Cuts to frontline staffing for children with special needs have been revealed, on the same day as the findings of a new survey highlighted an urgent need to address delays in support for our youngest kids.
Figures presented to Parliament by Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins today showed the Ministry of Education had reduced frontline workers, such as speech therapists and advisers, by 41 staff since 2011. There are now 913 frontline special education staff.
Mr Hipkins contrasted the cuts with the ministry's spending on public relations, which had increased by more than 200 per cent in the same timeframe to $2.4 million.
The ministry now has 21 public relations staff.
Minister of Education Hekia Parata responded in Parliament that she was unaware of the details of the cuts.
However, she said although there had been an underspend of $3.5 million in special education last year, most of that was at school level, not ministry level, and the special education budget was up overall, to $530 million in total.
The minister said the public relations team provided timely access to information, and had recently modernised the ministry's website.
The revelations about the staffing cuts, during Question Time, came just before a parliamentary inquiry into learning difficulties heard the results of a survey carried out by the Early Childhood Council.
The survey of 153 early childhood centres found 80 per cent of centres believed children were suffering developmental delay due to inadequate support services.
Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said it found 90 per cent of centres said they did not receive Education Support Workers for the time needed, while 59 per cent waited more than three months for assistance with assessment and diagnosis.
Presenting to the Education and Science Select Committee, he said almost a quarter of children waited more than six months for assessment services, and when they did come, 57 per cent of centres rated the services as "poor" or "very poor".
He said there were teachers with no idea how to help the children, who were sometimes very violent and had punched, kicked, bitten and injured teachers.
"Who is in a position to provide timely and effective help for all those children and their families? The answer, it appears, very often, is 'no one'," he said. The survey mirrored figures in the ministry's annual report which found that almost half of preschoolers referred to a government service because of learning or behavioural difficulties are not getting help quickly enough.
Children with a developmental or learning delay, a disability or behavioural difficulty that significantly affects their ability to learn can be referred to the government-funded Early Intervention Service (EIS).
In a statement, the Ministry of Education said more children were provided specialist education services in 2014/2015 than in any previous year. The biggest increase had been in early intervention services for under-5s and it was supporting 2818 more children than its annual performance target.
"High demand for early intervention and communication services has meant meeting wait-list targets has been challenging.
"Data we have shows the vast majority of children who are referred to receive specified support get that support within six months. No child is left on a wait-list without some kind of support in place."
The inquiry into learning difficulties will continue for several more select committee sessions.