A three-part Herald series starting today investigates why schools are struggling to cope with kids who are "wired differently". Tomorrow we report on the brain science of learning differences, and on Wednesday we ask how we could do better.

Razeal Bracken-Wall, aged 15, has spent most of what should have been his school years out of school.

His grandmother Maria Jones says he has attended five schools but only lasted more than a term or two at one of them.

"He's been locked up in cupboards and rolled in mats and put in cardboard boxes and shoved in seclusion rooms," she says.

"A child in Africa has a better chance of getting access to education than Razeal does."

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Our schools are struggling to cope with thousands of young people like Razeal. The Ministry of Education says 162,600 children in schools and preschools - about one in every five - accessed extra learning support in 2016.

"Some conditions are becoming more prevalent, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder," the ministry said in a presentation to ministers in April.

"Funding hasn't kept up with demand."

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But funding for what used to be called "special needs", now called "learning support", has actually increased massively in recent years, to the point where we now have nearly one teacher aide for every two teachers: 21,673 teacher aides and 55,000 teachers. So what are we doing wrong?

Razeal's story

Maria Jones has spent years battling the system to get adequate education support for her grandson Razeal Bracken-Wall. Photo / Whanganui Chronicle
Maria Jones has spent years battling the system to get adequate education support for her grandson Razeal Bracken-Wall. Photo / Whanganui Chronicle

At 18 months, Razeal was hit by someone backing a big four-wheel-drive vehicle out of his grandmother's driveway. His clothes got hooked under the vehicle. The driver braked, but not before dragging Razeal for one and a half metres.

He suffered seizures, vomiting, screaming and swallowing problems after the accident. He had to learn to speak again, and had violent meltdowns.

When he started school at 5, he lasted only a few months because he was "a runner" and the school could not guarantee his safety.

He started at a second school half a day a week, but that didn't work out either because teachers struggled to cope with his swallowing problem, which caused choking.

The family moved house and Razeal went to Ōpōtiki Primary School, but problems continued.

"He couldn't sit still. He used to tear up kids' books," Jones says.

"I'd get sent emails saying not to let him come to school today. Then they only wanted him to go to school on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

"One of the teachers put him in a cardboard box. They seemed to think, because it was dark and a small space, that he would cope better in that situation."

Ōpōtiki principal Tony Howe says Razeal actually liked the box.

"There was a cardboard box in the room. He enjoyed going into the cardboard box and the teacher observed that so she left the cardboard box in the room," he says.

He says the school funded a part-time teacher aide for Razeal, but adds: "When we said to nana he couldn't come in tomorrow, that was because we didn't have the teacher aide that day."

After a few months at Ōpōtiki, Razeal and his sister went to live with their father in Whanganui. Eventually Jones followed them and Razeal attended Tawhero School for three years - his longest period at any school.

"I give them top marks," Jones says.

Razeal thrived in a satellite unit of Arahunga Special School at Tawhero.

But despite applying four times, Tawhero could not get funding for him under the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), so he was moved into the mainstream school and, Jones says, "it turned to custard".

"I was upset when I was asked to sign paperwork giving the school permission to use the seclusion room," she says.

Tawhero principal Chris Dibben confirms that the school used a "time out room" at the time, but says it was "a last resort" used only if parents could not come and pick up their children when they were a danger to others.

"The children were always viewed by a supervising adult," he says.

He stopped using the room when the Government banned seclusion rooms in 2016. He confirms that he asked Jones to sign a form consenting to putting Razeal in the room if necessary, but says he has no record that Razeal was ever actually put in the room.

Jones finally won ORS funding for Razeal in 2014 and he was accepted into Arahunga's satellite class at Rutherford Intermediate. But he lasted only three weeks.

"He had a meltdown so bad that they called the Ministry of Education psychologist in and soon she was in tears of despair," Jones said.

"He was in the locked secure unit at school but he kept getting out, and that day he got out of the classroom and climbed up the soccer goalpost and sat there for at least two hours."

Since then he has done correspondence lessons. Two Arahunga teachers are ORS-funded to visit for 7.5 hours a week between them.

