Speech Language Therapists Conference

  • Wyatt Creech

I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. I have made a personal commitment to improve outcomes for those students with special educational needs. It is a fraught area. The sector was lucky to win up to $200 million in the 1997 Budget. It has the opportunity to make a real difference for these young people if we work together and do it right.

I am sure we share one thing in common - we all want to do more to help young people with special education needs. I want to use the opportunity today to spell out the facts and dispel some of the claims being made about Special Education 2000.

In the past it was possible - even acceptable - to ignore special needs students who stumbled through the school system, ending up with very little to show for their education at the end of it. This is no longer acceptable. We have no choice but to get into schools and lift quality at every level. We have to lift the quality of courses, quality of leadership, quality of teachers and quality of student achievement.

Of late there have been some criticisms of decisions made about individual student support under Special Education 2000, especially verification into the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme. Some concerns were valid. Implementing such a bit scheme - 13,000 applications were considered - was bound to throw up some teething problems. Some comments came from people who obviously do not know how Special Education 2000 works.

These public comments should not be interpreted as signs that there is something fundamental wrong. To use an old saying, there is a huge tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The simple reality is that in any huge policy implementation task, there are bound to be some difficult cases at the margin and some mistakes too for that matter. The media of course will highlight any blemish - we will only ever hear from the negative side - and we can never say that everything is perfect.

On our side I acknowledge that there is a need to better communicate to parents and schools what they can expect and what is expected of them. And being a realist I acknowledge that there will be teething problems with the transition to Special Education 2000. However knee-jerk over-the-top criticism will cause harm if it is allowed to harm the success of a policy that has at its very heart the interests of all young people.

Last weekend I received the figures for teacher aide support levels for those students funded through the Specialist Education Service under the new Ongoing Resourcing Scheme or ORS as it is becoming. 51% of students will have more support than they are currently getting, 36% will have the same and 13% will have less. This is a smaller drop than officials expected as students become more independent. Officials working in this area were delighted - it was good news. But just one of those cases needs an incorrect assessment , and there is a media story expressing bitter complaint.

Life in the 21st Century increasingly requires a combination of individual motivation and values coupled with an investment by the individual in knowledge and skills. At the moment our system is not working for all. The general public is rather staggered by the fact that we spend $65 million on basic literacy and numeracy catch up for 16 and 17 year olds who theoretically have spent 11 years in our education system. I am sure this sort of outcome is what has led to public frustration at what is seen as too much emphasis on 'trendy' methods and approaches being implemented at the expense of teaching the basic skills needed to equip young people with the practical skills they need for work and life.

We in the education sector need to make sure that the time young people spend in school works for them all, because no matter what our individual needs are, our time in the school system is the one chance most of us get to build those motivations, knowledge and skills. Increasingly the education system is having to apply itself to meeting the individual and different learning needs and styles of the young people it is responsible for.

While the school will remain the foundation place for education, schools need to be flexible and help students tap into other training whether it is in the tertiary sector or from specialists from a range of disciplines coming into the school.

We have to make schools aware that it is their job to use the resources they have to bring out the best in all their students. We have offered schools greater flexibility in resourcing, staffing and teaching practice so they can make decisions as to how best to apply the available resources. Schools will need to build on their strengths.

Indeed here lies one of the paradoxes. The Operations Grants we pay to schools for day to day running are untagged. The school can decide how to spend that resource. We expect them, using the advice of their professional teaching staff, to use that money in the way that gets the best outcomes for their students.

Not surprisingly, trustees would always welcome more in untagged Operations Grants. But they must remember that the Ops Grant is made up of various components. For example, Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement or TFEA as it is known is a special payment for schools servicing low socio-economic populations because research shows that they have higher proportions of at risk students. TFEA should be used to meet the additional costs that arise because they service that special type of population.

And part of the Ops Grant is for special needs. The Special Education Grant or SEG is a new grant paid to schools to provide for the low to moderate learning and behavioural special needs of their students. It is not just more base grant money to be used for any old purpose. Schools should be using that money for programmes to meet special needs. That is what schools receive the money for. Schools will be held accountable for how well they do that job.

We face a choice. Either we pay tagged amounts or we give schools the freedom to make those priority choices themselves. Sometimes making choices involves hard decisions - there never is enough money and there will always be calls for more. But the reality is that resources are limited. Either an official in the Ministry of Education makes that priority decision or the local educationalists make it. We think it is better to rely on individual teaching professionals to make the decisions about the students for whom they are responsible.

This message is important for schools to understand.

Special Education 2000 works on the principle that we need to individually resource students with high and very high needs because their individual needs are so different that no formula will work. Their special need is of an ongoing nature and therefore there is no need for regular reassessment. But for those with low and moderate needs, the picture is different. Research shows that the distribution of these special needs is relatively even. They can be resourced fairly by formula. In addition for these cases the administrative costs of continual reassessment are so great that that approach would absorb much of the total resource in what would largely be an administrative exercise.

We have to do everything possible to be sure public education fails no-one and that every young person has the chance to succeed and get over failures along the way. Special Education 2000, new truancy initiatives, drug education programmes, and a focus on lifting the achievement of 8 and 9 year olds in maths and science are examples of how we are trying to target resources so as to remove as many barriers to learning as possible. We are increasing our effort to make public education work well for those attending schools in South Auckland. Similar work is being done on the East Coast of the North Island.

