainstream education would not be suitable, according to one of our local parents.

Including all children in mainstream schools will only work if these schools are adequately resourced to provide the specialised support needed for some children.

Although Education Minister Hekia Parata says that there will be a transition plan, with funding, for each child transitioning to a local mainstream school, the long term funding is not confirmed.

There is a risk that schools will be expected to fund specialised support needed for these children from their own budgets.

One of the most important resources for special needs children are teacher aides who help not just the child they are 'assigned' to, but the teacher and the whole classroom.

The system of teacher aides and child buddies for special needs children seems to me an ideal model for inclusion for all children regardless of ability.

Despite the fact that teacher aides are appallingly low paid, the cost of providing such support staff puts pressure on schools if additional funding does not come from the government. The result of this is many children are not getting the support they need in schools, and lone teachers are left to cope in ever larger classes with children of varying abilities.

This puts a threat to the utopian idea of inclusion.

Parents of special needs children often report terrible cases of discrimination.

Parents I know with children with special needs tell me that they sometimes sense resentment from other parents who complain that the special needs child soaks up valuable school funding.

It seems a horrific attitude but these sentiments are not just whisperings of parents, but are being translated into schools' enrolment practices.

Earlier this year the Herald on Sunday investigated many stories where parents say their children were effectively turned away from schools, or treated unreasonably in class.

If the government is truly committed to inclusive education then it needs to adequately fund it.

Let's hope the savings the government will make from overhauling the benefit system and weeding out the freeloaders are redirected to one sector of society that surely, indisputably, is highly deserving.

As the teacher aide in James' story challenges, spending a day in a classroom gives a better understanding of what is required.

Without such funding even the most committed cake sellers will not be able to give special needs children what they need - and certainly deserve.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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