Delight as court rules for special-needs pupils

By DITA DE BONI

A landmark High Court ruling on special-needs education has thrilled an Orewa mother of three learning-disabled sons who was one of the plaintiffs.

Claire Boulton and 13 other plaintiffs took the Government to court to get their children better access to special education.

The decision means parents of the country's 66,000 special-needs students may be eligible for wide-ranging compensation payments.

Mrs Boulton's sons Lawrence, 8, and Christopher, 6, suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and take Ritalin. Nicholas, 9, has Asperger's Syndrome, a low-level autistic condition.

Mrs Boulton said the family had spent thousands of dollars getting private help for their sons after the funding of special-needs education through mainstream schools was revamped to exclude them in 1997.

On Wednesday, three years after parents first petitioned authorities for more help through the state education system, Justice David Baragwanath issued an interim decision placing the responsibility for providing special-needs education firmly back with the Government.

Not only may the Crown be liable for the costs of the long-running court case, estimated to be more than $50,000, but it may have to accept claims from parents who have sought help from private therapists and psychologists for their learning-disabled children.

The landmark ruling, against which the Government may appeal, has thrilled parents, teachers and other lobby groups who said special-needs children were falling through the cracks in an education system pledged to help them.

Problems started when the Special Education 2000 (SE2000) policy came into force in 1997, changing the way the Specialist Education Services unit operated.

Before then the service was totally financed by the Government and operated as an additional resource for state school students with learning difficulties.

At the time, about 18,000 students were receiving some form of special education at a cost of $188 million each year.

In 1997, under then Minister of Education Wyatt Creech, the unit's services became contestable and it began to charge schools and parents for its time.

Funding on a student-by-student basis was replaced with bulk funding, where a special education grant was allocated to boards of trustees based on school size and socio-economic rating.

Mrs Boulton said her eldest son had been receiving one hour each day with a teacher's aide at his primary school.

He was suddenly removed from specialist help when SE2000 was implemented.

She discovered children with a variety of learning impairments "up and down the country" were facing the same problem.

Parents and the Quality Public Education Coalition lobby group decided to apply for judicial review almost three years ago.

Mrs Boulton said the plaintiffs were not seeking more money from the Government but a more targeted allocation of the funds already there for special-needs children.

"At the moment no one is responsible for where the money provided by bulk funding is going once it is given to a school," she said.

"We're pretty sure it's not all going on special needs."

Associate Education Minister Lianne Dalziel said the High Court decision "could compromise the education needs of all children by diverting precious resources away from them into a Wellington-based bureaucracy focusing on assessment".

The minister said no one wanted to a return to the "previous haphazard and inconsistent system".

But John Minto, senior vice-chairman of the Quality Public Education Coalition, called the minister's reference to heavy bureaucracy "scaremongering".

"The decision is not the end of the world in education as the minister is suggesting but rather a wonderful opportunity to finally get it right for children with special education needs."

Claire Boulton agrees, although she says it is too late for many children who have missed years of much-needed special tuition.

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