"It shouldn't be this hard," Jones says. "It's every child's right in this country to have access to education."

A growing problem

Growing numbers of children in developed countries are being identified as having conditions that affect the way they learn.

Children on the autism spectrum have increased in official United States data from 0.7 per cent of all 8-year-olds at the start of this century to 1.7 per cent in 2014.

University of Auckland psychologists David Moreau and Karen Waldie say between 5 and 10 per cent of people have "severe difficulties with reading (dyslexia) or concentration/impulse control (ADHD)", and that a third to a half of those people have both dyslexia and ADHD.

"That is an issue in every classroom," Waldie says.

Dibben, who first taught at decile one Tawhero in 1983 before returning as principal in 2001, says all local schools are seeing "a greater percentage of students coming in with higher needs".

He has 110 students on his special needs register out of a roll of 153, and pulls in support from numerous social agencies to employ nine teachers and 12 teacher aides.

"We have teacher aides in every room, sometimes two," he says.

Dr Karen Waldie says children whose brains are
Dr Karen Waldie says children whose brains are "wired differently" are being picked up more partly because of universal education and the growing importance of literacy. Photo / File

Waldie says part of the increase in prevalence is simply increasing recognition of conditions that have always been there, but which mattered much less in past centuries before universal schooling, or even a few decades ago when most people could leave school at 15 and get a job that didn't require reading.

Autism researcher Dr Hilary Stace says learning differences are being noticed more because more children are in mainstream schools rather than shut away in places like the old Māngere psychopaedic hospital, Kimberley or Templeton.

"This is only the first generation of post-institutionalisation," she says.

"So personally I don't think there is any more, I just think there is more awareness and schools are not coping."

But Waldie says some studies have also found a real underlying increase in learning differences, perhaps due to factors such as parents having children at older ages and increasing toxins in the environment.

Autism, dyslexia and ADHD all run in families. "They are all highly heritable," Waldie says.

"Certain genes will be switched on in response to certain environmental influences - environmental hazards when you're pregnant such as radiation, noise, everything is becoming more polluted."

IHC advocacy director Trish Grant says more babies born prematurely or with disabilities are surviving with modern medical care, and that growing numbers of children may be affected by their parents' use of 'P', alcohol and other drugs - or simply working.

"If we require both parents to work, then that is going to have an impact on children's learning and sense of self-esteem," she says. "Early childhood education is a fantastic thing, but it can't make up for that."

Auckland University special education lecturer Rod Wills says conditions such as ADHD may be driven by kids and their parents looking at screens rather than talking or reading to each other.

"A lot of this is to do with a lack of exposure to text, a lack of exposure to conversation," he says.

Dr Jannie van Hees, an oral language expert at the university, says it was rare to see an autistic child when she was teaching 30 years ago, but now it was common to find children who "struggle to find the right words and don't know how to engage in to-and-fro conversations".

"That child that you get that rabbits on, you don't find that child as often any more," she says.

"The environment that we are in is changing at such a breakneck speed that gentle walking and talking and being curious and looking at the real world - that is being lost. Families are just under stress and they are busy."

How are schools coping?

The 1989 Education Act, which created our system of self-governing schools, also created a right for every child between ages 5 and 19 to attend any state school.

Research has found that students with disabilities do better academically, and behave better, in mainstream classes than in segregated special classes, because the teaching is more challenging and their classmates use more advanced language.

The Education Review Office (ERO) says schools that have welcomed students with high needs spoke of all other students developing more "tolerance, understanding and empathy" through knowing such students - qualities that will make them better citizens.

In 2010, ERO found that only half of all schools were genuinely "inclusive" for students with high needs.

Later that year the Government responded with a package of changes including expanding the ORS scheme and speech language therapy and creating an Intensive Wraparound Service for the most needy children.

By 2015, ERO found that 78 per cent of schools were "mostly inclusive", and another 21 per cent were "somewhat inclusive", leaving only 1 per cent with "few inclusive practices".

Grant, who has led IHC's advocacy since 2006, says ERO is "much more rosy than I am". But she agrees that attitudes are changing.

