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School disability services fall short of rising demand

The number of children with disabilities waiting for support from the Education Ministry has increased even though the ministry is helping more children than ever.

The ministry worked with 36,476 children with special needs in the 12 months to the end of June, 4 percent - or 1353 - more than in the previous 12 months.

However, the number of children on waiting lists during that time also grew by 107 to 4237, and the average waiting time remained unchanged at 80 days.

Wellington had the longest average wait times including 170 days for early intervention, 118 days for communication services and 75 days for behaviour services.

Wellington Regional Primary Principals Association president Mike Farrelly said more funding had gone into special education, but it was taking time for the ministry to hire the right staff and in the meantime schools had to pay for support from their own operating budgets.

"You have got your most vulnerable children sitting on waiting lists and that's a problem. So your children who have significant learning needs, mental health issues, severe behaviour, are the ones that you're putting your time, energy and effort into to try and support and those resources just aren't forthcoming and that's putting a strain on the system as a whole," he said.

Mr Farrelly said schools were seeing more children receiving support but it was not keeping up with demand.

"What a lot of schools are seeing is yes, there is a movement for some of their students onto some of the lists for RTLB [resource teacher: learning and behaviour] service and things like that, but we've got more kids presenting themselves with more issues."

The director of advocacy at New Zealand's largest intellectual disability support service IHC, Trish Grant, said the number of children on waiting lists should have reduced by now.

"We would have expected or wanted for those numbers to be reduced. We would have wanted the waiting lists to be halved, if not quartered, if not done away with altogether so it is problematic that we have more children with unmet needs, more children on waiting lists."

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan said it was great more children were getting help, but he was worried that the number of children on waiting lists had not reduced.

"The fact the waiting lists haven't changed and have in fact grown is very concerning," he said.

"What we're seeing a little bit is a government and a ministry who are trying to head in the right direction, but tinkering with certain parts of the system doesn't work. I think what we need to see is total systemic change."

Mr Dougan said his organisation wanted a system of help specifically for children with autism and the ministry was funding a trial of such a pathway in Auckland.

"We've recently won a contract from the ministry to actually set up an autism-specific pathway for kids who are diagnosed with autism. They'll come to us and we'll do an assessment of their needs and then we'll actually manage that process from there."

CCS Disability Action chief executive David Matthews said the government should change the system so families managed support funding for their children.

"As long as the control of these precious resources remains specifically with the sole funder, i.e. the ministry, parents are denied choice and options," he said.

Mr Matthews said allowing families to control the funding would provide more choice and help reduce waiting times for support.

The ministry's deputy secretary sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, said demand for the ministry's core learning support services had increased 19 percent since 2013/14, including a 24 percent increase in demand for the behaviour service.

Ms Casey said the government provided an additional $25 million over four years in the 2019 Budget to respond to growth in demand, and had targeted early intervention for pre-school children with an extra $24.8 million over four years in this year's Budget and $21.5 million over four years in Budget 2018.

She said between December 2017 and March 2019 the ministry had recruited an additional 120 FTE specialist staff.

"However, waiting times for learning support services, particularly the early intervention service, remain a concern and we are actively working to reduce them and better meet the expectations of children, parents, caregivers and educators," she said.

Ms Casey said a new model for delivering learning support was allowing regions to find more proactive and flexible ways of providing help, such as allocating early childhood centres a single ministry contact for special education.

"We expect these changes to make a difference to waiting lists and waiting times, however it will take time to see a significant impact," she said.

However, Ms Casey said the ministry had already succeeded in reducing the number of children waiting more than five months for assistance.

"Since 3 December through to June 2019, the number of children waiting more than 150 days to receive a specialist service has dropped by 26 percent. During the same period, Wellington - a region which has historically had the longest waiting times - has reduced the number of children waiting for specialist services more than 150 days by 58 percent, and has also reduced its average waiting times."