Tonight I stumbled upon a brief story on the local current affairs show “Campbell Live”, about the mainstreaming of special needs children. The story was about some special needs classrooms shutting down, meaning that these children – some of whom had already been failed by mainstreaming – were being forced into mainstream classrooms.
The moment the boy who primarily featured in the story appeared on-screen, violently lashing out at his father, I knew the word “autism” wasn’t far behind; it was like watching my own son from a couple of years ago. A reminder of how far we’ve come, and how hard it is for so many families out there. The story was about special needs children in general rather than just autistic children, but I was that much more emotionally invested in the story at the sight of this little boy so like my own.
The story was too light on detail to really get a grasp on the cause of the issues and the entitlements of the children at issue. I’m guessing that could have been clarified if the Minister for Education had agreed to appear to discuss the issue on the show. She declined. I would have liked to know if these children were under ORS or were relying on the school’s own pool of funding (I’m thinking it’s ORS). I also got the impression the classrooms at issue were run within mainstream schools rather than as satellite classes through a special needs school (which is my son’s situation). Leaving questions too of what alternative special needs education would be available to these children (is there perhaps a local special needs school they could enrol at instead?)
The classroom set-up at issue appears to be a left-over of previous governmental approaches to special needs; John Campbell mentioned that ten years ago the Labour government decided to move towards mainstreaming all children, and that these classrooms were a remnant of that movement. Giving the impression that this is not a sign of things to come for other current set-ups, just the tidying up of a dated anomaly. Again, I’m reaching here because I couldn’t get enough details from the piece.
The parents they interviewed were considering homeschooling as perhaps the only real alternative, since they knew mainstreaming had already failed their autistic son. I’m not against homeschooling as an option for those parents who are actively interested and able to make the most of that option, but the impact of homeschooling on a family and its income are significant.
The other alternative voiced was taking their family to a country that cares for their child. I was a little taken aback by that statement; New Zealand is incredibly generous and caring to my son, I adore the education set-up and support he receives. Maybe I’m just in the “right” part of the country, but this family was at least in the same city as I am. Again, without knowing what alternatives exist in their area – such as whether their son is entitled to and could attend the local special needs school – it’s hard to draw any well-(in)formed opinions and conclusions.
The story decided to focus not just on the impact on the special needs children if they were mainstreamed. They also considered the extra time and stress it would place on the teachers left to deal with the children in the mainstream classes; the families’ home-life (impact on marriages was an example); and the threat their children posed to the mainstream children.
Unfortunately, in the discussion that followed on the Campbell Live Facebook page, the vast majority of the comments focus on the exact sort of arguments and myths that I have been fighting since I started this blog, like those who think that special needs schools are black holes; dumping grounds where difficult children are forgotten and left uneducated (have these people ever even set a foot inside these schools?). The presumption that mainstream schools are actually better schools than special needs schools – with better teachers and providing a better education – sits at the base of a lot of such claims. The teacher-child ratios, knowledge and skills that go into educating my son at his special school, are astounding. I am honoured and happy they have accepted him; a special needs school was not my last option, it was my first, and I was lucky to have that choice.
I also found myself getting rather annoyed at those who think the primary issue is how this affects the normal kiddies, not how this impacts on the actual education of special needs children; the people talking about how great it would be for them to learn to accept difference by having special children in class with them everyday – what a great life-learning opportunity it is for the normal kids. Oh great, so pleased to know my son is the means to the end of someone else’s child becoming more tolerant; because that’s the most important issue here, right? The social education of everyone else’s child. And there’s no way to learn this tolerance in any other situation either, aye, it’s not like special needs children exist in general society or in extended family, and of course being around special needs children always turns out well for tolerance levels; there’s no bullying or stereotypes, everything is sunshine and lollipops. Yeah.
So the story has stirred up a confused little hornet’s nest. It doesn’t appear that more details would have stopped the sort of comments I’ve been reading about the story, but it would have helped settle the nerves and concerns of those of us who are living a life intimately affected by these questions. It has been a chance to get a feel for the public sentiment on the issue, and the public attitude towards people like my son and the school he attends. I’m hoping the Education Minister will change her mind and front up to discuss the issue properly. But I’m not holding my breath.
Edit: Since writing this post I’ve found out more about the situation of these families. These children’s needs are not severe enough to qualify them for the main special needs funding available in New Zealand (ORS funding). They have “moderate needs”. The special units they were attending were funded in a way that is apparently not consistent with how the funding was meant to be used. The government is acting to return the funding to how it was originally intended, which is also meant to widen the availability of the specially trained teachers to other needy students who are currently missing out. The up-shot of this is the potential closure of these already existing (and apparently much-loved and well-run) special units.
I’ve gleamed this information from a variety of sources, including news stories, press releases, government websites, and particularly from this website run by the affected families themselves. This is obviously a complex issue, and my little paragraph summary above is just my effort to make sense of those complexities. Do feel free to enlighten me further or add to the picture if you perhaps are intimately affected by these changes, I’d be happy to hear from you.