Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wrap-Around Services Unraveling


Primary education is becoming a problem for this National led government. Government revenue is falling and whether this loss is largely self induced, as I believe, or genuinely because of an economic recession, the need to cut spending is paramount. All other public sectors have been taken a funding hit and education has had to accept its share. The Ministry of Education lost $25 million, Early childhood has been dealt to more than once and Primary Education needs to suffer as well.

The difficult issue with cutting the budget to the primary sector is deciding on where the cuts can occur. The Government is committed to spending an extra $1.5 billion on rebuilding and repairing leaking schools and, given the state of many of them, this spending can't be compromised. Private schools can't be touched either as these are attended by Government MPs children (in fact these schools got a $35 million increase). The major part of the primary education budget goes to teacher salaries, but cutting teacher numbers is difficult to sell as the Minister and the Government discovered. Narrowing the curriculum to just literacy and numeracy was a useful ploy because making the other learning areas like Science, Technology nonessential enabled the sacking of their related advisors, however this only saved the odd million or two.

The Government has been left tinkering around the edges instead. Health camps and residential schools are being closed and the children served by these specialist providers are going to be supported by "wrap-around services" while they attend their local school. Children with extreme behavioural needs provide challenges for mainstream schools and their parents often struggle with their responsibilities as well. Not only were these residential schools useful in providing some helpful respite for teachers and parents but the children generally benefited by having an environment designed to manage and meet their needs.

Past experience of this Government has taught me to doubt the rhetoric that supports any of their education initiatives. National Standards were introduced "to lift the tail of underachievement", cutting the Ministry's budget was designed to "strengthen frontline services" and the proposed cut in teacher numbers was claimed to be the way to increase teacher quality.  The reality behind the wrap-around services is similarly concerning as the logical people to provide these services are those working in Special Education, in other words the "front line" of the Ministry.

The cuts to the Ministry's budget that I referred to earlier did not improve these front line services and instead we have seen a process of attrition and the case loads of Special Education staff have steadily increased. I have even heard about an ACC type culture where case workers have been encouraged to drop students to make the numbers look better.

Given this Government's determination to cut funding at any cost and the diminished capacity of Special Education, it appears that the proposed "wrap-around" services are already unraveling.



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