If you want some insight on how children with special needs are valued and cared for (or rather, not valued nor cared for) within the New Zealand education system, I suggest you start by looking at two specific groups of people who carry a lot of the responsibility for meeting these children’s needs, particularly within mainstream schools: Teacher aides, and SENCOs.
Teacher aides are the people brought in by a school to assist a teacher in the care and teaching of a child with special needs, and a SENCO is a school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator – the person within a school who oversees and assists in the implementation of special needs services for these children.
Let’s start with teacher aides. This vital, hands-on role, can be taken up by anyone the school chooses; they don’t have to have any special training, or take on any training once they have the role. I’ve interacted with some aides who have no idea what the challenges of autism are, even though they’ve been brought in to deal with an autistic child. Many times, I’ve had to sit down with a teacher aide myself to try to help them to understand my child’s needs and how to meet them, because the school has not explained what is required of them before they start working with my child, and the aide has no relevant training or experience before beginning the role.
I’ve also had dealing with teacher aides who are very clearly not suitable for the role. One example is a particularly overweight aide who had regular breathing difficulties, who was charged with keeping up with my extremely active youngest son during play times. She was required to stay with him, keep him safe, and help him with the playground equipment. She couldn’t and didn’t keep up with him; he ran off school grounds under her watch – across a busy road. She had been newly employed for the role, with the school knowing my son was a run-risk. This shouldn’t have happened, it’s like the school didn’t take the role and responsibility of a teacher aide seriously (and I feel sympathy for the teacher aide being put in this position too).
Teacher aides are notoriously underpaid, and so it’s not surprising that there is very high turnover in these positions, creating extra work for the school and the classroom teacher each time a new aide is required, and extra stress for the child each time they have to get used to a new adult in the classroom who has high levels of interaction with them. Job security for teacher aides is nearly non-existent, for example my youngest son’s aides only find out each term if they will be required back for work a week or two before the next term begins, which can create significant financial stress for them and their families – again, it’s not hard to see why there is huge turnover in these roles.
I know my sons’ schools have struggled to balance the timetables of the aides they have in, so that only one of my sons receives the aide at the time of the day when they both need help the most; I have been involved in lengthy discussions about how to share out teacher aide timetables so that my most needy son gets the help during that time slot. This is ridiculous. The point of having an aide is to provide help when it is most needed for that child – schools shouldn’t be delicately trying to balance timetables to make the most of the person they’ve been able to convince to take on the role for that term. The fact that these discussions happen at all shows how broken the system is.
There are also never enough funded teacher aide hours with a mainstream school. Schools are used to accepting extra payments from those parents who can afford it, and seeing children leave the roll for those parents who can’t afford it. The Ministry of Education insists parents should never be paying for teacher aides themselves, yet they never supply enough funding for the school to manage it. It’s a farcical situation in a system that claims it provides free public education for all children, where families of children with special needs aren’t provided with the help required to let them attend school alongside their peers.
So much for teacher aides then; underpaid, almost always untrained, and lacking job-security, yet expected to fulfill a key daily support role for a child with special needs. On to SENCOs.
SENCOs aren’t even compulsory for a school, despite their very important role in helping parents and children to access services and make sure those services get provided. Some schools proudly advertise the fact that they even have a SENCO available. SENCOs are usually teachers or support staff within a school, who take on the extra work of the role alongside their existing school duties. Like teacher aides, SENCOs aren’t required to take on any training, and it’s seen as a rare and positive thing when they choose to do so. Also like teacher aides, SENCOs can have a high turnover rate, but for a different reason.
SENCOs high turnover rate can be due to the extra stress and time required by the role. Some teachers step up to the position, having no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into, and step down for the next person to give it a go. Each time that change in personnel happens, it’s extra stress and confusion for the family and the Ministry of Education contacts who deal with the SENCO, as they all reestablish where the child’s supports are and rebuild this important relationship. In the year so far, my children’s school SENCO has changed three times already, and this has very clearly and strongly impacted on my ability to get my son the in-school help he desperately needs, for example we’ve had to put off and reconsider making a major support-funding application due to not having an experienced SENCO on-hand to head the process.
The way SENCOs and teacher aides are viewed and treated by the Ministry of Education, sends me a very clear message: My children are not priorities for them. The safety, learning, and happiness of my kids, is not considered important enough to require and supply adequate training and payment for those who work with them on a daily basis. The daily reality of these two important roles within the school, are symptomatic of a broken system that is in serious need to an overhaul
It took me a while to realise that the tensions and upsets I had with various teacher aides and SENCOs, was hardly ever their own fault; these people were just doing the best they can within a framework that doesn’t work and doesn’t respect them. It’s important that we do what we can to understand where the problem comes from when parents and school staff are under so much stress – instead of staff getting angry and distressed that they can’t cope with our kids, and parents getting distraught and mad that schools are failing our children and not doing enough to help them succeed, we need to understand that the problem stems from the system itself. We need to put pressure on those in charge to make the necessary changes, for the benefit of everyone; for the school staff, for the parents, but most importantly, for the children whose lives are affected by this every single day.