A small Budget increase for early intervention services will halve the waiting list of preschoolers needing extra help, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.
She told 800 people at an education summit in Auckland today that Thursday's Budget would include an extra $21.5 million for the early intervention service over the next four years, about $5.4m a year.
Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the increase would halve the current waiting list.
"This Budget increase will see an extra 1750 children receive help in this coming year and contracted early intervention service providers will support an additional 150 children with the highest needs," she said.
"Within two years this number will increase to an additional 200 children."
The numbers are small compared with more than 13,000 preschool children who received an early intervention service in 2015-16 for problems such as speech delays and autism.
Former Education Minister Nikki Kaye told former Green MP Catherine Delahunty last year that 1204 children were waiting longer than 90 days for an early intervention service appointment as at July 3 last year, with one child waiting for 381 days.
However, the average waiting time for an appointment has been trending downwards from 97 days in 2013-14 to 71 days in 2016-17.
Ardern said the average wait was now 74 days - "and in the life of a little 3- or 4-year-old child who's hungry to learn, that's 74 days too long".
Martin said the extra Budget funding would include "over 60 additional early intervention study awards and speech language therapy scholarships".
Ardern said the extra money for early intervention was only "one of the components of the package" of extra learning support initiatives in the Budget.
"Next week's Budget contains a major funding boost for a significant package of learning support initiatives," she said.
Martin and Education Minister Chris Hipkins are due to take a longer-term "action plan" for learning support to the Cabinet in October.
NZ Kindergartens chief executive Clare Wells said the early intervention funding was a welcome sign that early childhood was a priority again in the education budget.
"There hasn't been a shift in policy and funding for early intervention for quite some years. We have long waiting lists and children trying to access early intervention," she said.
But NZ Educational Institute president Lynda Stuart said NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart was at the Auckland Education Summit for the announcement today and said the funding should have also allowed for a pay equity settlement for support workers.
"We have been negotiating with the Ministry of Education for a settlement for support workers for more than a year without progress," she said.
"You can't truly say these children are valued if the skilled and essential people supporting their learning are earning little more than minimum wage."
National education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye and early childhood spokeswoman Nicola Willis welcomed the extra funding but said the learning support system also had to be changed.
"We knew we had to do more than simply pour extra money in – we needed to reform the system itself," they said.
"That's why we kicked off an update of learning support which included testing a new model that aims to make accessing learning support much simpler and quicker for all involved."
Rotorua Girls' High School Year 13 student Georgia Brouwer cried when she met the Prime Minister at today's education summit.
"As soon as I saw her a wave of emotion came over me. I didn't know what to do so I just cried," she said.
"I think she's such an inspiration for our people with all she has done so far. She appears in our communities and interacts with people in ways you would never see a typical Prime Minister do."
She managed to tell Ardern that she attended Rotorua Girls' High.
"She said she had many friends who used to go there when she was living in Murupara," Georgia said.
"I just said, 'Thank you for being an inspiration to us all', basically told her that I love her.
"She said, 'Thank you very much'."