Special Education 2000 turns on its head the old way of funding students with special education needs. Too many young people who needed assistance previously just weren't getting it. The way the funding was delivered through Special Education Discretionary Assistance was ad hoc, children with the same need received different amounts depending on the region they lived in - it was not consistent nationwide - and too often those who shouted and complained the loudest got the most.

Because it is a major change we are phasing it in. With this transition obviously comes uncertainty - but once the policy settles down and people become more familiar with how it works I am confident it will mean a better system and better deal for young people.

Special Education 2000 has five main components. They can't be viewed in isolation. They complement each other.

First is the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme - this is for students with very high needs - like those with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. These students will receive guaranteed funding that follows them regardless of where they attend school. In the past, if a student left a school they left the funding behind. This caused real problems for the new school they wanted to go to, because the funding did not follow the student.

These students are identified through a thorough vetting process. It will take time for parents and schools to get familiar with this process, and indeed there will always be some debate at the margin about who gets in and who doesn't. There is a need for better understanding amongst parents of how the system works. As parents become more familiar with it they should find it easier.

Second is the serious behaviour problems initiative - this is for students whose behaviour endangers themselves or others and whose behaviour prevents them fitting in with other students and from learning. More and more these days we hear of classes being turned upside down - sometimes literally, because of the abusive, threatening and severely disruptive behaviour of some students.

A prototype of the severe behaviour initiative is being trialed in the Waikato this year. Here's a quick rundown of how the prototype works.

A new Behaviour Education Support Team has been set up. It provides intensive support in the school and classroom to help with the really challenging students. It also liaises with the student's family and with the community agencies. New Centres for Extra Support have been set up, and provide in-school and sometimes off-site support for students for short periods. Thirty two new resource teachers: learning and behaviourhave been apointed. These teachers will service clusters of schools. They will involve parents and co-ordinate support across non-education government and non-government agencies.

The third initiative for students with severe or very high special education needs is the speech language programme. I would hope that many of you are familiar with this already. New funding of $10.7 million over the next three years has been allocated to provide services to students who have very high needs for speech therapy but who are not in the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme.

This year the funding will be used to provide increased speech-language therapy to students, particularly those who have stuttering or fluency disorders, voice or resonance disorders, or significant language or speech delay or disorder. These services will be provided by Specialist Education Services, contracted to the Ministry of Education. Teams will focus on students with severe problems in their first three years at school. SES will work to find out what the problem is, work out what can be done to help, develop programmes, provide therapy and monitor the student's progress.

Specialist Education Services are also working with Health and have picked up some Hospital contracts in Otago and Westland in particular. This has enabled speech language therapists working in these areas to provide a service to rural schools which have previously not been well served

Next is the Special Education Grant. I have already explained how this works. What it means in your area is that a speech-language therapist could be paid from the SEG to work with groups of students.

The Special Education Grant is paid to all schools based on the number of students at the school. This grant was introduced last year, and funding for it has more than doubled to $29 million this year.

There is also support for children before they make it to school.

It has taken me some time just to give you a brief run down of the components of Special Education 2000, and I have only scratched the surface. It is a complex policy, with various strands which once they are drawn together will provide a lot more support and assistance for students. It will take time for parents, teachers and Boards of Trustees to come to grips with each component. But the bottom line is that this big change is in the best interests of all students. The extra investment of up to $200 million will benefit the students concerned. It does require a big change to the way schools work, but if we don't change a whole generation of young people will be left behind.

There is no quick fix; there is no single proposal that will magically give all our children the education that they need and deserve. We have to persistently tackle the difficult areas in schools and in classes. But if we are serious about lifting the barriers, it can't be done by Government and schools alone. We have to have the community and families working together behind their local school and its students. This will mean a different attitude from some parents.

We have changed attitudes in many areas. Look how attitudes have changed to drinking and driving, to seat belts; to smoking; to domestic violence. We need to see all parents take responsibility for their children. I heard of a case in point last Saturday. A new principal of a rural school found that the children of a whole family had not shown up at school. He would not accept it. He jumped in his car and drove to the house. He woke up the parents and asked where the children were. The parents said that they had had a very late party the night before and decided not to send the kids to school because they were too tired. "They are coming to school", he said to the parents. "I will take them. And if they need to sleep they can go to the sick bay. But they are coming to school". That single action by that principal sent a ripple through the community. They could not get away with that again. It began that process of changing attitudes.

As I pointed out a moment ago, Special Education 2000 policy requires a significant change in attitude and thinking by parents, teachers and principals. It is always difficult to achieve change in areas where there is so much personal angst and emotion. Supporting students with special education needs is one of these areas.

As you know a major component of the new special education policy impacts directly on you and the young people you are in contact with. Let me say this. From my point of view as Education Minister it is a good time to be a speech language therapist. We really need your expertise and are relying on it as part of Special Education 2000.

We are investing a lot more in the speech and language side of special education - and you will hopefully be able to see at the coal face the difference it will make.

Students with special education needs have in the past not received the attention or support they should have. The new policy has one purpose; to give young people with special education needs a better chance.

Thank you again for inviting me here today. Your role in Special Education 2000 is a vital one. I hope that you will look closely at the speech language component and help contribute to the attitude changing that is needed in this area. I am optimistic that the extra investment and training will help in your work with young people with speech and language difficulties and make it more rewarding.