Commentary on the Campbell Live story about mainstreaming special needs children

Campbell Live

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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12 Responses to Commentary on the Campbell Live story about mainstreaming special needs children

  1. blogginglily says:

    I shall wait for the link. It’s amazing to me the sheer number of varied approaches to special needs kids that governments take. The problem is so complex. Country to country, school district to school district, school to school. . . it’s all different. How can anyone KNOW their rights when they change just by stepping over an invisible border?

  2. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    I’ll let you in on a little secret. Kids who develop atypically probably make up a good share of homeschooled kids. We started (in 9th grade) homeschooling our son. I asked, then, about special needs in a forum for homeschoolers and you could have heard a pin drop. But we ended up meeting many homeschooled kids who had been labelled, drugged, or bullied in mainstreamed schools… then told, in so many words, that they were bad or stupid.

    So much for social skills…

    At age 17 my son is successfully taking part in tech classes, which was what he wanted all along. He has “hands on” smarts, which isn’t rewarded in mainstream classes. He will obtain his GED before he can get his associates degree in Industrial Engineering. He wants to invent a hydrogen powered steam train. (He thinks a Metro-type train, like in D.C. will exist in every major metropolitan area. Hydrogen/steam would nix oil use.) He’s been penned as a shy geek by his classmates, but that’s better than a Ritalin quieted behaviorally disordered Aspergian student.

    Temple Grandin said High School was torture for her, and recommended Tech for kids like my son,. I followed her advice religiously when Ben was young, and I’ll be damned if she isn’t right again.

    Sorry, my story is not your son’s story…but it may be one day. I don’t know how he survived in the regular classroom for 9 years, It was hard, and probably soul crushing in ways that were beyond the teachers control. I wouldn’t have a problem, now, with special schooling, as long as it was appropriate for him. He has a very high IQ.

  3. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    It was worth a download. I was able to get it here in America. We are not talking kids who ritalin can take care of here. It’s the money, you know it is. I don’t know how the teachers could deal with behavioral problems in the regular class. Or intellectual disabilities, for that matter. Something is wrong here.

    • I must say I was surprised that the children shown didn’t fit into the main funding scheme as high needs children, they reminded me in many ways of the children in my son’s special needs class. Either way, yes, these children at issue clearly need that extra help, and without it it’s easy to see how the education system on offer will fail them. Being an election year here, I’m hopeful this topic will get traction and be openly addressed by those with the power to do something about it.

  4. Hilary Stace says:

    So many errors and confusion in that Campbell live story which I’ve just watched. Not surprising as it is very complex, and varies across NZ, but they could have done some more factchecking. It basically confused two policies. The 1989 Education Act (under Labour actually Minister of Ed Phil Goff) gave the legal right to every child to attend their local school from 5-19 years (which was a huge advance). But it also set up self-managing schools and as we know many did their best to exclude our kids. The following National govt responded with a 1996 policy called Special Ed 2000 which thought it could enforce mainstreaming without resourcing it properly (hence the totally inadequate 1% ORS which was a number apparently plucked out of the air by Treasury).Hence lots of negative parental backlash and the Daniells legal case.

    Special Ed 2000 also got rid of the itinerant teacher service which had helped special ed kids (like my son) in a mainstream school, and instead created the RTLB service. The idea of the RTLB service was for specialists to work with those kids who were not the ORS 1% but the next lot needing support – funded by each school’s SEG grant, and RTLBs would work in clusters across several schools. But there were no instructions about how to do this so each RTLB cluster invented the wheel for itself, and as many of them were previously teachers in units, some stayed in the units. There have been two RTLB reviews in the last decade to check whether they actually are well trained, doing the same thing across the country, and working effectively across schools. Results have been patchy – although most RTLBs are really really experienced and knowledgeable about special needs education in mainstream classrooms. (But some aren’t, or a bit rusty – and there was a new training programme recently established for them.)

    This CL story is actually about a more recent policy of the currrent government to focus and ‘regulate’ RTLBs, so I’m not surprised they are trying to move them out of the special classes as such environments are usually where the ORS funded kids are (funded by other mechanisms) ,and try and get them working in the schools where they are supposed to be working with teachers and more ‘moderate’ needs students (the SEG grant kids). But typical of Tolley it is done in a very authoritarian and clumsy way, alienating everyone in the process.

    That’s my summary of it all.

  5. Jenny koch says:

    Hi there,
    So,so good to hear the discussion about our issue. James is my son, and I am his Mum, and it was me that featured in the CL interview.
    All the facts that I read from everyones accounts are accurate. The classroom is currently run with 2 teachers, one RTLB and 3 teachers aides. It is funded by students with ORS, James is not one if them, we have just submitted our third application. He currently utilizes a full time teacher aide, to access the curriculum, maintain safety and manage his high sensory needs and anxiety that affects his behaviour so much.
    His classroom is part of the school, they do assembly, school activities, school trips, social activites etc with the school. It is as inclusive as it gets, all the kids know James, and greet him, want to go catch bugs with him (that is his autistic obsession!). There is a buddy system where older kids come and do activities with them in their classroom. It is by all purpose, just another classroom. James would be unable to cope in a mainstream class, he will only get 2 hours teacher aide support with itinerant RTLB once a week if he’s lucky. Because he doesn’t get ORS funding, it does not give him access to special education. For as much as we know from special education, the next step for him is mainstream. Being as he has already failed in mainstream, it gives us very little options.
    Please read our wiki
    Thanks everyone that has commented and taken the time to research our story.

    • Hi Jenny,

      My heart really does go out to you. Like I said in my post, your son very much reminds me of my own. You’re clearly caught in a bad situation. I’m surprised your son doesn’t qualify for ORS, since in some ways he looks to be more challenging than my own son who does qualify, but I know ORS can be so inconsistent and so dependent on the way the application is presented, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; just saddened. I do hope you find a way forward that works for you, your son and all the other families affected. Best wishes.

  6. Glad to see this being discussed. My son is also in Room 4 at Sunnybrae.

    The social issues that were covered on Campbell Live were part of an appeal to the government to realise the wider financial implications of mainstreaming these children… we feel that Room 4 currently runs on a highly economic model, as most of the children would otherwise need (and we know it is not feasible) a full-time teacher aide in a mainstream setting. Add to this the financial implications of home-schooling (each family unit losing a potential full-time salary), stress and possible relationship break-ups and we have a cost-effective rationale for keeping our kids and their families as happy as they currently are.

    In terms of moving overseas, many of us have had the ORS applications drama, the ORS appeal drama and the transition to mainstream drama – and now we’re having to fight to keep our kids in education! We’re just burned out.

    The Campbell Live Facebook discussion was certainly lively, and it’s true the discussion went off at a tangent as many people didn’t realise that Room 4 is very much a part of the school community; the children are included in school activities, but their learning environment is very different. Highlighting the inclusive nature of Room 4 will most certainly be part of our future communications.

    My final comment is regarding the effect on other children. Maybe it’s better to get the support now, than 12 months down the line when parents realise that their children are being disrupted by our kids in a mainstream classroom. It’s still painful to be the parent of ‘that’ child, and to hear how others might not want to be around them – but if it helps keep Room 4 open then bring it on!

    • I can only imagine how hard this is for your family and child (there were a good many months pre-ORS approval that I lived that potential nightmare), and I earnestly hope a good solution is found and found soon.

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