Disabled students pay the price for ‘broken’ system

May 26, 2022

Ninety-nine percent of educational professionals surveyed by IHC want a complete overhaul of the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), which funds support in the classroom for high-needs students.

IHC asked 600 families/whānau, educators and medical and allied professionals what needed to change in education for disabled students. Their answers form part of the IHC submission to the Ministry of Education’s Highest Needs Review.

It is ORS that attracts the most heat. Survey participants described how hard it was to apply and to get accepted for funding that was rationed. It was a competitive system, where families felt pressured to downgrade their child’s abilities to get support while others were left without the support their child needed.

IHC Advocate Trish Grant, who has spent the past 17 years fighting for a fair deal for disabled students, says there has never been more unanimity. “I was surprised at the medical and allied professionals’ responses – 100 percent of them were critical of ORS.”

She says families are frustrated that it is taking so long to make any changes and they are cynical about one more review that won’t make any difference. “There is huge frustration and despair.

“I feel very emotional about it. But I also feel hopeful – the fact that the Minister herself [Associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti] says the system is broken – but also the feeling that it can’t go on.”

One parent said they were tired of hearing excuses for education failures.

“After nine years of schooling, I can confidently say her being ORS-funded is only of benefit to the school to provide token education. It’s mostly babysitting. I’m ashamed and appalled at New Zealand education’s slack and unaccountable excuses. Our daughter is bright and very teachable, but no one can be bothered.”

Another said: “The system is broken. I can only support my child to attend school sporadically if I work a few hours a week.”

It was common for parents and whānau to have to give up work or reduce working hours to provide extra support at school or at home for children not accepted for a full day, or sent home while others went on school trips.

Students and their families are left to bear the brunt of the system failures. “It’s exhausting and never ending, and I feel like a failure as a mother because I know he is not living up to his potential. His life is narrow and a little sad – no real friendships. We have made progress: after three years of battling and asking at least he is allowed in mainstream classes and finally included in a sports team. The sport is a little scary as it’s just relying on the goodwill of peers to be gentle and accommodating. He is loving being part of a team.”

Many educators felt alone in their classrooms without adequate resources and support to do the best job for their students.

“There are huge gaps at every level of education that impact on children and young people who learn differently to be understood, supported appropriately and succeed while at school and beyond.” – Education professional

“Children need to be included as much as possible, and inclusion should be meaningful and relevant, benefiting everyone, not a token gesture just to show that the child is included.” – Education professional

“Early intervention is crucial – why do we have to fight to get the resources we need, and we know the children need to be successful? It is simply unacceptable.” – Education professional

Trish says the ORS resourcing policy isn’t fit for purpose because it doesn’t recognise that there are a lot of students outside the criteria who need help at school, for example children with fetal alcohol syndrome. The policy was designed for certain defined conditions, such as Down syndrome.

She says the ORS eligibility criteria are rigid, the application process is onerous, and its implementation is problematic, with families ending up with less support than they expect.

“But the Treasury loves it because it is a predictable amount of funding.”

Trish says she was surprised by the strong input into the survey from medical and allied professionals.

“The amount of support some children are provided is barely enough for their support team to know who they are, let alone provide any meaningful support to the child and their educators.” – Medical professional

“It is frequently difficult to match students at higher and lower needs with appropriate levels of support. The current system is numbers-based, rather than actual level of need-based.” – Medical professional

“ORS models are deficit-based, which worsens the gap between disabled students and non-disabled students before they even begin school. ORS is becoming a ‘one-size-fits-all’ funding package rather than a supportive evidence and goal-driven inclusive education scheme. Schools shouldn’t be left trying to juggle unders and overs to be able to provide the right supports for children.” – Medical professional

Trish says some speech and language professionals highlighted ethical issues because the way of working with children isn’t resulting in the kind of outcomes that could be achieved. In its submission to the Highest Needs Review, IHC has listed 18 recommendations to ensure that disabled students have equitable access to, and outcomes from, a quality, disability-inclusive education system.

Trish says the Highest Needs Review is focused on 3 percent of the total student population. “We know that 17 percent is a conservative estimate of the number of children who need support.

“So much has been spent on propping up a system that fails students and schools,” says Trish. “It’s time we invested in supporting disabled students in ways that allow them to thrive at school.

“We still don’t know in 2022 how many disabled students there are, where they are and what they need.”

Caption: Photograph by Andrew Ebrahim – Unsplash


This story was published in Strong Voices. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members. Read the full issue of Strong Voices or view more articles.