Who is responsible for funding teacher aides?The Ministry of Education here in New Zealand, claims they provide adequate funding and support for children with special needs, and so parents shouldn’t be paying for teacher aide hours. The schools say they don’t receive enough targeted funding and have to take the money from other funding pools, and end up accepting money from parents to pay teacher aides. The parents can endlessly fill out forms, attend meetings, take phone calls, and deal with emails with both Ministry and school staff, that go nowhere – leaving them in the position of either fronting the money for aides themselves, or having their child excluded from school because the school can’t or won’t let the child attend without one-on-one support.
The answer to who is meant to be funding the aides, is a simple one, both by policy and by law: The Ministry of Education. They provide schools with funding, and it is the Ministry’s responsibility to meet its national and international obligations to allow children with special needs to be included within the schooling system. The funding they provide to schools and families is not enough – that’s not debatable. I have been in the situation myself since the start of the year, that the Ministry out-right refuses to grant adequate funded-hours to allow my son to be safe and able to learn at school. I have filled out their forms, jumped through their hoops; there are no Ministry-sanctioned options left to me – they are refusing the required funding. The school, my son, and my family, are suffering because of their refusal. I am far from alone in this situation; not only do I personally know other people in this situation, but the New Zealand Herald is currently doing articles (here, and here) on this wide-spread reality.
The Ministry says parents shouldn’t be doing this – paying for teacher aides themselves – but it’s happening nonetheless. They know it is happening. Schools know it is happening. It is laughable that the Ministry has told the New Zealand Herald that parents should talk to the Ministry about sorting these situations out rather than paying for aides, when the Ministry itself is the reason parents and schools are in this situation. No parent wants to be put in this financial position – paying huge amounts just so their child can simply access the education system that is meant to be freely available to all New Zealand children – and no parent should be put in this situation. But here we are, and everyone is paying the price. Even parents of children without special needs – you are paying the price too in so many ways; if our children with special-needs are given adequate in-class support, it would make life easier for the teachers of your children, and for your children as class-mates. Everyone wins if this is done the way it should be. You too should be out-raged that the Ministry is claiming there is enough funding and support, because it is only the wealthiest families who can meet the true short-fall – so unless the children in your child’s class are all very well-off and are paying for a service they shouldn’t have to be, your kids may be directly affected too.
And before I have to deal with the classic reply – if your child needs that much support, they should be in a special school – let’s be very clear: It is hard to get into a special school. I have tried all year for my youngest child to qualify, but he has been denied the Ministry funding required to allow his attendance (“ORS” funding). The Ministry does not agree that is where he belongs – they have declined our ORS application. We are stuck in mainstream, with utterly inadequate support. The support we get is inadequate in everyone’s opinion who deals with my son on a daily basis – including his first school who illegally sent him home whenever he didn’t have a dedicated teacher aide. And you know what the Ministry did about that illegality? Nothing. They had an employee in the meeting where the principal said my son would not be allowed at school without an aide, and she just nodded along with the school staff in the room. I complained to her superior about her lack of support, she took my call and noted my concerns, saying she’d call me back. She never did. They cover each other’s backsides, the Ministry looks out for the Ministry, not for the people it is meant to be serving.
I must add this important point here too: Our children have the capacity to be part of the mainstream schooling system, when they have adequate supports. More than that, they have the right to be part of it. I feel like shouting sometimes, shaking some sense into by-standers – how can the government and the wider society not see the wasted potential here? How can they not understand that adequately supporting our children during their school years will pay off hugely when they reach adult-hood? That looking after our kids also allows us parents as potential workers, to return to being productive in the work-force? Why, when we share our stories, are we met with “go take your child to a special school” or “your kid is ruining my kid’s chance to learn in class,” instead of other parents standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us, fighting alongside us as fellow citizens whose rights are being trampled while the Ministry keeps pretending this isn’t happening and insisting they provide adequate funding when everything shows otherwise?
I suppose they think it’s easier to have our children out of schools – and at an extremely short-sighted and superficial level, it is easier for schools and the Ministry to have us out of sight and out of mind. But the reality of that attitude – the real impact of it on society in general, and on the children raised in these artificially sanitised environments – is deep and nasty. And it doesn’t take much to see the parallels with other “unwanted” people of history – people of a certain colour, or religion, or gender. They didn’t take it quietly, and neither should we.
I want to end by making it clear that I’m not of the belief that teacher aides are the be-all-end-all of in-class supports – inadequately funding them is not the only problem our special education system faces, and neither would adequate funding of teacher aides solve all our problems. However, they are a vital piece of the support system, even more so when we continue to create classroom teachers with woefully inadequate knowledge and training on how to help children with special needs flourish in the classroom. For me – and for many others – the inadequate funding of teacher aides and the attitude of the Ministry of Education towards this problem, is highly symptomatic of the wider and deeper issues at play in our special education system: Lack of funds; lack of support; inadequate training of teachers; passing the buck; turning a blind-eye to the reality families and children face. Lots of things need to change, adequate funding of teacher aides is a good starting point.