Up Front by Emma Hart


Another Brick in the Wall

Parents of special-needs children are used to fighting their government to get their kids' needs met. Giovanni's talked about it here, and I touched on it here. By the time our kids get to high school, we can no longer be shocked, right? Introduce Unit Standard 26625 as compulsory, so hearing-impaired teens have to pass "actively participate in spoken interactions" to get NCEA Level 1 Literacy? Of course. Why not? Turn my gifted writer into a failure in her strongest subject because her speech isn't clear.* Why would we expect to be treated any better? Hearings on enrolment applications for special-needs schools are held in February of the year in question, after the school year has started? Of course they are. 

Exams in particular are supposed to be barriers, right? That's their purpose. Thing is, those barriers are bigger for some kids than others. Some special-needs kids have issues that make sitting exams particularly difficult: reading, or writing, or motor control, or sight. It would be (I hope) obviously unfair to make them sit exams under the same conditions as their peers who don't have those issues. 

That's why NZQA has Special Assessment Conditions, or SACs. They're designed to go some way to levelling the playing field. Mostly, they're pretty simple. Things like enlarging an exam paper to A3 for a visually-impaired kid, Braille papers for the blind, or giving a dyslexic kid an extra half-hour on a three-hour exam to compensate for their naturally-slower reading speed. Sometimes SACs are a little more complicated, like providing readers or writers or NZSL signers. 

All in all, though, it really is just common sense. What would possibly be the point in not providing special-needs kids with the assistance they need to gain qualifications? It would be mad to get in their way. You'd end up ensuring they were unemployable and a much greater expense to the state in the long run, so even on an Arsehole Values scale, granting SACs just makes sense. 

Last year, NZQA declined a record number of SAC applications. This year, they've made some of the criteria tougher. Why? I assume for the same reason it got harder and harder to get ORRS funding: the government is facing an epidemic of fraud from disabled children. 

Take the criteria for extra time. Previously, candidates qualified for the extra ten minutes per exam hour if they had slow processing, or slow reading, or slow writing. This year, they need to fulfil two of those criteria. Why? Seriously, they have those meetings in February. I mean, this is a whole extra half hour of a supervisor's time. We can't be giving that away recklessly to kids who just read slowly. That's a lot of money: think how many Wanganui Collegiates you could bail out for that. 

There are increased requirements for schools to provide psychometric and in some cases intelligence testing (yes, really, next it'll be polygraphs) to back applications. Kids who want a writer have to do a typing speed test, even though the vast majority would be hand-writing exams. There is no extra funding for this testing. 

Here's a thing that really bugs me. If your SAC application is refused, only the school can appeal that decision. Parents have lost the ability to do so. Why? Oh, come on.

Last year we moved our daughter from a mainstream school to a special-needs unit in a mainstream high school. The difference in catering for her needs has been overwhelming. It's not just the extra support in her day-to-day schooling. It's the experience the staff have in gaming the system. I know that, should my daughter have issues with MinEdu, her school will pursue the issue and act in her interests. 

Let's be honest. Not all schools will do this. In some, the staff don't have the experience. In others, the school environment is unsupportive** towards special-needs pupils. How much time are they going to take out from trying to get paid or stay open to fight for your kid's half-hour? You'd be prepared to take that time yourself? Can't be having that, now. 

NZQA has advised the Ministry of Education that it will be undertaking a full review of SACs, to be completed by October this year. I'd love to tell you how you could have input into this review. I'd love to give you a cookie if you can find any trace of this review on the net. The information I have has come through the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand. To be honest, though, the devil isn't in the detail on this one. The problem is the underlying institutional attitude that this funding must be kept from its intended recipients if this is at all possible. You know what people who benefit from things are? Beneficiaries. 

We've just applied to renew my daughter's Child Disability Allowance. Yes, as it turns out, she's still hearing-impaired. Our GP, who did the paperwork, is not optimistic. There's been no change of criteria, but what she's seeing is that it's becoming a lot harder to get. No doubt people are farming disabled children for the forty bucks a week. 

This is why I can't be glad Thatcher's dead. Zombie Thatcherism is still shambling along just fine.



* The actual solution was to ram her level one English through a year early, before the change came in. Success!

**by which I mean "actively hostile"

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