In 2006, she says, "it was rare to find schools that welcomed all and had very clear policies that talk about, 'Everyone is in or no one is in, no one goes on a camp if everyone can't go.' That was a rarity."

"Now we have increasing numbers of schools who see the value, socially and academically, of their schools welcoming all and ensuring that children are well supported," she says. "I'm noticing real shifts in the way schools really think about valuing all."

A Ministry of Education drive to stop schools kicking out difficult students halved the suspension rate from 0.74 per cent of all students in the year 2000 to 0.35 per cent in 2015. In 2009, 40 per cent of suspended students had received ministry support for special needs.

The Government also poured in money, lifting spending on learning support (formerly called special needs) from $529m in 2009-10 to $712m in the financial year just finished, a real increase of 13 per cent after allowing for school roll growth and inflation.

But Ministry of Education data supplied under the Official Information Act shows that early intervention teachers dwindled from 118 in 2008 to 108 in 2015, before growing since then to 136.

Special education advisers fell from 156 in 2008 to 96 last year before recovering this year to 110. The ministry says the new wraparound service and a new behaviour initiative had to be set up under "a staffing cap in which any new roles and positions created had to come from within existing staffing levels".

Waiting lists jumped in the four years to June from 1637 to 2849 for early intervention, from 500 to 885 for communication services and from 207 to 510 for behaviour services.

Statistics NZ's last disability survey, conducted after the 2013 census, found that 11 per cent of children with disabilities had to change schools and 19 per cent reported "difficulty attending school for the full day" because of their impairments.

A third (32 per cent) of children with a mental or emotional disability reported "an unmet need for extra help with schoolwork".

In 2015, 69 per cent of families with autistic children surveyed by the Children's Autism Foundation said support for their children in schools was "poor"; 14 per cent said it was "adequate", 13 per cent said it was "good" or "excellent" and 4 per cent were unsure.

Exactly the same 69 per cent of school special needs coordinators surveyed by the NZ Educational Institute this year said their schools did not "have the resources needed to ensure that all students can participate fully in school".

Although we have far more teacher aides than we used to, a British study found that students who got more support from teacher aides actually did worse academically than those with less support.

"In other words," psychologist Peter Coleman says, "the teacher aide either prompted or completed their work."

Other studies have found that teacher aides who work closely with one student reduce that student's interactions with classmates, defeating the purpose of "inclusion".

Despite more teacher aides, the school suspension rate has also kicked up again in the past two years to 0.42 per cent, as more principals say they can no longer cope with violent students.

Why this matters

Dr Ian Lambie has found that young sex offenders and fire-lighters have above-average learning difficulties. Photo / File
Dr Ian Lambie has found that young sex offenders and fire-lighters have above-average learning difficulties. Photo / File

Kicking a child out of school risks alienating them from society and setting them on a path of antisocial behaviour and crime.

A study led by Auckland University psychologist Ian Lambie of 1205 young sex offenders found that 54 per cent had learning or developmental problems.

Another Lambie-led study of 1800 young people who lit fires found that 37 per cent had "poor concentration", 29 per cent had "learning difficulties", 20 per cent had been stood down from school and 7 per cent had been suspended.

Auckland University doctoral student Sarah Lount found last year that 64 per cent of teens at a youth justice residence had "significant language impairment", compared with only 10 per cent of all NZ teens in the same age group.

A similar 60 per cent of adult NZ prisoners have literacy and numeracy below level 1 of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). In Britain, studies have found that between 43 and 57 per cent of prisoners have dyslexia.

"History will judge us harshly," says Judge Andrew Becroft. Photo / Duncan Brown, Hawke's Bay Today

"We have excluded from education, and sometimes criminalised, young people whose real issue has been a significant neurodevelopmental issue," says Children's Commissioner Judge Becroft.

"I think history will judge us harshly - how could we have developed education and justice in the way that we did when we didn't even know what some of these underlying issues were?

"In the future, we'll have brain scanning that will let us know all these things. In 50 years' time these sorts of issues will be seen as normative ways of understanding a child. We are in the midst of a 50-year sea change."

Wired differently

Tomorrow

: The brain science

Wednesday: Can we do better?