Urgent changes needed for early childhood special education



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Peter Reynolds says until changes are made to special education services, thousands of our youngest and most vulnerable students will start school unprepared for life and learning.

Peter Reynolds, Chief Executive, Early Childhood Council


Peter ReynoldsA recent Early Childhood Council survey reveals the disgraceful state of government services for children with special learning needs.

The survey of 153 early childhood centres has more than 80 per cent saying children with special learning needs are suffering developmental delay as a result of delayed and inadequate Ministry of Education support services.

Fifty-nine per cent of centres say they are waiting more than three months, on average, for government-provided assistance with assessment and diagnosis. And almost a quarter are waiting more than six.

Fifty-seven per cent of centres rate the quality of Ministry of Education assessment services as either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. And more than half say the quality of assessment services has fallen in the past three years, with only three per cent reporting a rise.

Ninety per cent of centres say they do not receive Education Support Workers for the amount of time they are needed. And 51 per cent rate the quality of Education Support Workers as either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Centres tell stories of teachers with no access to assessment services and therefore no idea what’s wrong with children or how to deal with them; of other children punched, kicked and bitten as a consequence; of teacher-child ratios distorted because one teacher has to stay one-on-one with an especially difficult child; of parents pulling their children from services because they believe children with special learning needs are disrupting their centre; and of parents of children with special learning needs suffering ‘loss of belonging’ as a result of this.

If surrealism is the positioning of objects not normally found together, then the situation is surreal. There is the happy Wellington world with an early childhood curriculum that requires children with special learning needs to be taught within the same strands as all children, and a Human Rights Act that prevents discrimination on the grounds of disability… and there’s the real world in which a government early intervention teacher advises an early childhood centre NOT to enrol a child, because the centre is unlikely to receive help any time soon.

We know that the current government is aware there’s a problem with special education services. We know it has been consulting with parents, schools, the early childhood sector and others, and looking to redesign the system.

From the viewpoint of those running early childhood centres, however, bad government support services continue to worsen, and it’s time for talk to turn into action. Centres want:

  • shorter waiting times for assessment and education support workers
  • an increase in education support worker hours
  • more training to ensure these workers do their jobs properly
  • initial teacher education that prepares students to meet the needs of children with special learning needs
  • inexpensive professional development to upskill teachers who find themselves in situations they cannot handle.

Until these changes are made, thousands of our youngest and most vulnerable will continue to struggle in early childhood education and will start school unprepared for life and learning.


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