Pupils who need the most help sitting their exams are struggling to get aid, despite Government changes to tackle inequity.
Students with learning difficulties from decile 10 schools are three times more likely to apply, and receive, special assessment conditions (SACs) than their decile 1 counterparts, new figures show.
SACs provide extra help for NCEA students who are recognised as having a physical disability or a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, autism and dyspraxia. Help can include the use of a reader/writer or computer, rest breaks, Braille or enlarged papers.
READ MORE: Parents tell of battle to get help
More than 1600 decile 10 students applied for SACs in the year to October 31, compared to 291 decile 1 pupils, New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) figures obtained by the Green Party under the Official Information Act (OIA) show.
As a percentage of students enrolled, 3.4 per cent of SAC applications come from decile 1 pupils, while 9.4 per cent are received from decile 10 students.
The discrepancy is being blamed on overworked, under-resourced low decile schools struggling to navigate the complex application process.
The Ministry of Education and NZQA have been accused of failing to recognise how much time and effort goes into making an application, and not providing schools with extra resources to undertake them.
A rule change in 2014 saw an option created to allow schools to make applications, amid concerns that wealthier students had greater access to SAC.
A requirement to have a registered educational psychologist assess a child was scrapped for some types of applications, in a decision which was seen as removing the cost barrier for low-income families.
[The figures are] absolutely not a reflection of need.
The gap has closed slightly, but thousands more high decile students receive SACs compared to low decile.
In total, 4249 high decile students had applications approved this year, compared to 839 low decile pupils.
The figures also show a 22.4 per cent increase in applications compared to 2015, with a 53.7 per cent increase in applications received from low decile schools.
Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said it was an improvement, but "we still haven't achieved equity".
"Although there's been progress, there's a long way to go before we can say that every child in this country who needs it can have access to special assessment conditions."
High decile schools had "the greatest access to resources", she said, and were much less stressed than low decile schools.
"There's so many issues around identification and support [for special needs students], and everything that's tough for a high decile school or a family with high needs is twice as tough for a family that doesn't have resources or a school that doesn't have resources."
The application process needed to be made "a whole lot simpler", Delahunty said, and should not be a "bureaucratic deterrent".
Post-Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts said she wasn't surprised by the figures, because the "cost" had been shifted from parents to schools.
"The Ministry refuses to acknowledge that if you give a job to a school it takes time, and time is a resource," she said.
"It becomes more problematic for lower decile schools because they have a concentration effect. They have a greater proportion of their students who need this additional support to apply ... and those schools have fewer resources compared to a decile 10 school to process those applications."
Such pressure only exacerbates "the equity issue," Roberts said.
The NZQA figures were "absolutely not a reflection of need".
"Surely our most vulnerable students should be the ones getting the gold star support," she said.
Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the problem was "embarrassing" for the Government which had known about the issue for years but had failed to address it.
"I think that's fundamentally wrong, because it suggests that a kid's shot at education is determined by their parents' income level, and that's not the way it should be."
The rule change "clearly hasn't worked", he said.
"No one is ever going to convince me that there are more kids in high decile schools with those sorts of needs than there are kids in low decile schools.
"All they will convince me of is that the kids in high decile schools are getting better support for their learning needs than the kids in low decile schools are."
NZQA deputy chief executive Kristine Kilkelly said the authority had "strongly focused" its support on low decile schools over the last two years in a bid to increase access.
The application process had been streamlined, and information was more readily available to schools, she said.
A pilot programme with a pared down process for low decile schools had led to "a significant lift in the number of applications", Kilkelly said.
"We have received very good feedback and uptake from these schools and they tell us they are much more confident about the SAC process and testing requirements."
Kilkelly added:"The priority for NZQA and schools is to ensure that no student is disadvantaged."
The Ministry of Education referred all questions to NZQA.
A select committee inquiry report, presented to Parliament on Friday, which looked at ways to improve support for students with educational needs, said the Ministry had provided a number of reasons why low decile schools had fewer SAC applications.
They included the complexity of the application process; the timing of the process; the high cost to parents if a registered psychologist report is needed; the resources needed by schools to identify students with learning needs, carry out assessments and manage the SAC process; the need for low decile schools to focus on priorities such as literacy and numeracy achievement.
'Things will improve over time' - low decile principal
The body in charge of exams has been given a tick of approval by one principal for its efforts to encourage more low decile schools to apply for help.
Allan Vester of decile 2 Edgewater College in Pakuranga, and chairman of NZ Secondary Principals' Council, said it was now much easier for low decile schools to apply for special assessment conditions.
He would give the NZQA "a tick" for its work trying to increase applications from low decile schools, he said.
"I think they genuinely are trying to rebalance, and my feeling is over time in fact it will."
The Government had "certainly worked hard to make it easier" for schools, he said.
Changes like support from the RTLB service [Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour] and an increased range of testing options that schools can use to demonstrate need had also helped.
Edgewater had increased its SAC applications from around one or two per year, to 12 or 13, he said.
It was now "no more difficult" for a low decile school to apply for SACs, he said, but it was not part of the school culture in the same way it was in high decile schools.
"The high decile schools have been quite a lot better set up to do it in the past, and of course they've still got those systems in place. Lower decile schools are now gearing up to do it."
Parents in high decile communities were also more likely to know about what options were available for learning support, and ask the school to request them, he said.
"Whereas in a lower decile school it is much more likely to be driven by the school."